Jewish World Review August 13, 2001 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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You can go home again -- PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Please bear with me today, folks, while an old political reporter who has just finished covering the National Governors' Conference here indulges in a bit of nostalgia about the place where, exactly half a century ago, he began his romance with daily newspapering.

In the summer of 1951, a very uncertain greenhorn came to work at the Providence Journal, then arguably the best in New England in those days when Boston was regarded as the graveyard of American journalism. That summer I toiled in fashionable Newport and other Rhode Island villages, covering cops and firemen and town hall meetings.

In those days, the means of transmitting your story was to give your copy to a bus driver bound for Providence who for a buck or two would drop it off at the Journal building by deadline time. The highlight of those first days for me was an interview with Basil Rathbone, the old Sherlock Holmes, at the Newport summer stock theater. But in time I got into Providence myself.

On my first day in the Journal newsroom, the gruff city editor, Elliot Stocker, called me to his desk and assigned me to cover a lunch speech by the mayor. "I'm kicking you off the dock, kid, to see if you can swim," he actually said, just like in the movies, "and while you're at it, have yourself a free meal."

Later on, laboring nights on the sports copy desk, I learned such imperatives of English usage as the difference between "that" and "which," between "who" and "whom," and - most important - that "win" is a verb and never, never a noun.

When I first arrived at the Journal in 1951, the paper put me up at the Biltmore Hotel around the corner. It was more handsome and ornate then than it is now, and the best part was you could mosey down to the Falstaff Room, order a beer at the bar and put it on your hotel tab, picked up by the Journal. You didn't even have to note "Drink with news source" on your expense account.

It was at the old Biltmore where one October afternoon I sat in the bar as a rabid Brooklyn Dodger fan and watched the Giants' Bobby Thomson on grainy television loft "the shot heard 'round the world" into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds, clinching the National League pennant in that most memorable of all playoff games - for me, anyway. I discovered the other night that the Falstaff Room is no more, but then neither are the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The other night, too, after several hours at the governors' summer meeting in the city's convention center that was only some architect's dream 50 years ago, I dropped by the Journal to see my old habitat and maybe run into some old colleagues. The newsroom had been moved from the third to the first floor, all copy desks had gone the way of the typewriter age and all my old buddies had either retired or, as the Salvation Army likes to put it, been promoted to glory.

Downtown Providence, which was a wasteland amid dingy railroad tracks in those earlier days, is now a resurrected, bustling place, complete with a new outdoor ice-skating rink where the other night a ritzy contest of elegantly attired ballroom dancers held forth. Talk about experiencing culture shock.

Gone, however, is Manny Almeida's Gym where Rocky Marciano of nearby Brockton, Mass., used to work out. And gone too is Doorley's Bar across from the Journal, extending the length of a city block so you could walk in the entrance on Fountain Street, hoist a few as you worked your way to the other end gabbing with Journal printers and reporters, then depart by the door onto Washington Street.

They say you can't go home again. It's true that after so many years, things are bound not to be the same. But there always are enough memories left to be stirred by familiar sights, or the ghosts of them. No doubt the Providence of half a century ago was nothing to brag about, but through the eyes of a greenhorn reporter kicked off the dock for the first time, it looked pretty good then. And for all the glossy urban renewal since, the recollections of how it was still enrich the old town, and the fun of starting a lifelong adventure here, making a living by the printed word.

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