|Chapter XI, Bob Popp, The Best, in the unfinished manuscript, A Brief History of Newspapers in East Liverpool, Ohio, by the late Glenn H. Waight, former editor of The Evening Review.|
The heart of Review news coverage in the latter part of the century was Bob Popp, a keen-minded, tough-skinned reporter who earned deep respect from his peers and warm regard from his readers.
A daily newspaper's foundation rests on covering the community's government, from City Hall and police activities to Council meetings and elections. Bob performed that job with stern dedication and skill for more than four decades. Editors and publishers came and departed, but Bob anchored the newsroom operation with unrelenting commitment to basic functions.
He could have advanced to editor posts or to larger newspapers. But he disdained desk work, preferring the small city beat in the hills and valleys of his home along the Ohio. Bob was hired by Review editor Clayton Horn when the 18-year-old applied for a job in 1938, coming down from Midland, Pa. He was graduated in 1937 from Lincoln High School at Midland, and had been working as a clerk at Isaly's dairy store.
His older sister, Dorothy, a nurse, remembers taking a Review home from City Hospital and spotting an advertisement for a reporter opening. Her brother enjoyed reading and writing, so she showed it to him.
HORN TOLD me a few years ago, "I put him to work the very first day on the state desk without any help or encouragement. He sweated through it and came out a winner and the promise of what was to be a super reporter."
As state editor, Bob took phone calls and rewrote letters from correspondents in rural areas and small towns. When the City Hall reporter departed two years later, Bob was assigned the beat which included the Mayor, Council, treasurer, auditor, police station and board of elections along with the Chamber of Commerce and area potteries.
The military called in World War II, and he entered the Army, serving three years as with a cadre training infantry divisions, including the 95th, the 102nd and the 42nd. Discharged a sergeant with the 42nd ("Rainbow") Division, he headed back to East Liverpool and the City Hall beat to which the next 42 years of his life were devoted.
Bob benefited from no journalism courses or special preparation. He learned news gathering and writing from three of the top newsmen in the region - Horn, City Editor Paul Walton and Frank O'Hanlon, ex-editor and election board director.
Bob was also an avid reader of non-fiction, biographies, history, etc., with a natural curiosity, amazing memory, intense concentration and a flair for writing. He knew how to make friends quickly, and to seek out the basics of any news story. His dedication to the job overrode other interests, whether it be food, family or fortune, always working to meet deadlines regardless of the time of night or the hours spent.
His style of beat coverage was a textbook example of what Horn termed "super reporter." Good journalists are born with certain essentials, including the ability to learn on their own. No college course or learned faculty can create a reporter lacking the basics.
I know of no staffer in my experience who did not find lessons, eagerly or reluctantly, in the work of the tall, lean, sober-faced man from Midland whose presence in the newsroom was quiet but pervasive.
Cathy Seckman, hired as society editor in 1984, a year before Bob retired, worked just a few desks away from his, but said he only spoke to her once. Returning to the office, he tapped twice on her desk to get her attention, said someone had asked him to pick up a wedding photograph. He took it, said thanks, and left.
Jeff Bell, sports editor in the Eighties before he left to be editor of a small weekly, the Canal Winchester Times, held great admiration and a certain awe for Bob. He sat more than three years at a desk opposite Bob who, Jeff said, "wasn't big on handing out advice. I like to think I was smart enough to keep a close eye on him to pick up a few pointers on newspaper work."
Jeff termed Bob a "master" of the phone interview as the deadline approached. "He knew exactly who to call and what to ask. In a two-minute conversation Bob would get more information than most reporters could in a 30-minute personal interview."
He knew how to play his sources, too. To some, he was sugary sweet, using an ultra-respectful tone of voice. Old friends and contacts were treated like long-lost rich relatives. But he had a tough side, too, barking his questions in short, snappy sentences when he thought that was the best way .. ."
Jeff's desk was near enough he was familiar with some of Bob's other habits, such as hanging up his phone in anger. "He really slammed it down after a frustrating conversation - bammmm! Pity the poor passerby with a hangover when Bob Popp was peeved after an unproductive talk on the telephone."
