“Hang on to the Phone and Get More Details”

By William B. Mead

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Harry Truman, at right, was elected President in 1948 with Kentucky’s Alben Barkley as his running mate.

On April 30, 1956, Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, a former vice president of the United States, strode to the rostrum at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to keynote the University’s mock Democratic convention. “The old firehorse has heard the bell!” he proclaimed.

The auditorium was packed. The governor of Virginia, Thomas B. Stanley, sat in the front row alongside the university’s president, Francis Pendleton Gaines. Students were seated as state delegations, as real delegates would be at the Democrats’ presidential nominating convention that August.

Washington and Lee had landed a true political celebrity. Barkley, born in a Kentucky log cabin, was such an orator that he keynoted three Democratic conventions. President Harry S Truman chose Senator Barkley as his vice presidential running mate in 1948. As a campaigner, he gave as many as two dozen speeches a day, helping Truman upset Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate. After four years as vice president, Barkley regained his Senate seat.

Before the enthusiastic young audience at Washington and Lee, Barkley performed with fierce partisan skill. He was repeatedly interrupted with applause. That afternoon, a mile-long parade of marching units, floats, and bands wound through the streets of Lexington. Crowds cheered Barkley and Gaines in the lead car, Governor Stanley in the second car, and the New Jersey float, which featured Miss America, Sharon Kay Ritchie.

A section for the press was reserved in the auditorium’s balcony. Four reporters were Washington and Lee alumni, including Charles R. McDowell Jr. of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Associated Press was represented by a veteran political reporter.

The AP then was—and still is—the nation’s dominant news service. This was particularly true in Virginia, where the AP served virtually every daily newspaper. Its rival, United Press—later United Press International—was on starvation rations. The Richmond bureau, housed in a dingy third-floor space, was responsible for all news throughout Virginia. To provide news to radio stations, the bureau had to open at 6 a.m. and stay open until 11 p.m. UP employed three newsmen to the AP’s 13.

In planning coverage of the Washington and Lee event, the United Press did what it usually did—look for someone to cover it, for little or no money, and phone a story to the Richmond bureau. The Washington and Lee journalism department was glad to give one of its students the experience of working with a worldwide news service. The journalism professor assured the UP bureau manager that a bright student, a stringer in journalistic parlance, would provide coverage.

As the crowd gathered at Washington and Lee and reporters from the AP and other outlets took their allotted seats in the auditorium’s press section, Lon K. Savage, 27, started his lonesome night shift at the UP’s Richmond bureau. While looking forward to a report on Barkley’s speech, Savage had to handle calls from other stringers and provide hourly Virginia news wrap-ups on the news wire that served radio stations.

The call from Lexington came and the stringer’s voice was excited—and very French.

“Meester Barkley, he fall down!”

The student assigned to cover for the UP was Philippe Labro, a French exchange student. His English was imperfect but he was smart. So was Savage, who quickly ascertained that Labro was using the auditorium’s only outside telephone line. Labro told Savage that he better yield the phone to other reporters, who were banging on the door of the phone booth.

No, said Savage. Hang on to the phone, and get one or two of your buddies to run down and find out exactly what happened. Labro complied and his eager helpers rushed back to tell him that the Senator was dead, adding more and more details.

Savage was a superb newsman, a gifted writer. A story like this would play on the front page of every morning newspaper. Big-city newspapers subscribed to both the AP and UP. The news service that reported the story first, and best, would get the play, an important measure in the competition between the two services.

Savage had a head start and he was determined to keep it. This was the era of manual typewriters, but for the sake of speed Savage skipped that step and wrote directly on the news wire as Labro provided details. They did a masterful job, even providing the senator’s last words. Barkley had been boasting of his principled refusal to take a front desk in the Senate chamber, noting that he technically lacked seniority because he had taken time off to serve as vice president.

“I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than sit in the seats of the mighty!” he proclaimed.

Then his head dropped. He took two steps backward and fell dead of a heart attack.

It was a triumphant day for the UP and for young Lon Savage and the even younger Philippe Labro. Savage went on to climb the journalistic ladder, write two well-received books, and serve as top aide to the president of Virginia Tech.

Labro returned to France, wrote a popular novel, The Foreign Student, about a young French exchange student at Washington and Lee, and then became a very successful author, journalist, and film director.

Savage and Labro became long-distance friends. In 2004, Savage died at age 75 in Salem, Virginia.
Bill Mead worked for UPI as a reporter/editor in Richmond, Detroit, Chicago, and Washington. He then moved into magazine work as Washington correspondent for Money magazine and as a writer and editor at The Washingtonian. He has authored six books on baseball history. His latest work is the ebook Come Back Moo, a biography of his remarkable grandfather.


  1. Ralph Morrow says

    What a story, Bill. Those were days to remember. And you remembered it well. Your attention to detail also comes alive in Come Back Moo, a delightful recollection of your remarkable grandfather. Your account of the senator’s death should be required reading of all journalism students.

  2. George Cowie says

    I loved the story. Acute narrative skill. UP trumping AP and all the others with the telephone booth maneuver is ready for a movie.

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