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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Margaret, you said there were some things to catch up on from yesterday. The first one you mentioned was that you wanted to talk about ethics and the whole concept of ethics during your tenure.
Richards: There are so many things that would be, I'm sure, banned now that were just accepted routinely when I was working. People gave you trips occasionally. I went on a great trip to Mexico City once by train, and another one all through the Pacific Northwest, and I was offered a trip to Tokyo, which I did not accept, but not for any ethical reasons at all. The company had no objection to this sort of thing, and I don't think that the people who provided it really expected any return favor. A lot of companies gave gifts at Christmastime to the whole press corps, not necessarily terribly valuable things.
Biagi: What kind of things would they give?
Richards: TWA, every year, brought in a whole batch of gifts from all over the world. TransWorld Airlines, it was. They brought in that little elephant right there, a gift from TWA. It's in sandalwood or something; I've forgotten what. All sorts of oddities that they had collected all over the world. Another company that did this a lot was Hallmark of Hallmark cards. I don't think they really expected anything in return for this, but certainly now this would be suspect. You couldn't do this. And sometimes politicians would do you favors.
I found out once what the price of my own ethics was, and it wasn't really all that great, except that my father, I'm sure—now that they'd say he had Alzheimer's Disease, and we didn't have private mental institutions like we do now, so he was going to have to go to a state hospital. Geographically, he was due to be sent to the hospital at Larned, which my mother did not want at all. She wanted him in the hospital at Topeka. So the governor miraculously arranged to have him sent to [Topeka]. I don't think I ever did anything in return for the governor.
Biagi: Did you ask?
Richards: Oh, yes! I wrote to him and called him on the phone and explained the whole thing. In fact, the sheriff took Dad to this hospital in his car, and when he arrived at his house, Mother said, "He's going to Topeka." The sheriff said, "Oh, no, he's not. He's going to Larned. I know." But when he opened his papers, it was for Topeka. I think Dad probably got somewhat better care, perhaps, than he would have if the staff hadn't known.
Biagi: Which governor was this?
Richards: I'm not going to tell you. I promised the man. He's long since dead, but I'm not going to tell you what his name was. I will say he was governor at the time and he later became a United States senator.
Biagi: Are there other ethical dilemmas you can think of where you were faced with making a decision between your own moral ethics? Did you ever portray yourself as other than a journalist, for instance?
Richards: Never did. Never did. Although I did say misleading things. If, for instance, I was trying to find out when Truman was arriving, let's say, and maybe they hadn't even announced he was coming, I'd say, "Say, can you tell me what time Truman's getting in?" This sort of thing, when I really was seeking confirmation that he was coming.
Biagi: Were there any other times when you had to pretend you were something? I know that at the turn of the century there were women who worked as child labor—
Richards: No, I never did anything like that, and I don't think I would have to that extent. The thing that I was thinking about decision-making was sometimes whether to withhold information, not because there was anything in it for me, but whether I wanted to make unfriendly disclosures about people or that sort of thing, whether I wanted to wound somebody or not.
Biagi: Were there times when what you wrote might harm somebody, might hurt somebody?
Richards: Oh, yes, I think so. I was kind of glad—well, that's kind of a horrible thing to tell, but on that Clutter killing that I mentioned to you before, the local undertaker—and boy, would the family have been shocked if they had known that—offered to take the press in to view those bodies which had been prepared for burial. I'm not going to describe them to you. Each of them had been shot in the head with a shotgun, so you can imagine. Of course, that was all concealed. But at any rate, I called New York and told them that we were going to be taken in to view these bodies and did they want a description of them, and they said no, they did not, which I was very glad of, because I certainly would have hated to be a party to that.
Biagi: Dealing with victims' families, you did that a lot?
Richards: Yes, quite a lot. One of the worst experiences that I can recall was that there had been a particularly sad drowning, and I thought enough time had elapsed that the little boy's parents would have been notified. When I called, I asked if he was at home. No, he wasn't. Well, in the course of the conversation, it became apparent to the family what had happened. That was the most painful thing I ever experienced, because I didn't intend to do it; it just happened that way.
