Cooperative Farming News contributor Alvin Benn reminisces on 50 years in the newspaper business.
August 4, 1964, is a date forgotten by most Americans, but not me because it signaled the start of a career that has lasted 50 years.
There I was, a duffle bag filled with civilian clothes draped over my left shoulder, a carton of cigarettes in my right hand and, in a pocket, a one-way bus ticket to Birmingham.
I was leaving the Marine Corps after 6 years to embark on an adventure I could hardly have imagined when I enlisted in 1958.
After all, how many guys my age wound up through the years with a front-row seat to the civil rights movement, covered rocket tests that got us to the moon and interviewed world leaders?
Before reaching Birmingham, I was to stop off at United Press International’s regional headquarters in Atlanta for a crash course on the nuances of wire service work. I hadn’t worked for civilian newspapers, let alone filed stories about important events stretching across three Southern states.
As the bus pulled out and headed for Atlanta, two major events were happening at home and abroad – events that would have an impact on the first phase of my long career.
One was a naval clash between the United States and North Vietnam that mushroomed into a war that would claim the lives of 58,000 Americans by the time it ended.
|Alvin and Sharon Benn flank Montgomery Advertiser publisher Robert Granfeldt Jr. at an event honoring Al on his 50 years as a journalist.|
The other happened closer to home – the discovery of three bodies in Mississippi. They were civil rights workers shot to death by Ku Klux Klansmen and buried in an earthen dam near Meridian.
My scheduled orientation session didn’t happen. Busy UPI writers working on the Mississippi story didn’t have time to be bothered by a rookie who might not last very long in a pressure-packed job.
Back on the bus, it was off to Birmingham for the next 2.5 years, a period that included daily deadline pressures no college journalism professor could ever have adequately explained.
It was an exciting time for a rookie reporter who might interview Martin Luther King Jr. and Klan leader Robert Shelton the same day or drive up to Huntsville to watch with NASA’s Wernher von Braun the testing of the Saturn 5 moon rocket or ask Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant how he got his nickname.
Heady wine it was for somebody whose stories wound up in The New York Times and The Washington Post thanks to skillful editors who made it look like I knew what I was doing when I didn’t much of the time.
UPI was the Avis of wire services, second to the Associated Press in salary scales, but often first and factual when it came to getting stories to anxious newspaper editors before AP did.
Wire service reporters were not welcomed in the South during the civil rights era because our reports circulated around the world, angering some small town publishers and editors who took a dim view of airing Dixie’s dirty laundry in Paris or London.
The most anxious moment for me and two photographers was a night in 1965 when we covered a Klan rally at a small park in Marengo County. When it was over and we got back to our car, we could see that all four tires had been slashed. A set up? It sure looked that way.
UPI reported initially that we were missing because we didn’t check in at the scheduled time. Cell phones would have been nice had they been invented back then.
Luckily, I had gotten to know one of the Klan leaders who could just see the headlines about it. He passed around his pointy white cap to collect enough money to buy four new tires for us and that got us back on the road toward Birmingham.
Those three civil rights workers were murdered only a few months before just across the line in Mississippi, not far from that little isolated park in Linden. I wondered if Sharon and I would have a very short marriage.
During the trial of Klansmen accused of murdering civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo after the end of the Selma to Montgomery March, three Klan wives had an "invitation" for Sharon who had accompanied me to Hayneville.
They asked if she might like to join their "auxiliary." I told them she couldn’t since it might interfere with her Hadassah meetings. Hadassah is a Jewish women’s organization.
Jan. 1, 1967, signaled the start of my newspaper career, one that has included stops in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, where I’ve been a reporter, photographer and editor-at-large for dailies and small weeklies. I was even a publisher for a brief period at a little paper.
Some stories stood out more than others during that time, including an interview with George Wallace in 1967 as he prepared to run for president the following year.
He didn’t like the liberal Decatur Daily where I worked at the time, but said he’d give me 20 minutes. He talked for 90 minutes during a priceless interview in which he touched on everything from civil rights to the war in Vietnam and the growing crime problem across America.
One of my proudest moments occurred in Decatur where two of us came up with an idea to prove that American patriotism still existed despite the growing anti-war movement.
We came up with an Independence Day extravaganza called "The Spirit of America Festival." It’s still going strong after 47 years.
It takes an understanding spouse to deal with the kind of nomadic life we led during the first half of our nearly 50 years of marriage, but I’ve been lucky to have the former Sharon Ann Boumel by my side through thick, thin and occasional threats.
We’ve lived in 11 houses or apartments during the past half century and she became an expert in the art of packing, unpacking and wondering where the next stop would be.
That came to an end in 1980 when I got the best job I’ve ever had at the Montgomery Advertiser, where I’ve produced thousands of stories, columns and photographs.
Working at the Advertiser has afforded me an opportunity to do what I enjoy the most – writing columns about people from all walks of life – the rich and the poor, the prominent and the plain, the criminals and those who catch them.
Another of my most memorable stories involved a woman in Lowndes County who sold boiled peanuts at the intersection of U.S. 80 and Highway 21 that leads into Hayneville.
It was a bitterly cold December afternoon when I first saw her. She was shivering as she told me the peanuts were to help her raise enough money for transportation to Baton Rouge, La., to see a specialist to help her with her cancer problem.
Selling $2 bags of boiled peanuts wasn’t bringing in much money, but two articles I wrote about her plight helped raise a lot more for gas, lodging and other expenses in Baton Rouge.
Unfortunately, she died a few months later, but not before thanking the people who came to her aid as a result of articles proving that newspapers remain as relevant as ever in a time of constant change within the profession.
Sharon and I, the proud parents of two and the grandparents of four, wonder at times where the last 50 years have gone.
Daughter Dani is a University of Alabama graduate who has used her speech and language pathology degree to help autistic children through the years.
Son Eric, a Troy University graduate, is a federal agent in El Paso, Texas. The Justice Department has flown him to Washington several times to be honored for his investigative achievements.
As for me, well, I wanted to attend Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa., but it didn’t work out and my dream of teaching history seemed out of reach.
But, it all turned out for the best because, instead of teaching history for 25 years, I’ve helped write it for the past 50 years thanks to my "degree" from the "School of Hard Knocks."
So, all in all, that bus trip from Parris Island to Birmingham half a century ago turned out pretty good.
And, that, my friends, is quite an understatement.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.