Detroit Was Doing Well, and So Was UPI, When a Ship Went Down

By William B. Mead

My journalism resume may have peaked in 1965 when I was named Detroit bureau manager for United Press International. I was 31 and had been working the overnight shift—11 p.m. to 7 a.m.— in the Chicago bureau, writing stories for afternoon newspapers. The Detroit promotion was a big one and I jumped at it, though my wife Jenny and I loved Chicago, where we had met at Northwestern University.

Detroit’s auto industry was going strong, Michigan was a prosperous state, and newspapers in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and other cities subscribed to both UPI and its larger competitor, the AP. I had 11 news staffers and five teletype operators in Detroit, three staffers covering the state government in Lansing, and a one-man bureau in Grand Rapids. But I was not puffing cigars. Our bureau was a dingy storefront in the Detroit News’s garage, where delivery trucks thundered in and out. Most of the UPI staffers were young. I was working 60 to 70 hours a week and when a big story broke I had to run the desk and, in most cases, write the story.

Much of what we did was covering news of statewide interest, a key to keeping our Michigan clients happy. But national stories were more fun, and when a big story broke I did all I could to push it onto UPI’s A wire, the circuit carrying the most important stories.  We wanted to beat the AP in speed, quality, and color. We wanted our stories on page one—UPI kept count of how many papers used our version and how many used the AP’s. Box scores didn’t lie.

One very cold night a freighter, the Daniel J. Morrell, carrying iron ore, broke up and sank in a November gale on Lake Huron.  It was like the Edmund Fitzgerald, minus the folk song.  This was the kind of story I liked, and so did Ed Lechtzin, our staffer who sped to the scene. One crewman survived.  Perfect; a lone survivor makes a better story.  The man got on a life raft and—bless him—pulled the bodies of his captain and first mate on top of him for warmth.

The Coast Guard got him to a hospital. The lobby was quickly thronged with reporters, but they weren’t allowed upstairs. The man asked for a priest—bless him again—and Ed persuaded the priest to put a UPI tape recorder in his pocket. Ed  turned it on and the priest went upstairs.

Our survivor recounted the tragedy and provided the priest—and Ed—with this quote, our slam-dunk victory over the AP:

“Father, why am I alive?”


  1. A note about the story from Ed Lechtzin:

    The ship went down off Harbor Beach in Lake Huron. I stayed two nights in a rundown hotel in Harbor Beach with a steam radiator that buzzed all night. The room cost $2 a night. Mead told me to expense it at $25 a night … or NX would start requring everyone to stay in cheapo places (which is what they did anyway).

    P.S. NX was the bureau designation for New York. Detroit was DU.

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