Biagi: They didn't know?
Richards: No, they didn't know.
Biagi: Let's move on to another subject that you said you wanted to talk about, which was the use of the vernacular and a lot of words that may have split from the language today for today's journalists.
Richards: Yes. I think I mentioned "-30-". You said you were familiar with that.
Biagi: Meaning the end of a story.
Richards: Yes. By 1931, when I went to work, nobody that had been around longer than two weeks would have been caught dead using the word "-30-"—never! For instance, when a circuit went down, in the days when they did close at a certain hour, we'd drop some circuits. Some clients would drop off a wire at three o'clock, some would stay on till four. So if Wichita was going to get off at three o'clock, three o'clock would come and we'd say, "gn Wichita," which was simply, "Goodnight, Wichita." When the whole circuit went down, we would say, "gn all," which was plain enough, "Goodnight, all." I think "gn" is still used in the wire services, at least, to signal "good night." I don't know.
Biagi: You said "flash" was a word.
Richards: Of course, it was so misused by the public, everything was a flash, from the sale of Chevrolets up and down. But the "flash" was really a legitimate device, not frequently used. I remember the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Our operator had the buck so bad, he never did get the flash out on the wire.
Biagi: What did that mean, to get the flash out?
Richards: To punch it and send it. The flash was called by a newsman, but it was transmitted on all wires in the room, of course. The INS did the best job. They flashed, "FDR dead." Our operator was trying to say, "The president is dead." But he never did get [it]. A legitimate flash was always accompanied by ten bells. If you struck an upper-case "S" on a TTY [teletype] circuit, every place along that circuit would ring one bell for every time you struck upper-case "S." Well, a flash carried ten bells, which can make quite a racket. But at any rate, our operator never did get the flash out. After a flash, you did not resume sending whatever you were sending before. The wire had to stand idle until you had cleared a bulletin, putting the flash into sentence form. Flash was only to tell editors what was coming; that was its only purpose. A flash was never printed. But there was an era when all this was distorted, and everybody was talking about flash. "We've got the flash on so and so." That, of course, was not true.
Biagi: That was a pretty big story.
Richards: Oh, you didn't flash anything except the very biggest story. I mentioned Bill Dickinson a while ago. I remember yet, I was coming back from lunch one day and I was about a block away from the office, and I heard Bill boom out, "Calvin Coolidge dead!" I mentioned that to him not long ago, not too long before he died. Those things didn't come every day, but they were a fact of life, really.
Biagi: The bells were to get the editor's attention, obviously.
Richards: Yes. You ring ten. We had another deal; this is kind of related to the war. United Press had lost a man on the day of Pearl Harbor, who was disembarking at Hong Kong, I believe, someplace where there was a secondary attack. He just never showed up again and it was presumed he was dead. This went on for years. Did you ever hear of the Gripsholm?
Richards: This was a Swedish ship which was used to return Americans who had been interned in Japan back home. This man's name—I'm not even sure what it was, but I think it was Roger Wilson. He had been given up for dead several years past, his insurance had been paid off and everything. His wife, or widow, was living at Muskogee, Oklahoma. One day there's this tremendous ring of ten bells, ten bells, and ten bells again. When we dashed over there, there was a "95" message on the wire. Now, "95" message simply means "urgent." But it's accompanied by only the three bells that accompany all messages. At any rate, there was all this clatter of bells, and the message was, "KO, KO, KO. Oklahoma City. Notify Mrs. Roger Wilson that Roger is listed on the Gripsholm passenger list!" This was the first that she knew that he was still alive, and it had been literally years. That excited everybody. I never will forget that.
Biagi: "KO" meaning what?
Richards: Oklahoma City.
Biagi: Even more vernacular.
Richards: Every bureau has its call letters. I'm sure they still do.
