Getting Started in Journalism: “Can You Type?”

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UPI’s Wes Pippert carrying the White House version of the Nixon tapes in 1974.

By Wes Pippert

It was 1955 and I was a graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and proud of it. So off went letters to prospective employers, of which there were two. One was United Press.

Back came a short letter from Bob Rose, the UP Des Moines bureau manager: “The job is mostly rewrite and that’s about it.” Then came a phone call from Jack Hagerty, the United Press bureau manager in Minneapolis. He had one question: “You didn’t say on your application whether you could type. Can you?” I had lost three fingers in a childhood farm accident and I wasn’t a skilled typist. I told Jack, “Yes,” rationalizing it by telling myself that the accident happened when I was two and I didn’t figure it was a handicap and I was learning to type.

So I wound up with United Press and never regretted it. Within weeks I was in South Dakota—first in the Sioux Falls bureau and then in Pierre, population 5,000, and the state capital.

Soon after arriving in South Dakota, I went out to cover a local politician whom I had not heard of, a college debate coach who was running for office. When I heard him I was almost astonished. I had never heard a politician speak so articulately, with ideas I knew were an anathema to most South Dakotans. His name was George McGovern.

I wrote a profile about him for UPR, the national radio wire. It may have been the first national piece about him.

Years later, when McGovern was a senator and running for president, I was the staffer in the UPI Washington bureau who knew most about him and I was assigned to cover his campaign. It led to many other good assignments with UPI.

A big story I didn’t write:

While in the Pierre bureau, I was back home vacationing on the family farm in Iowa when a call came from Gene Gillette, the UPI Central Division news manager in Chicago. In his slow, deliberate manner, Gillette said, “Wes?…Wes, the damndest thing happened in Pierre Saturday…somebody walked into our bureau in the Capitol building…sat down at the state news wire…and punched out a bulletin that the governor had died…and the Sioux Falls bureau threw it on the radio wire…some stations broadcast the bulletin…and when there weren’t any more details coming from Pierre, the Sioux Falls bureau called the governor’s mansion in Pierre…and the governor answered…“

The governor then ordered the head of the South Dakota State Motor Patrol to maintain a presence outside our bureau and he told the chief to dust our Teletype machine for fingerprints. There were many prints, most of them mine. Gillette ordered all Teletypes in the division to be locked when not in use—an order that was followed for about a week.

I had always left our bureau open in the Capitol building so state officials could drop off releases or notes. Gillette didn’t reprimand me, and my UPI career was intact. And what lay ahead was covering the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign, Watergate, the Carter White House, and a stint in Jerusalem as UPI bureau chief in Israel.
After his UPI career ended, Wes spent a year at Harvard and then joined the University of Missouri journalism faculty as director of its Washington program.


  1. Jack Limpert says

    In 1958 United Press (UP) merged with International News Service (INS) to become United Press International (UPI). In 1960, when I went to work for UPI in Minneapolis, there was strong competition between UPI and the Associated Press (AP). The AP, being a newspaper cooperative owned by its member newspapers, tended to be the dominant wire service among newspapers, though most the bigger papers also took UPI. In many cities, the radio and television stations tended to favor UPI as they competed with the local newspaper.

    In Detroit, where I worked after being in Minneapolis and St. Louis, the AP bureau was located in the Detroit News building, near the newsroom, while the UPI bureau was in the newspaper’s parking garage.

    All that made UPI staffers feel like we were the underdogs—we were younger, we worked harder, and I think we had more fun.

  2. Gary Comstock says

    As a youngster, I was inspired by Wes Pippert’s work; his accomplishments made me yearn to become a writer. Thanks for running this story by and on him. I’d like to read more, especially concerning his view of the Watergate and Carter years.

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