February 1992

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Subreporter Clune

Rises to the Challenge


Robert G. Koch

Professor Koch broadcast this tribute on his program on WXXI on February 18, 1992

In The Rochester I Know, Henry Clune, who turns 102 years old today, recalls his apprenticeship in the newspaper business: "Beginning in the summer of 1910 as the lowliest subreporter on the Democrat and Chronicle I was subjected to all the grubbiness of that humble office. If I was not assigned to cover a picnic or dispatched to obtain a photograph of a citizen of some prominence who had died that day or one of two persons who were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary I was kept in the office to transpose on a battered typewriter 'Notes of the Pedro Clubs.' All the women in Rochester seemed to play pedro. The notices of their tournaments began fluttering into the newsroom by midweek, and they were prominently displayed under a two-column head in the Sunday edition. The various clubs strove with limited success for distinctive names. There were the Evening Stars, the Firesides, the Happy Belles, the Eager Dealers, the Come Early Pedro Club. The scrawled notices were sometimes as difficult to decipher as Vedic Sanskrit, but if the names of the pedro players were included in them, Mr. Adams, the city editor, insisted that they be correctly spelled, and this meant a tedious checking of the city directory."

As an apprentice on probation young Clune was hardly adequately trained for the demand of the events of the night of April 14, 1911. In I Always Like It Here he recalls them. It was Sunday, usually his day off, but this time he was stuck with the solo "long watch" from early Sunday afternoon until four o'clock Monday morning. Sunday was usually a dull day and Monday's paper a thin one, but someone had to be on hand in case something did happen. By just after mid-night he had "interviewed a couple who were celebrating their fiftieth wedding aniversary, [written] the obituary of a fairly prominent citizen, and…covered a small time touring evangelist…" After eating at a nearby lunch room, he returned to the shabby editorial offices on Main Street above the springtime Genesee River.

"[O]nly Mr. Adams, the city editor, and a reporter who was working on a very late story, were still in the city room. Both left within half an hour. It was now my responsibility to write and arrange the placing of any local story worthy of an extra that broke between then and 4:00 a.m. Extras were not common…"
"I could hear through the flimsy partition that separated the city room from the telegraph room the faint tapping of a telegraph instrument, for the Associated Press operator was still taking dispatches and would continue to do so for a couple of hours. He and the telegraph editor and myself were the only persons left on the fifth floor… I was eagerly turning the pages of [a copy] of the first edition, still damp with ink,…to learn if my story of the evangelist, which I thought I had invested with sly humor, had made the first edition when I heard a shout from Mr. Petty, the AP operator.
"'…My God, the Titanic's sinking!'
"I laid the newspaper aside and went into the telegraph room. I had read with superficial interest that the Titanic had left Southampton in midweek on her maiden run to New York. She was the largest and most luxurious liner ever built and her first-class passenger list read like a combination of Who's Who and the Social Register. But I was no traveler;…and I had never seen an ocean liner in my life. I was hardly aware of Mr. Petty's words."
The telegraph editor "was leaning over Mr. Petty's shoulder, reading the words translated from the tapping of the Morse code as Petty typed them out.
"'I don't believe it,' he said. He spoke angrily, as if he had been promised a very big story and the promise had been revoked. 'She can't sink. The White Star people made her unsinkable. There's a mistake. There are other ships on the high seas registered in that name, Titianic. I know.'
"He turned away, but Petty called him back. 'But look—look,' he cried excitedly. 'There're wireless flashes. She's calling for help. She's off the Grand Banks. She's hit an iceberg.'"
As the truth of the coded messages became evident, the corporal's guard on duty at the paper that early morning frenzied into action. New typesetting, split-second decisions about page layout, tearing down old forms to create the new bold front-page "EXTRA"—here was the dramatic cycle made familiar in all those films dramatizing the adrenaline packed lives of cigarette sucking, coffee swilling reporters and editors. "As Petty typed a paragraph, Amos [the telegraph editor] snatched it from the typewriter. He sent me to the newspaper's 'morgue' for all the material we had on the Titanic. She was huge: eleven stories high and four city blocks long…[and much more]. I compiled most of this information in a page or so of copy, excited by the fancy that I was collaborating on a news report of an historic catastrophe.
"Amos was obsessed with the notion that several Rochesterians were among the Titanic's passengers…Six Rochesterians were on the [ship] and three were saved…" The three who were among the 1500 or so who went down included a prominent executive who helped a lady, her young daughter, and the girl's governess "into a lifeboat, then leaned against the rail and lighted a cigarette." He was last seen "flicking a cigarette as he waved" to the lady he had helped. Memoirist Clune, ever alert to the words that encapsulate a moment, closes his account of that tragic night by quoting Walter Lord, who recreated the catastrophe in his book, A Night to Remember: "These men on the Titanic had a touch… Today nobody would carry off these little gestures of chivalry, but they did that night."

And few writers have better alerted us to grace under pressure than Henry Clune himself.

Happy birthday, Henry.

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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