BOB'S LANGUAGE was occasionally colorful, Jeff recalled. "He had a very natural way of spouting off cusswords. Coming from him, they didn't seem obscene, just a little off-color. Sometimes they seemed like a bit of poolroom poetry."
A lot of coffee was drunk at the desk across from him, Jeff said, poured from a thermos "that must have been around since Hitler invaded Poland." In a 1981 column Jeff wrote in his own weekly about Bob, he summarized Bob's attire as a green plaid raincoat, baggy pants, thin ties and an old hat when the weather was chilly. "He always took the tie off when he was pounding out a story. However he sometimes left the hat on when it was cold in the newsroom."
Jeff recalls Bob's "skinny, horrible smelling cigars," as do others on the staff in the Seventies and Eighties. Few can forget the time cigar ashes ignited paper in Bob's waste basket but he didn't take time (as one reporter remembered) to put out the smoky flames until he finished his story before deadline.
He was not unfriendly. The city jailer described him as "always the same - a jolly guy." But he did not want to be interrupted or delayed by chitchat while he was working, and he did not wish to disturb others in casual conversation while they were supposed to be working.
Inside the newspaper office, everyone had a job and should be doing it eight hours a day to earn the pay, he felt. And earn the pay he did, a magnificent bargain for the Review or any newspaper.
Bob would rise very early at his Glenmoor home, arrive at the police station before the overnight shift left so he could question officers about a case. He would make notes from the police log, listen to non-official talk or gossip, check the arrest forms and hearings set for Municipal Court, then go to the Review before 8 a.m. to write and file his stories.
Sometime during this early period, he would buy a Cleveland Plain Dealer to scan the state pages for stories about East Liverpool that he might pursue and update.
Then it was back to City Hall to see the Mayor, safety-service director and other officials, go to Municipal Court to get early dispositions of cases and other information. He might also visit the Elections Board and Health Board offices if time allowed. Finally he rushed back to Fourth St. by 10:15 a.m. to write late stories before the 11:30 news deadline
Bob often walked through alleys en route to E. Fourth St. to avoid acquaintances who might want to stop and talk, delaying him. On the job, he was always clean-shaven, wearing a sports coat and tie. No beard, mustache, long hair, blue jeans, sneakers or sports shirt - a contrast to some younger staff members in the Eighties.
Not only did Bob and I come from a time when more formal dress was popular (I wore a shirt and tie in high school.), but we believed that in dealing with the community one should dress "properly," that casual clothes cheapened journalism's image.
UPON RETURNING from City Hall, Bob would advise the city editor of upcoming stories, and the two would agree on how long the reports would be and the order in which they would be written. Then Bob would light up his customary small cigar, glance at his notes and begin hammering away at his battered old Royal typewriter.
He sat upright, balding head bent forward, fingers dancing rapidly over the key-board, producing a steady stream of copy -- backed with carbon paper if a major story. Any phone calls were handled in quick fashion as the newsroom clock's hands crept toward 11. When all his stories were on the city desk, Bob phoned the police to learn of any late happenings or contacted other sources for a possible breaking story.
If caught up on all his duties, he would ask the always hard-pressed city editor if he needed help with editing or writing headlines.
At deadline, it was time for lunch. For many years, Bob and I went together for our mid-day meal, always a hurried passage since the lunch period was only a half hour. In earlier times at the old Washington St. building, Bob and a few others ate at the Washington Lunch, a tavern-restaurant next to The Review on Washington St.
He and I started sharing lunch at the Dan-D-Bar, a V-shaped bar-restaurant at Washington St. and Broadway, then owned by Chris Markanton and offering fairly good food to a mostly sedate clientele. When Chris sold the business and a new, noisy crowd took over, Bob and I turned to the Jigger Room in the Travelers Hotel just down Fourth St. from the office.
For many years Bob and I and a third party, often Harry Stewart, enjoyed the quiet, dark atmosphere of the long narrow room. Frank Forzano manned the stoves in back and Martha "Murphy" Schmidt waited on tables and offered advice in a brassy voice between cigarettes.
