Looking Back (Part 1)

Although I spend most of my waking hours working on or thinking about the stories we’re trying to tell, I have also been retracing the paths that have led to the perch I now occupy, 40 years later.  What follows is a trip down memory lane.

I got my first reporting job in the fall of 1961 with the Salina (KS) Journal. Less than five weeks later I was fired.  Here’s how that happened. Because I accomplished very little my first two years of college and had a declining GPA as evidence, I concluded that I would be wasting my time and my parents’ money if I stayed in college. With their reluctant blessing, I dropped out of Dartmouth. In my own mind, I would be Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” in search of an identity.

Because I had worked for my high school and college newspapers, I decided to spend my year away from college working for a newspaper. And I would do it ‘out west,’ which, to this Connecticut Yankee, began on the other side of the Mississippi River. Once I crossed that mighty river, I would begin my new career.

My job search started with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I confidently approached the personnel office.  They politely laughed me out of the room, and the city.  It couldn’t have helped my cause that I had spent the previous night sleeping in my car at a nearby private golf course, although I had brazenly walked in and showered in the men’s clubhouse. (I didn’t need to shave in those days.)

For the next few weeks I went from town to town, applying at the local weekly (which–hard to believe today–most towns had in 1961).  Each time I would introduce myself to the owner/editor-in-chief, “I’m John Merrow, I’m taking a year off from college, and I would like to write for you.” Each time I was sent on my way.

At newspaper number 16 or 17, The Salina (KS) Journal, I made the decision to lie. “Hi, I’m John Merrow,” I said to Glenn Williams, the managing editor. “I just graduated from Dartmouth College, and I would like to be a reporter on your fine paper.”

He hired me.

Of course, I knew it was dishonest, but I rationalized thusly: “Once I get my first big scoop, I will go into the Mr. Williams’ office and tell him the truth. He will be so impressed that he won’t object, probably will give me a raise.”  That’s what I told myself….

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams figured out that I was a callow youth long before I came close to a scoop, and he fired me. Properly suspicious, he called one of my references, “Professor David Barker,” actually my college roommate. In those days, the only phones were in the hall, so I had given my boss the number for the 4th floor of my dormitory,Gile Hall. I can only imagine the conversation when Mr. Williams asked to speak to “Professor Barker.” {{1}}

Game over….

He did, however, get me a job with another paper, The Leavenworth (KS) Times.  Leavenworth was (and probably still is) a murky, depressing town whose economy revolved around crime. It’s the home of four prisons, not just the Federal Penitentiary made famous by Hollywood. Just outside Leavenworth are the state men’s and women’s prisons, and nearby Fort Leavenworth is the home of the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the toughest Army prison of all. I had the prison beat, a dream.

Before long I got fired again, although this time it was a badge of honor. It was an open secret that Leavenworth’s police chief was on the take.  He had to be: he lived in a very expensive home and drove a brand new Cadillac.  Another reporter who was older and wiser and I agreed that was an outrage, and so we decided to expose him. First, we figured out how the scam worked.  The chief’s brother-in-law had a garbage collection company, which–conveniently–collected trash only from the town’s bars and similar establishments.  Those bars were notorious for serving underage soldiers from the Fort.  Prostitution was a thriving business too, and the pimps and whores were probably paying protection to the chief as well.

It was heady stuff. Byron (last name lost to memory) and I staked out the bars, followed the garbage trucks, took pictures and schemed about how we could get evidence on tape.  Byron was the brains and guts of our effort, and so when the powers-that-be got wind of what we were up to, they came down hard, and he took the brunt. One night all four tires of his car were slashed, someone threw a brick through his apartment window, and tough guys threatened his wife and children.  I got some nasty phone calls and occasional jostling on the street, but that was all.

I wish I could say that the good guys won and that the chief was exposed, but it didn’t happen that way.  Byron and I were fired and sent on our way. (I remember that Byron’s wife was relieved.)  The police chief probably died rich and happy, and as crooked as ever.

I was upset about leaving the girl I had met but otherwise excited about whatever was coming next. I sold my car and hitchhiked around the country for the next four or five months, stopping to work whenever I ran low on funds. I went to spring training in Florida, spent nights in college fraternities, church-run missions and even a jail, got propositioned by women and men quite often, turned down a chance to ‘work’ as a gigolo in New Orleans, went to opening day at the Seattle World’s Fair, and crisscrossed the country, using only my thumb.

As I had promised my parents, I returned to Dartmouth in the fall and graduated in the spring of 1964, one year behind my classmates.


After graduating from Dartmouth, I taught high school English on Long Island for two years, earned my MA in American Studies at Indiana University, taught at a Black college in Virginia for two years, earned a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lived on Nantucket Island for nearly two years, and then, in 1974, took a job with an education ‘think tank’ in Washington, DC.  I figured out pretty quickly that I was not temperamentally (or intellectually!) suited for sitting around thinking.  That realization led me to National Public Radio.

I knocked on the door of the headquarters of NPR, then at 20th and M in Northwest Washington, sometime early in 1974. The only thing I remember about the meeting is the reaction to my announcing that my boss had given me a budget of $10,000 to “get the word out about education.”  I was all but embraced.

