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Jon Cozean recalls days he worked for the New York Times

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Friends have often asked me about the many interesting part-time jobs I was fortunate to have held while working my way through graduate school in Washington, D.C. during the 1960s.

These jobs included stints with Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri and Rep. Charlie Rose of North Carolina. My other jobs included work as a salesman at a fine men’s clothing store and several years as a Latin American specialist with an organization funded by the Department of Defense. Once a month during that time I reported to duty with an aviation Marine Corps reserve unit in Washington.

In addition, I also held several other mundane jobs. All of these jobs were rewarding in their own ways with a variety of life lessons. However, if I were to name the most interesting job, it would definitely be my year serving as a sort-of “copy boy” with the Washington Bureau of The New York Times.'

A chance meeting

I came by this job purely by accident. While serving on weekends once a month in the Marine Corps reserves, I became acquainted with a fellow Marine whose father happened to be the main Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. When he learned that I was a graduate of Mizzou’s famous School of Journalism, he invited me to have dinner at his home so that I could meet his father. Needless to say, I jumped at the offer.

A week or so later I joined his dad for dinner whereupon I was told that the Times was looking for an additional “copy boy” for their Washington bureau. Located in a building on K Street, the Times bureau boasted some of the most accomplished journalists in the nation’s capital. Each writer was a specialist in a particular field, such as foreign policy, international commerce or American politics and government. The main offices of the New York Times Magazine were also located there, along with a full-time photographer, George Tames.

Fresh out of journalism school, I found that every day was exciting at the bureau. New stories were constantly developing, reporters were being dispatched and articles written — almost all under a strict deadline. As new stories popped up, the main copy desk was a beehive of activity as different reporters were dispatched to look at all possible angles that would give detailed information of the type for which the Times was famous.

To be sure, I was just a bit more than a bystander in this process. At that time I was one of three “copy boys” who would be sent to key news sources all over the city to pick up packets of information to be used by Washington correspondents of the Times. Once it passed the bureau chief editor, those stories were forwarded to the teletype room where the information was dispatched to main New York offices of the Times.

Each of the Times reporters were considered to be among the best in the business. I was amazed when I watched them perform their jobs. What they typed out in their first draft was so well written that very little editing was needed. In some ways this was quite disheartening to me knowing I could never be so efficient as to qualify for the job as a Times reporter. Still, it was fun just to have a front row seat in watching all this drama take place seemingly on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, I was soon caught up in the drama of helping — in my own small way — to produce what many regard as the finest newspaper anywhere. In an age before desktop computers, reporters at that time all used typewriters. As each deadline neared, the large office room hummed with activity. Shouts of “copy boy” were common, the phones rang incessantly, and the telegraph room buzzed with the clicking of keys.

Along with all that activity, we copy boys were constantly being sent downstairs for cups of coffee and cigarettes which the reporters imbibed in large quantities.

Meanwhile, we were also being sent out of the building to pick up information and material needed by the reporters. Typical examples were: “Go over to the House (of Representatives) and pick up a packet at, say, Representative Brown’s office.” Or, “Go to the Commerce Department and pick up a news release at room 240…”

Beehive of Activity

The newsroom could be called a beehive during the three or so hours preceding the deadline set by the New York office. This would be followed by a period of relative silence as most of the reporters seemed to disappear and the editors were busy answering follow-up questions from the New York newsroom.

To be sure, there was always something happening that this Farmington native found to be fascinating and sometimes challenging.

For example, about a month after I started working at the Washington Bureau, I was told that being a Times employee, I was an automatic member of the employees union and that it was going on strike. Soon, I found myself along with reporters and other general staff members like myself holding a large “Strike!” sign and marching outside our headquarters. It was no fun! People would walk by and cuss me for “…Keeping me from getting my morning Times!” or, “Being part of a ‘socialist conspiracy’ to keep the public from getting the facts!”

I mean, people were really upset and it seems they all felt that I personally was responsible for “the news blackout!” On the first day one man spit on me. I have no doubt that this same fate awaited other Pulitzer Prize winning Times reporters or staff members in New York and at Times bureaus elsewhere in the country. Just think of the enormity of the event. Suddenly, “All the News That Was Fit to Print” was no longer being printed!