We would return to the office and wait for the first copies of the day's paper to be rushed to the newsroom at 1 p.m. for all staffers to scan rapidly for mistakes major enough to make over the edition.
A huge blunder warranted stopping the presses until the correction had either been made in the composing room with a new page or by having the pressmen simply chip out the errant type with a chisel. With a less serious problem, the presses would continue running until a corrected page came down from the composing room.
One long-remembered makeover occurred before my time when a freighter sank in the Atlantic and the captain remained aboard to the final minute. A Page One misspelling of the ship's deck yielded a vulgar term, and all the offending copies were called back from the news stands.
During the post-lunch period, Bob rechecked his calendar and notes, made telephone calls or read in more detail the Plain Dealer for tips and ideas about stories or ideas for one of his columns.
After examining The Review for mistakes, he headed back to City Hall, again to visit the police department but primarily take notes on the morning's Municipal Court cases or follow up on reports in other offices. He never left The Review without telling the city editor where he was going and when he expected to be back.
On returning in the afternoon, he wrote the stories he had obtained uptown, undertook whatever planning or preparation was required for an evening assignment or the next day's work. He might start a feature, or one of his April Fool tales or a tear-jerking Christmas memory piece. After we launched his "Snap, Crackle & Popp" column, he tackled it in late in the day.
SOMETIME IN THE afternoon or at home, he read that day's edition of The Review, front to back, even classified ads. A truly professional newsman recognized the importance of knowing every item in his paper. It was not only embarrassing but nearly criminal to be asked by a reader about some bit of news in The Review and have to confess ignorance of it.
On certain days Bob would cover a noon meeting of the Board of Public Utilities or an opening of bids for a city contract or other municipal session. Alternate Monday nights, of course, were devoted to Council meetings to which he took his best talents and with which he did his hardest work.
He scribbled detailed notes in his own shorthand of key abbreviations, written with one of several thick, black lead copy pencils he always carried. The notes were jotted on 8 by 11 pages of rough newsprint, folded twice into long, easy-to-hold sections. Here was old-style, inauspicious note-taking Bob used long after younger reporters with ball-point pens strode about with lined paper tablets, mini-recorders or clipboards -ostentatious symbols of "The Press."
Meetings of Council were challenges for even veteran reporters. Municipal politicians are generally long-winded, often confused about issues and usually inarticulate. Most citizens who address Council tend to be angry or irritated about some matter, and unlikely to be logical or direct. So reporters must sift through verbiage and correctly summarize in print just what each individual meant.
Expansion and penetration of government into many areas of life required municipal officials to deal with increasing complex areas of finances, contracts, planning, health, labor negotiations, environmental quality, etc. Bob became familiar with these laws and procedures, and was able to explain and simplify them for readers.
He could endure the boring presentations and whining speeches, and grasp the essential facts, analyze the significance and produce a clear, meaningful array of stories. And he completed all his writing that night after the meetings, not the following morning when some important aspect may have been forgotten or become fuzzy. He did not take the chance that a sudden overnight news event would demand his attention and delay writing the Council report.
No matter if the meeting lasted until midnight, he hustled back to the office, sorted his notes, then typed the stories so they would be on the city desk when that editor arrived at 6:30 or 7 a.m.
This was a demanding job - done properly - and it began to wear on Bob in his later years. The beat was trimmed when the Elections Board was relocated to Lisbon in 1984. But the scope of city government had also expanded at every level.
His was almost all leg work, walking four blocks to City Hall, through the halls and up and down stairs (no elevator in those days), then back, three or more times daily. Other staffers, all younger, sat at desks to cover their beat or drove to and from assignments.
The commitment to the job, the attention to details, the accuracy, the sensitivity to feelings of his sources with awareness of the needs of the newspaper were lessons intelligent fellow workers realized were not available in a college classroom.
City police officers also learned from Bob. His long experience and memories of earlier times plus a respect for the demands and dangers in wearing the uniform created a bond with them.
He not only knew how to obtain a police story, but earned their trust and confidence by understanding that some aspects of investigation should not be reported. Officers saw him not as an antagonist or critic, but a companion. In the mid-80s the department honored him with presentation of a "Friend of the Police Award."
