My First Day in Journalism: “What the Hell, Cohen!”

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Two UPI legends: Ron Cohen toasts Helen Thomas.

By Ron Cohen

January 15, 1960, my first day as a professional journalist. Very nearly my last.

It happened in Champaign, Illinois, where six months earlier I had received a journalism degree from the University of Illinois.

After six months active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I learned enough Morse Code dahs and dits to qualify as a radio operator for my National Guard unit, I needed a real job.

So I wrote avuncular Harold Holmes, editor of the Champaign News Gazette, reminding him that while I was a sports reporter for the Daily Illini, the campus newspaper, I had written about his son, Harold Jr.

Young Harold, a tumbling wizard on the championship Illinois gymnastics team, had perfected the double-back flip—two complete revolutions of his small but muscular body, with a dismount that seemed he had landed in wet cement.

“You are hired, $60 a week,” came Holmes Senior’s succinct reply. “Report to City Editor Bill Schmelzle as soon as you can.”

I drive almost 800 miles in my new shiny red Plymouth Valiant from New Jersey to the cornfields of central Illinois, the scene of some fairly close recent brushes with academic probation.

Mr. Schmelzle, on a bright, sunny January morning, hands out my first professional reporting assignment: “Grab lunch, kid, then cover the monthly meeting of the Champaign and Urbana Sanitary District at the sewage treatment plant outside town.”

A hastily gulped Italian beef sandwich, plus winter sun slanting off a field of fresh snow, plus a room heated like a sauna all contribute to the ensuing disaster: Bill Schmelzle’s rookie reporter drifts in and out of sleep as a boring man in a dishwater-gray suit flips pages on a chart and periodically drones the words “artist’s concept.”

No news here, I think driving back to the office, and duly inform Schmelzle and executive editor Ed Borman.

Now those were the days, gone as surely as dinosaurs and honest politicians, that a 100,000-population community could support competing afternoon newspapers. Our bitter rival was the Courier, smaller but feisty and tough. At 4:30 p.m. each weekday a half-dozen copies of the Courier arrived, to be quickly skimmed for stories we didn’t have. A similar ritual took place in the Courier newsroom across town.

And so at exactly 4:30 on my first afternoon, the volcanic Ed Borman comes galloping toward my remote newsroom desk, shouting ”Damn it! Damn it! DAMN IT ALL!!” and brandishing the Courier like a billy club.

“WHAT THE HELL, COHEN!”

This is not a question, it becomes clear, as he slams the paper on my desk and points to a headline of a size normally reserved for plane crashes, religious miracles, and the infrequent Illini football triumph.

“Plans Outlined for New Sewage Plant” it screamed. By Dudley McAllister, Courier Staff Writer.

While I had no knowledge of this Mr. McAllister, clearly he attended the sewage meeting. And stayed awake.

In the ensuing minutes, hours, and days, I would learn much more about Dudley than I wished, but in these first moments of panic all I could manage was: “Never ha-ha-ha-happened! I swear!”

Bad enough to be scooped on a big local story, compounding my disgrace is the fact that the land for this alleged sewage project is a golf course owned BY MY NEW EMPLOYER!!

Borman confines me to my desk, and the rest of the room explodes in activity. All the other humans begin dialing anybody and everybody they can think of, hoping to shoot down McAllister’s “exclusive.”

The frenzy continues late into the night, then resumes in the morning. I finally am allowed to go home about midnight, only to discover upon my return that, although I am still technically (if temporarily) on the payroll, the unspoken message remains: “Stay out from underfoot, Cohen. Real journalists at work.”

Their effort produces our tasteful retaliatory banner headline that afternoon:

“Courier Scoop Flushed Down Sewer!”

Thus was launched a classic journalism war. On alternating days the papers traded volleys: the Courier exposing on Wednesday, the News-Gazette rebutting on Thursday. The day after our “Flushed Down Sewer” headline, our rival’s front page story went something like this:

“The other paper in town is trying to say their reporter, a person nobody has ever even heard of, is more worthy of belief than Dudley McAllister, who has been covering the Sanitary District and everything else in Champaign-Urbana longer than their reporter has even been alive. Mr. McAllister, a 35-year veteran of the Courier, is the most respected journalist in the history of this community. The other paper’s reporter is a total stranger.”

(Well, technically not exactly “total” since I have been in town the last four years, but…)

It concludes with this dart to the heart:

“He drove away from the meeting in a car WITH NEW JERSEY LICENSE PLATES!”

To the Courier’s editors, my tiny red Valiant might as well have been Sonny Corleone’s getaway car.

As the days wear on and I remain on the bench, it becomes obvious that the Courier has bigger guns and more ammo and is winning this war. Will my name go down in journalism history as a verb? To be “Cohen-ed”— fired before ever typing a word?

Then—most unhappily for Dudley—the newspaper gods intervene. It is a bitterly cold and snowy morning, about 10 days after the Sanitary Board meeting. Dudley McAllister enters a downtown Champaign intersection, car windows tight against the gale slashing across the prairie. Perhaps his radio drowns out the blaring horn of the bright red fire engine that simultaneously enters the intersection.

Whatever, poor Dudley never stood a chance.

That afternoon, both papers print glowing front-page obituaries lauding Champaign-Urbana’s “legendary reporter.” The Courier’s is melodramatically wreathed in a funereal black border.

Next morning, Bill Schmelzle summons me back from Elba and hands me a second assignment: Go interview the guy who has invented a unique fishing lure—instead of live bait, a package that smells like worms.

My first paragraph:

“Sniff, strike, bam! Dinner!

“Smell-a-fishin’.”

Schmelzle loves it.

I am off and running.

Postscript: Almost 60 years later, the sewage treatment plant remains an “artist’s concept.”
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Ron Cohen is a retired journalist who worked for United Press International for 25 years and for Gannett News Service for 15. This story is a chapter in his in-progress memoir, Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast: Love Letters to My Grandkids.
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From Jack Limpert: Have a story to tell about your first days or weeks in journalism? Let me know at [email protected] and we’ll get it posted.

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