Thankfully, the strike ended within a week and quickly the newsroom at the Washington Bureau returned to normal.

Che Guevara

During my time spent working for the Times, two events will always stand out in my mind. The first involved a story that I personally helped to bring to the newspaper involving the famed Castro/Cuban personality, Che Guevara.

Here’s what happened. For several years before I worked for the Times, I had a job in the Latin American division of an organization called SORO that worked for the Department of the Army. One of my best friends there was also employed in the Latin American division of SORO. Her name was Dolores Martin and she was a native of Argentina. While a young girl living in Argentina, she had the opportunity to get to know Guevara when he was also a young man in the same town. Dolores was a big fan of both Guevara and of the Castro Revolution.

When we often had lunch together, Dolores loved to talk about Guevara and of his revolutionary ideas for ending what he thought was the imperialistic American control over politics in Latin America. According to Martin, Che was a noble defender of the poor and a constant critic of what he thought was an oligarchy that controlled most of Latin America. Guevara also denounced U.S. “imperialistic” views toward our Latin brothers south of the border.

Now, part of our large offices on K Street were just a section of the Times organization which included offices for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In time, after I had the opportunity to know the editor of that publication, I suggested that Delores might have a story worth investigating. The editor agreed and it led to a cover story about “Young Guevara” in the Sunday Times magazine. You can imagine my thrill when I first saw a big cover photo of Guevara as a young man that highlighted the story that Martin had written for the Times.

Martin, who was an intellectual and a graduate of Vassar College, told me that she received letters “from all over the world” written by her college friends. That incidence was the closest I ever came to getting anything into print while I worked at the Times.

The White House

The second major event that happened to me while at the Times occurred when I was told to go to the White House to pick up a packet of material for one of their reporters. Now, I had gone to the President’s home in Washington several times before. Usually, I merely needed to pick up a packet of material left for me at the guard house at the side of the White House.

However, on this particular date I was told by a guard that a White House staff person was still working on his report. “If you wish, you can come back later for the packet, or you can go inside to the basement cafeteria and order breakfast while you wait.”

Now, I bet you can guess which option I chose! Soon afterwards, I had a small breakfast of one egg, toast and coffee — a less than hardy meal determined by the normally somewhat deficient student budget that governed my life in those days.

After going into the White House from a basement door on the side of the building, I suddenly found myself in a room that was largely empty at that time of day. While waiting to be served, I couldn’t help thinking of all the presidents who might have been in that room. Perhaps Jefferson, or even President Truman’s favorite predecessor, Andrew Jackson. I could see Lincoln ducking his head to enter the room or John Kennedy’s children bopping in and out of another door that I surmised probably led into the main first floor of the White House.

Unfortunately, it was only a short amount of time before a White House staff member brought me an envelope with the material I needed and I felt pressed to leave the room quickly and quietly, perhaps before the FBI or the Secret Service asked me to leave!

'Special Mission'

Getting into the basement of the White House actually was not the most exciting time I had while working for the Times. Indeed, in what I thought was perhaps my most “Agent 007 Moment” while working for that newspaper was when I was told by the woman that was the manager of the Washington Bureau newsroom to go on a “special mission” to deliver a locked attaché case to the Times building in downtown New York City.

Interestingly, I was not informed of this “secret mission” until the morning I arrived at work. First, I was ushered into the office of bureau chief and New York Times legendary reporter, Arthur Krock — who was the dean of the large staff of New York Times reporters. At that time, a locked attaché case was shackled to my arm. I was told to never remove the case from my arm until I delivered it in person to the main Times building in New York City. I was then given several sealed envelopes: one for the taxi fare from the Times offices in Washington to the Washington Airport; another envelope contained the proper taxi fee from the LaGuardia Airport in New York City to the main Times building in downtown New York City. Once there, I was given a special phone number to call at which time a special agent would meet me on the ground floor of the building, remove the case from my arm, and then hand me an envelope with money for the return journey to downtown Washington, D.C.

