Monday, October 23, 2006

Dennie Williams Speech To Hartford Times Alumni

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas D. "Dennie" Williams was the keynote speaker as 60 workers for the defunct Hartford Times met Sunday at The Gallery Restaurant in Glastonbury. The paper closed in 1976. Sunday's gathering was billed as the last annual reunion.
Williams covered courts and was an investigative reporter for The Hartford Courant, retiring recently after 38 years on the job.

As a former long time reporter for The Hartford Courant, I am honored to be here today at the 30th reunion of the demise of our aggressive competitor, The Hartford Times, formerly known as The Neosho Valley Times. You past Times’ staffers, not the publisher or the owners, were the lifeblood of that paper. And, but for the grace of God, any other paper, including The Courant, could have faced that very same demise. Especially with the trends and downturns and layoffs of today.

Even though it was three decades ago, and I am now a retired Courant staffer, and also a senior but active freelance writer, I still remember vividly the long-ago competitive daily news battles between Times and Courant editors and reporters.

Not an hour passed in The Courant’s old, noise-filled newsroom without silent thought or loud discussion about what The Times had reported, or was readying to report on its news pages. The Times not only kept the reporters on edge, but its hard hitting editorials often annoyed The Courant’s more conservative editorial writers, and probably angered the Courant’s Republican publishers during those eras. I say probably, because I didn’t spend a lot of time in The Courant’s publisher’s office -- thank goodness! I was not a newsroom politician, rather just another annoying and aggressive reporter.

The Times’ headlines were frequently more shocking than the milder Courant headlines. And, Times’ reporters and editors loved to beat Courant reporters and editors to a scoop, particularly a juicy or a substantial one. Courant editors were constantly warning reporters to get to the story first. I know Times’ reporters were getting those same daily, obvious and repetitious warnings. I sure can remember how painful it was to get scooped, or how enjoyable it was to scoop The Times.

With all that fiercely competitive news atmosphere in mind, I am 100 percent sure that the doomsday newsroom and outside the newsroom spokesmen and women were right when they predicted upon The Times’ death that The Courant would eventually never be the same; would never be as substantial news-wise. After all, The Times went head-to-head with The Courant from 1817 until 1976. For sure, it wasn’t ever the same for The Courant after 1976. The daily atmosphere wasn’t as exciting. The scoops were gone. Investigations started by The Courant took much longer to arrive in the paper. That investigative leeway was a bit of a blessing because often that meant the reporting was much more thorough and detailed. This was particularly so after the Los Angeles Times took over and for a time made The Courant what I consider the most aggressive investigative Connecticut newspaper ever with eight staffers on the I-Team. But that team was later eliminated.

And, after The Times died, Courant reporters were left in the lurch when an editor either took too long to edit an investigative piece or decided to spike or reject the controversial, risky article entirely. And, when the story did finally appear in the paper, the emotional thrill of scooping The Times and making its reporters play catch up news ball was gone. When the competition was there, I remember experiencing a Courant editor, who will remain nameless, kill a truly hot inquiry I just had completed. I became so angered, I phoned one of the crucial confidential sources to the story to emphatically tell him: “You know what to do! Check out the opposition!” In this case, the opposition was Manchester’s Journal Inquirer. He did. The story soon appeared in the JI, minus a lot of details I had dug up. I showed it to the editor the day it appeared, and my story, already written, was in the paper the next day! Amazing! Right?!

But, in the old days, there was more to life than competition. Courant reporters had great respect for their Times’ competitors; and in fact, of course, sometimes reporters, editors, and many other employees switched jobs from one paper to the other. That too kept Courant and Times managers more appreciative of the good reporters, editors, advertising salesmen, news circulation people, pressmen and other employees, and thus more eager to keep them on staff.

Some did leave to join the competition. Several Times’ staffers who joined The Courant I can never, ever forget. There were the three Bills: Bill Ryan, the brilliant Times’ columnist; Bill Keifer, the savvy veteran reporter; and Bill Williams, the Hartford City Hall reporter who managed to scoop us regularly. It was Ryan who asked me after the Courant had restructured their building and newsroom into a brand new insurance company atmosphere, who asked me: “Why is it so quiet in here? Has everyone had a lobotomy?” Kiefer was a great newsman who eventually retired to operate a bookstore in my hometown of Litchfield. What a town character he was! I learned more from these three guys about life, reporting and laughing than I could have gleaned from thousands of days in graduate school. And, once the three Bills joined The Courant, they brought us decades of journalistic experience that could never be duplicated.

There were rumors that Ed Valtman, The Times’ famous cartoonist, would join us, but to the consternation of many, he never arrived. Wichita State University still has a collection of Ed Valtman’s hilarious and biting cartoons. According to the university, Valtman was a draftsman, commercial artist and freelance cartoonist for a number of newspapers and magazines. He immigrated to the United States from Estonia in September 1949. He joined The Hartford Times as editorial cartoonist in 1951, and received a Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1962 and Gannett Newspapers' Frank Tripp Award in 1963.

I still remember the day The Times died. I was covering Hartford Superior Court along with my Times competitor, Charles Kochakian, now editorial head of the New Haven Register. I called my editor about a story that morning and he asked, “Did you hear? The Times is dead!” I wasn’t totally shocked since The Times had been gradually fading financially, and rumors were flying. But, I was so emotionally worked up I rushed into another area of court to tell Charles. It’s my recollection, but maybe not Charles’, that there were tears in his eyes.