"He was sort of another policeman," Police Chief Charles Coen said of the advice and help Bob gave.
WHEN HE WENT on vacation -- traditionally a week spent along Lake Erie at Geneva-on-the-Lake where he would plow through a boxload of books - he left explicit typewritten instructions for his fill-in.
A sheet of paper detailed the daily and weekly schedules with lists of times for visits, people to see, sources to check plus dates of meetings and other events along with the daily trash pickup schedule already typed to be given to the city desk.
Only when the city editor was on vacation did Bob leave his own desk to handle copy, write heads and make assignments. It was a task he detested. An excellent checker of facts and grammar, reviser of poor writing, keeper of calendar and an insightful news guru, he was stern and demanding. But the constant copy reading bothered his eyes, the cramped hours tried to a desk tired him, and careless staffers tested his emotional stability.
His was an endless battle with those who struggled with the City Hall beat in his absence, and his temper sometimes flared as he barked instructions on when and how something must be done.
Charles "Chuck" Cronin, a Review sportswriter and reporter in 1957-64, recalled dreading Mondays when Bob was on the city desk. Cronin, who went on to be public relations director at Weirton Steel for many years, recalled Bob kicking a trash can and demanding, "Is it deputy sheriffs or sheriff's deputies? Which is it?" Cronin admits, "I was scared to death. Never missed that one again."
Bob detested answering the telephone on the adjacent sports desk if the sports man were absent. "But he always got a callback name and number" in typical professional efficiency, Cronin said.
Bob wrote editorials, sometimes volunteered, about a local issue, anniversary or holiday, other times at the request of the editor who knew Bob was not only more informed but a better writer. His viewpoint was ever conservative, traditional, focused on old-fashioned virtues. In 1981 he received a "Freedoms Foundation Award" for an editorial condemning desecration of the American Flag.
Few native East Liverpudlians held a fondness for the community, past and present, matching that of the ex-Pennsylvanian. He had absorbed much about the pottery city through dealing with elected officials, industry leaders and other prominent and lesser figures over the years.
BOB HAD MOVED to East Liverpool after returning from the war, bringing a wife he had met and wed while on military duty in Texas. They rented a house at Anderson Blvd. and Park Way, opposite Riverview Greenhouses.
They had a son, Robert A. Popp, but divorced, and in 1950, Bob married Evelyn Cunningham Snyder, secretary at the Chamber of Commerce that was part of his beat. They bought a home on Staunton Ave. in Glenmoor and raised her daughter, Kay.
From his typewriter at home and at The Review came many articles and features about significant people and important happenings of former years. Later his column often dealt with similar topics.
Bob's wonderful Christmas fiction always evoked images of the old Crockery City as a backdrop for sentimental family troubles that ended happily. Second Street, the Chester Bridge, trolley cars, freight trains, beloved figures such as Police Chief Hughie McDermott filled his written recollections enjoyed by thousands of subscribers. Readers often clipped and mailed these to distant friends or relatives.
A specialty subject in which he developed expertise was the 1934 police slaying of outlaw Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd about which he wrote many stories. He also gave talks about Floyd, his own career and other topics for social groups and service clubs.
SOME EMPLOYEES of The Review stayed on the job past retirement age, but Bob had long planned to turn in his final City Hall story when 65. A retirement dinner was held at The Travelers Hotel mezzanine room, attended by many of his former fellow workers including retired editor Art Thomas.
The region's elected officials were familiar with Bob through his campaign and balloting reports and interviews. U. S. Congressman Doug Applegate of the 18th Congressional District in May 1985 read into the "Congressional Record" remarks concerning the retirement, including:
"Besides his seniority on the job, the one factor that separated Bob from so many others in his chosen field is his dedication to fairness, honesty and objectivity in reporting news events. This has earned him the respect of both the readers of his articles and those about whom they have been written."
Now Bob had more opportunity to read, but continued writing his column sometimes twice a week. He could spend more time with Evelyn, and with his stepdaughter and her husband, Jim Russell, and their two daughters. One of them went to work for The Morning Journal in advertising.