I was never told what was in the attaché case — nor did I dare to ask. But I found the entire process to be exhilarating and the most exciting day I had while working for the Times. As it turned out, my days working for the “Newspaper of Record” were about to end. Soon afterwards my application to enter the PhD program at American University was accepted and I left the newspaper in order to face this new challenge in my life.

Lights Out

Remember the night that the lights went out in New York City in 1965? Doris Day made a comedy movie about it. There were lots of stories and jokes about this unusual event. Well, for the Times, that night was a horror story. Their newsroom went dark and most work required in getting out the paper in New York City came to an immediate halt.

I happened to be working at the Washington newsroom that afternoon when my boss said the Times’ newsroom in New York was dark and that some of their work was being transferred to the Washington newsroom. “Can you stay late?” he asked me. I told him I would be there as long as he needed me. Suddenly the office on K Street came to life. The teletype operators were called back to work and other staff members suddenly showed up.

We worked fairly late into the evening, but I thought it was actually fun. Much of my time was spent running copy back and forth to the main desk and to the teletype room. I spent a lot of time that evening running errands and getting lots of coffee to staff members on duty. It was late when I was told to go on home and I left the building with the feeling that I was now a real newspaperman.

Several days later Mr. Krock’s secretary told me that a special commendation was put into my personnel file for my work during that crisis. I’m not sure what it may have said, but it probably mentioned that I served a lot of coffee under stressful conditions. Anyway, it was an experience that I will never forget.

Iconic photo

Another special event during that time did not involve me personally — but rather my camera! The story goes this way: I have always loved working with cameras. When I got my first paying job during the fourth grade, a paper route delivering the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the old St. Louis Star-Times, I used the money to buy an 8mm movie camera. Other types of cameras followed as I earned more money from various jobs that came my way.

Once I had a steady job with the Times, I was able to buy my dream camera which was used by most professional photographers at the time: a Nikon F 35mm reflex. I so loved the feel of that magnificent instrument that I carried it to work with me every day in hopes of capturing an important news event on film. Well, that event never occurred, but my camera did achieve that status — even though I was not personally involved.

As it happened, one day when I had taken my Nikon to work with me, famed Times photographer George Tames asked if he could borrow my camera for “an extremely important event.” It seems that he had an appointment to spend an entire day at the Kennedy White House photographing the first family “doing their daily activities,” and of all things, he left his own Nikon at home. Of course, I was honored to loan him my Nikon.

Later, Mr. Tames told me that the very first photo he took during his visit with the First Family turned out to be that special shot he was hoping to get. He added that when he was ushered into the President’s office, Kennedy was leaning over a desk reading — you guessed it — the New York Times. But what he was reading did not please him as Tames heard the President say: “That darn Arthur Krock! He has no idea of how difficult it is to be President.”

Tames said that the moment he entered the room, he realized that here was the photo he was hoping to get. In time, that photo has become a classic, and is reprinted in many of the books and articles about the Kennedy family and legend. Several weeks later Tames had a large copy printed which was entered into the annual White House Photographers Association’s competition for the “Best Photo of the Year.”

This photo, titled “The Loneliest Job in the World” subsequently won top honors! Several weeks later, Tames gave me that enlarged photo because, he said that without my Nikon he could not have won the award. In the years since then this same photo has been reprinted in many books and articles about the Kennedy family.

Glorified 'copy boy'

There is a somewhat strange ending to this story. Several years later I happened to run into one my old Mizzou Journalism School professor who asked me how I had used my training at the school to enhance my career in Washington.

All went well until I mentioned that I had worked as a sort of glorified “copy boy” for the Times bureau while there. At that point he exploded in rage: “No graduate of the Mizzou School of Journalism had ever subsequently worked as a copy boy! You should be ashamed!”

Well, that may well be true. But if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Even though my situation at the Times may have been a lowly one, it represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that fate handed to this aspiring journalist from Farmington, Missouri.

"I couldn’t help thinking of all the presidents who might have been in that room." – Jon Cozean, on visiting the White House

Jon Cozean on White House Visit
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