Now, just for old times’ sake I will appropriately at this 30th Times’ reunion, walk down memory lane with a few tidbits on the paper’s headlines, editorials, news and history.

Here’s a 1800s era argument from Phineas Taylor “PT” Barnum, founder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and a temperance advocate and a Democrat later turned Republican, on a Hartford Times’ editorial about a restrictive Maine liquor law.

Barnum asks: Does any Democrat suppose that the good old Democratic Hartford Times, as it was conducted twenty-five years ago, would have put forth such principles as those above quoted, and declared them to be the principles of "Democracy?"

Men may change, but principles NEVER. But hear this rabid Times editor again in the same article, from which the following is copied:

"The Maine Law outrage began in folly and fanaticism, but its inevitable end is BLOODSHED and civil INSURRECTION; and when that comes, the PULPIT BUFFOONS and intemperate bigots will be found as eager to sneak to the rear as they now are to lead the van."

Sounds like that editor was old fashioned! He probably kept his booze bottles in the newsroom’s desk drawers!

And News for the year 1850:

"By 1850, political leaders in many cities were beginning to see that parks would mean more appealing municipalities, with higher property values, less pollution, better public health, places for sports and holiday festivities that could reduce the potential for social unrest. Nevertheless, Horace Bushnell's request for a hearing before the City Council caused a ripple of amusement when the 29 council members heard what he was going to propose. He was allowed to speak before an informal Council session on October 5, 1853.

Bringing a hand-drawn map, Bushnell spoke for over an hour. He said what was needed was "an opening in the heart of the city itself, to which citizens will naturally flow in their walks. A place where children will play and the invalid go to breathe the freshness of nature. A place for holiday scenes and celebrations; a green carpet of ground, where high and low, rich and poor will exchange looks; an outdoor parlor opened for the cultivation of good manners and a right social feeling. A place of life and motion that will make us more conscious of being one people."

Both the Hartford Courant and Hartford Times published editorials endorsing his idea, and the following month the City Council appropriated $105,000 from the city treasury to acquire the 40 acres that were to become the park. In January 1854, the voters of Hartford also endorsed the appropriation by a wide margin. Thus, Hartford became the first city in America to spend public funds to build a public park.

News from 1945 :

The incumbent Republican Hartford mayor, William A. Mortensen, convinced of the deficiencies inherent in Hartford’s government structure, gained approval from the Republican-dominated board of aldermen to appoint a Charter Review Commission. The resolution called for the commission to consider amending or altering the current system and organization of city government, submit suggested revisions to a voter referendum to be held concurrent with the 1946 elections, and present voter-approved changes to the Connecticut General Assembly for final approval.

The two major newspapers in the city, the Hartford Courant and the Hartford Times, praised the mayor's appointments and commented favorably on the importance of the task the committee was undertaking. In its initial comments the Hartford Times, seen as generally supportive of Democrats in the city, did not urge the adoption of any particular change in the form of city government. The Hartford Courant, more outspoken in support of Republican goals, enthusiastically backed the creation of the Charter Review Commission and editorially urged the adoption of council-city manager government even before members had been named.

Hartford’s government structure, gained approval from the Republican-dominated board of aldermen to appoint a Charter Review Commission. Looks like The Courant won that one! Ha!

A Times account of Willie Pep, the boxer in the era of 1940's-1960's:

Billy Speary, who will do battle tonight with Champion Willie Pep at the Hartford Auditorium, was a caller at The Hartford Times sports department Monday morning. Billy has never seen Willie fight and was asking about his opponent of this evening: "Pep doesn't hit too hard," one of the other Monday morning callers volunteered.

"No," said Billy, "but I do hear he hits plenty often."

Headline Hartford Times May 28, 1969:

Construction Laborers Union Leaders Linked to Gambling

By Ted Dempsey

Elements of organized crime have infiltrated the Hartford based Local 230, Construction and General Laborers Union. The Hartford Times has learned. Several of the union's officers have been convicted for bookmaking (accepting bets) and the union strongman has been linked in federal court testimony to La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia.

As an aside here, I have to tell you this anecdote. I was assigned to Hartford Superior Court one day to cover appearances of both a Times’ reporter and Courant reporter Kennie Hooker in court. They were possibly to be held in contempt of court for failing to reveal their news sources on a story about the arrest of a notorious Mafia hit man. The colorful defense lawyer, Peter Zaccanino, approached all of us gathered in a court corridor, and with a laugh, first introduced Hooker and myself to the heavy set Mafiosi. Zaccanino then turned and walked toward the Times’ reporter whose page one story had recently hit the streets. As he began the introduction to the Mafia man, The Times reporter fled! I’m not kidding! I can still see his back rushing from the scene!

Now another story on Hartford’s most beautiful building!

From The Courant October 21, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

Trustees of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art voted Thursday to hire a Cambridge, Mass., architectural firm to transform the former Hartford Times building into a modern annex of the nation's oldest public art museum.

The $17 million to $18 million expansion into the Times building will follow a strict timeline, which, starts now. Bruner/Cott has already invested hundreds of hours on a design for the Times building. The project is expected to seek necessary permits by May, with completion targeted for the end of 2007.

Now Here’s a Hartford History Trivia Question Q: What four presidents spoke to crowds from the portico of the Hartford Times Building on Prospect Street?

A: Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Congrats to Bill Flood of Portland for knowing the answer.

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