The Statesman’s Bittersweet Transition
Posted on November 29, 2020
(Tim Woodward’s current columns will alternate with previously published “Woodward Classics” for the duration of the pandemic.)
For many of us who worked there, this month’s news that The Idaho Statesman building will become a storage facility was like hearing that the house where you grew up will become a telemarketing center.
The Statesman building, at 1200 N. Curtis Road in Boise, has been sold an Eagle company that will convert it to storage units. Its new name will be StoreLocal.
Nothing against StoreLocal, but it’s a bittersweet transition for a building that housed the state’s largest newspaper for nearly half a century. The Statesman and the company that owns it, like most of the newspaper industry, can use the money. But when you think of all that happened in that building – all the stories, all the memories … Well, definitely bittersweet.
I’m one of the few people still around who moved into the building in 1972. My father, impressed upon meeting then Publisher Bob Miller in the lobby during the grand opening, took me aside and said that if I worked hard I might be able to have his job someday.
That could never have happened, but there were worse role models.
When a group of business people threatened him with pulling their pricey advertising over an editorial page column I’d written, Miller told them to go right ahead. They did, until they realized it was hurting them more than me. I could not have admired him more for that. It was a sad day when, many years and publishers later, he returned for a last look around. I pushed him into his former office in a wheelchair. Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he died not long afterwards.
It was the same office, at the very front of the building, where the editorial board met to interview Sen. Frank Church after he ran for president. Reaching to shake the senator’s hand, I spilled his scalding hot coffee into one of his shoes. He hopped around on one foot while trying to get the shoe off and I prayed to be struck dead. The most famous person in the state at the time, he couldn’t have been nicer about it.
The old building had its share of colorful employees:
One of the most unforgettable was the late Jim Poore, the paper’s longtime sports editor. Jim was 6 feet 3, tipped the scales at 325 and had a personality to match his physical dimensions. He was big-hearted, funny and could charm a fish out of water. When he wanted to explore some places he’d read about in a book called “Haunted Britain,” he charmed a penny-pinching boss into plundering the newsroom budget to send us to England to chase ghosts. No one else could have come close to pulling it off.
John Corlett was “the dean of Idaho political writers,” courtly, universally admired, ever dapper in a suit and tie.
Redoubtable Society Editor Betty Penson traveled the world for feature stories, dined with Emperor Hailie Selassie and used a bee, a pen and a sun (for B. Penson) as her byline.
Copy Desk Chief Gordon Peterson’s western shirts, cowboy hats and chaps belied his stature as a peerless editor and grammarian.
A city editor I won’t name was, when sufficiently provoked, notorious for throwing telephones and chairs.
Not to be outdone, a reporter, angered by having a travel request denied, thew a chair at the executive editor.
On the day the story broke about the building’s being sold, I happened to have an appointment nearby and stopped to look around. No one was there to let me in so I peered through a window at what had once been the newsroom, eerily dark and silent.
From a vantage point in the shrubbery below the window, I could see the place where my desk once had been. A flashback transported me to the day the paper’s top editor purposefully strode to my desk and laid a copy of that day’s paper on it. I braced for the worst, fearing I’d libeled someone, spelled the governor’s name wrong, caused a flood of canceled subscriptions …
The paper he laid on my desk was open to a full-page advertisement for two-week Amtrak passes.
“I want you to buy one of these passes and see how far you can get,” he said. “A story a day.”
It was one of the best assignments ever. I made it as far east as Putney, Vermont and as far south as Birmingham, Ala. In a small town in Arkansas, I stopped at the weekly newspaper, introduced myself to its elderly publisher, Laud Payne, and asked if there were any good stories to be had in those parts.
“You can write about me,” he replied. “I’m a good story.”
Indeed he was. As a young man, he helped Ernest Hemingway save the manuscript of “A Farewell to Arms” from a cabin fire.
The Statesman building itself was the setting for some hot stories. No one who was there will forget the day a new publisher arrived for his first day on the job to find the roof on fire.
Or the day the press caught fire.
Or the night we found Courts Reporter Jerry Schifferdecker on the floor of the men’s room, the victim of a fatal heart attack.
On a happier note, there were some memorable celebrations. One of the most notable came when the paper was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Cheers filled the newsroom the day The Statesman got an exclusive story with photos of then President Jimmy Carter rafting the Salmon River during a thunderstorm. Editors on the copy desk were struggling to come up with a headline when a reporter who was leaving for home after his shift slapped his forehead and shouted, “I’ve got it!”
“Hail on the Chief.”
So many memorable moments, so many colorful characters, so many wonderful stories. So much history happened in that old building that it’s impossible to remember more than a fraction of it.
Now it’s to be storage units. The Statesman itself, meanwhile, is looking to downsize. A metaphor for much of the print industry.