NPR was largely unknown at the time. I know I had never even heard of it when I moved my family to Washington, but, then again, we had been living on an island where most of the world’s news went unremarked.  But it turns out, most people in Washington and everywhere else were also unaware of its existence.  It was necessary, I learned, to explain to people that NPR was ‘like PBS, only without pictures.’

NPR had gone on the air in the spring of 1971. When I showed up, it had a flagship news program, “All Things Considered,” and a couple of strong music programs, “Jazz Alive” and “Voices in the Wind.”  It also had a catchall daily series, “Options,” where it stuck all sorts of programs, and that’s where NPR sent me.

I ended up recording an interview with two school finance experts, who explained—at great length and in too much detail–how the system worked.  The producers who had been assigned to help me decided to make the conversation into–I still cannot believe this–two 1-hour programs, which they called “Where the Money Comes from” and “Where the Money Goes.”  Even then I realized the interview was boring, but NPR needed material to fill the hungry maw, and so I made my national debut in what must be one of the dullest programs ever recorded.

Luckily for me, NPR encouraged me to make another program. As I remember it, this time we decided I would go ‘in the field’ with a tape recorder.  Pell Grants were in the news, so I called the office of Senator Claiborne Pell (D, RI) and asked for an interview.  “Sure,” his press guy said, “Just send over the questions you’re going to ask.”  I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know enough to tell him to take a hike.  Instead, I wrote up some questions and sent them over.  A few days later I dutifully showed up at the Senator’s office, introduced myself, set up my tape recorder, and asked my first question.

Senator Pell never even looked up.  He just read the answer off a piece of paper he was holding.  Question two, same thing.  And so on.  I remember being bewildered. Only later did I get angry, probably to cover my embarrassment.

I learned my lesson: never again would I submit questions in advance.  And, if I could help it, I wouldn’t interview career politicians. {{2}}

And so I went on the road, carrying only a small reel-to-reel tape recorder (which, I later learned, was the same model that President Nixon was using in the oval office to secretly record his conversations).  My first trip was to Kanawha County, West Virginia, where angry parents were burning textbooks in an effort to keep their children from learning about evolution and other ‘leftist’ ideas.  I can still see and hear them belting out John Denver’s “Country Roads,” their theme song.  Rather than mock them for their ‘backward’ views, I sat in their kitchens and listened to (and recorded) what they had to say. (Listen to that program here.)

It was a great learning experience for me: most people have stories to tell, but rarely do those in power deign to listen.  All I had to do was turn on the tape recorder and every once in a while say, “Please tell me more,” and I would end up with audio gold.

(to be continued)

[[1]] 1. Not only did I get fired, but Mr. Williams was sitting on the throne when he flushed me.  It was the end of the day, and I went to the men’s room to wash up before heading out.  As I was washing my hands, I heard Mr. Williams call from behind a door, “I need to talk to you, John. I called Professor Barker today.”  [[1]]

[[2]]2. Luckily I did not take a vow to never interview politicians, because over the years I have spent some time with thoughtful men and women in politics.  Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and Representatives George Miller and Al Quie come immediately to mind.

Cabinet appointees are also political creatures, whatever else they may be.  I have managed to interview every sitting Secretary of Education, beginning with Shirley Hufstedler, who gave up a lifetime appointment to the Federal bench to become the first Secretary, under Jimmy Carter.

My own particular favorite among Secretaries is former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, a gentleman with a steel backbone.  Like the late Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Governor Riley made you feel valued.

Years ago my Dad taught me to watch the way people treat waiters, clerks and others they perceive to be their underlings. If they treat them disrespectfully, he warned, you might be next.  I say all this because I wanted to admire Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s tough-talking Secretary of Education.  After all, he had dated Janis Joplin, knew the names of Buddy Holly’s backup singers and other rock and roll trivia, and was willing to speak truth to power about self-indulgent college students.  But he also displayed two faces, two personalities.  When the lights were on and the camera was rolling, Secretary Bennett was the picture of civility.  Once the the lights and recording equipment were off, however, I saw him behave rudely to the crew that had just made him look good.  That taught me a valuable lesson, a twist on the adage about the measure of character being how one behaves when no one is looking. In this day and age, it’s how one behaves when he’s not on camera. [[2]]

6 thoughts on “Looking Back (Part 1)

  1. So, which was more valuable – successes with book-learning or lessons learned from failures, hitch-hiking, and what you learned from the regular people who you were taught to respect?


  2. jm.forgot u had some Ks background..hymm…..u do great stuff..will think of u on our 50th anniversary aug 8 Hard to believe i ws at wichita 23 yrs,alma mater pittsburg ks state u for ten as adjunct..been doing online book reviews about 5…. u r unique..bless u jk


  3. John:

    What a truly delightful story–those were different days and I so enjoyed visualizing a world where a young, inquisitive person with gumption could mark out their future–and recover smartly from a number of delightful “failures.” Its a pleasure to know you today!


  4. A delightful story of purpose and serendipity!

    I loved the boss firing the young writer from the toilet stall.


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