C.W. Gusewelle

The pen versus the sword versus the coffee

A steaming mug of coffee can satisfy in more than one way.
A steaming mug of coffee can satisfy in more than one way. KRT

The terrible events in Paris in recent days have underscored, in a chilling way, the truth that journalists — especially those who deal in provocative and controversial opinions — can never be entirely sure what sort of fury might next come through the newsroom door.

I began my newspaper life in a relatively civil time.

Readers who thought themselves offended expressed their displeasure in letters to the editor or, if sufficiently aggravated, by canceling their subscriptions.

In that antique era — well over 50 years ago — the possibility of violence did not even cross our minds. There were no guards at any of The Star’s four doors.

Visitors, invited or not, came and went freely. There was no signing in or signing out. An elevator took them directly to the second floor, where stories for the next edition were being written.

One might be carrying a news release he hoped to get published. Another intended to lobby for larger display of a daughter’s wedding picture on the society page. Still another came to voice displeasure about an error in an obituary.

None of them carried a gun. And some were luminous personages.

I’ll never forget the day a blond-haired man of imposing stature strode through the door and, moving with an air of great confidence, crossed the room to the publisher’s desk.

Newspeople are not generally smitten by celebrity. But I will never forget how on that day, as if in unison, nearly every soul in the room rose immediately from his or her desk, moved directly to that golden figure and gathered around him in unabashed admiration.

That man was the evangelist Billy Graham.

Another time it was David Douglas Duncan, the internationally celebrated photojournalist, born in Kansas City, who captured timeless images from the Korean conflict on film, and who was Pablo Picasso’s favorite photographer.

He was the first man I’d ever seen in a safari suit, and he looked the very personification of adventure. One couldn’t help wondering what war or jungle or unmapped desert he’d just returned home from.

Another memory came to me as I watched on TV the horrific ordeal of colleagues at that small publication in Paris, and it, too, is a recollection from 30 or more years ago.

It was midafternoon in the newsroom of The Star. An editor had just returned from the coffee bar with a steaming mug of fresh java and sat to resume working at his desk when from the elevator and through the newsroom door came two men, their boots thumping on the uncarpeted floor.

The larger of the two wore a brown shirt and an armband that flaunted the emblem of Hitler’s legions — a swastika in scarlet, black and white. He was the head of the Nazi party in the United States. The one with him evidently was a subordinate, or possibly a protector.

The editor looked up from his work and saw them standing over him. What followed was not a considered act. It was simply an immediate reaction to those men and that hateful insignia.

In a single reflexive motion, he flung his large cupful of coffee directly up at the leader, who gave a cry of dismay and fled with his flunky out toward the elevator.

But that wasn’t quite the last of it. Nazis do not take affronts lightly. Herr What’s-his-name got interviewed after all. He also called the police, and the editor — cited for disturbing the peace — paid a $25 fine.

Rather preposterous, I’d say, considering the amount of peace disturbance done by Nazis in their time.

I recall the event as one of the fine moments in American journalism. But this is a different day, and today our entryways are guarded and secured.

For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.