He became modestly involved in community activities, serving on the Red Cross Chapter's board of trustees, helping organize and become a trustee of the new East Liverpool High School Alumni Association and joining the city Historical Society. He was a member of the Glenmoor Presbyterian Church session.
In January 1993 Bob telephoned me to inquire about some arthritis medicine I had been taking, explaining that a hip had been bothering him for some time and was worsening. I told him of my prescription drug, and suggested he should visit a physician about the pain and medication as soon as he could. He assured me that was his plan.
Two weeks later I learned that doctors had examined Bob, and found tumors in a lung and malignancy in his hip and elsewhere. When I telephoned him, he said he had been given "a bad report" and described what it was. I offered to transport him anywhere for treatment, but he said he was undecided about trying that.
In shockingly short time, his condition deteriorated and he died at home Feb. 4 at age 72.
Saluting his long service to the community, City Hall flags were lowered to half staff. The Review reported his death on Page One with two photos -- one of him at work, the other receiving a plaque from Mayor Norman Bucher - along with many quotes from various friends and civic leaders regarding his skills, personality and humanitarianism.
With typical planning, efficiency and a bit of wry humor, he had written his own obituary, ending it with a note to funeral director Frank Dawson, "Don't forget to wind my watch."
A TOUCHING, ALMOST LYRICAL eulogy was delivered by Dawson at the services:
"Recall now the days of our youth, before the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and travel with me to a land where there dwelt a magician, a troubadour of the typewriter, if you will, who used the wizardry of his keyboard to produce truth, love, mystery and jest to breath 'life' into readers of all ages.
"In his bag of tricks he carried abundant humor, dynamic style, reverence for God, sober reflections and love for this place we all call HOME. To his family he was the pillar, to his community he was a writer, poet, quiet leader, friend. To all of us, there was only one - he was Bob Popp.
"As the years passed by in the land of this wizard, his followers multiplied, and legends were created by his eloquent accounts of characters like 0. 0. Mclntyre, Hughie McDermott, Frank O'Hanlon, Pretty Boy Floyd and "Red Leaves in the Fall."
"His fervor and energy knew no bounds as he would doggedly practice his craft - even if it meant counting the number of cars on a freight train until he came to the one that struck a hobo near Jethro Hollow or Little England.
"To Bob, it was critically important to report that it was the 87th car on the train that took the life of some poor, wandering derelict. How distressing that the "who," "what," "where," "when," and "why" of the story may very well have been scrapped by the likes of Clayton Horn or Paul Walton, but a true professional could never be de-throned in the land where this master of the quill reigned for year after year after year.
"When he spoke of our valley, the Council, the policemen, the firemen, the clock tower, the Mayor, the Director, the neighborhoods and the people, he did so with a devotion that was akin to consecration from some worldly leader. But pity the subject whose ship was not sailing in the right direction or who would dare challenge the master in an adverse way. His retaliation would flow with barrels full of ink. Undoubtedly a trait he inherited from his days in World War II.
"Robert Francis Popp, your journey here is now complete, you have covered your last story, walked your last beat, the blotter is blank, your wristwatch is wound, it's time to tip your sorcerer's hat to a jaunty angle, prepare your final column as you enter the greatest newsroom of them all.
"Godspeed, good friend. May angels trumpet your presence into that most mystical of all kingdoms as Vic Hughes and Walter Niblock and Art Thomas and "Scoops" and "Barney" and "Aggie" and a host of others have the celestial Lin-o-Types polished and the hot lead ready to print the words of greeting that say, 'Hark now - here comes the cream of the crop, Bob Popp.'
" For your magic now belongs with God."
ON A WINDY, FREEZING February afternoon atop a cemetery hill overlooking Calcutta, five former reporter friends as honorary pallbearers placed their white gloves on Bob Popp's casket in a fond, respectful gesture of farewell. As one of them had written in an article a few days earlier,
"To many of us he became as much an institution and landmark as the Carnegie Library, Thompson House and Second St. kiln. And his stories and the columns and the emotions they stirred will endure in Review files and in memory like brick and stone."