Biagi: "KO" was backwards for "Oklahoma City," I guess?
Richards: I guess. I don't know why. Of course, today the Las Vegas bureau is "LV." I'm trying to think what the call letters for Sacramento are, if we still have it. "HC" is Los Angeles, "SX" is San Francisco. That's enough. Nobody cares.
Biagi: Anything else on the vernacular that you think we should remember?
Richards: Let's see. I spoke of the "95" messages and "73"s, didn't I?
Biagi: The "73"s were?
Richards: "Best regards." That's a Morse wire expression, I'm sure.*
Biagi: Now let's go on and talk about the thirties, because you said you wanted to talk about the Depression and also your coverage of Boss Pendergast, which you felt was very crucial.
Richards: Yes. Well, I don't know whether it's crucial.
Biagi: But good to remember.
Richards: I was going to talk first about the Depression, was I?
Biagi: Yes, if you'd like to.
Richards: Let me find my notes here. In the first place, I've always felt the term "unemployment" is a statistical kind of thing. It has no personal connotations about it. Of course, the awful aspect of the Depression was the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who had no jobs. I think in that era that they elected to call themselves "jobless," rather than "unemployed." Don't ask me why; I don't know. But this was the term. I think it's because they felt that maybe unemployment figures were just figures, whereas the term "jobless" was something else.
In spite of the fact that there were these hundreds of thousands of jobless people, there were very few that were visibly homeless, which seems strange at this era. What had happened was that the extended family all living together became very commonplace. There would be parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, everybody, all crowded together in one little household, because the housing shortage was really terrible.
Biagi: Was that your experience in Kansas City, that you really saw very few homeless people?
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: The jobless.
Richards: The jobless were everywhere. They were so visible. They sold pencils. They stood on street corners selling little things like pencils and apples, or maybe just plainly begging, or they came to your back door asking to work in exchange for food, or they came to your front door and they wanted to shovel the snow or mow the lawn, according to the season. You couldn't escape knowledge of the jobless. But the only people that you ever heard about that were homeless were the people called "gandys," which was an unpleasant word for "hobos," another one. A few of them lived beneath bridge abutments and in what was commonly called "hobo jungles."
* See the Richards appendix for a list of UP terms.
But they were very few in number, and I don't think there were any women among them, let alone children. I never heard of that. These included both itinerant workers who would have taken odd jobs, I suppose, and the people who didn't want to work.
Biagi: Within your own profession, were there situations or experiences you had of journalists who were jobless?
Richards: Yes, a few. There was a man named Root that finally got a job on the Journal Post. He had been on the New Orleans Item, and I remember yet that they paid him $12 a week. Now, of course, every June, thousands of new graduates joined this army of jobless. In 1931, I was one of them. But I was very lucky. I don't think I had been looking for more than a month when I lucked into this temporary job with United Press. I don't know whether I told you that it paid $17.50 a week at the time. This wasn't really too hard to get along on.
Biagi: The fact that they paid this other fellow $12, was that unusually low?
Richards: No. I thought about trying to really dredge my memory in trying to determine what that situation was, and I can't. But there was some sort of office during the war that set a minimum wage. I mean, you had to pay at least, I think, $12 a week in order to put somebody on the payroll. This was, of course, to keep from driving the wages clear down where people were working for nothing. But I remember that instance. I don't remember anybody else who was out of work too long or particularly suffering from it, as far as that goes.
I was lucky. I moved in with some family friends, friends of my parents, who lived in Kansas City, and they gave me board and room for $30 a month. When it came to clothes and cosmetics, you simply wore and wore and wore and wore the clothes that you had bought previously, or that your parents had bought for you. If you just absolutely had to have a lipstick, you went to Woolworth's and bought it instead of going to a department store—and you did without, for the most part, at least for short times.
Newly established households just had a very difficult time, because providing equipment was so hard, especially the big items like furniture. Jake and I had some newly married friends who rented an unfurnished apartment. He had just graduated from law school. I think he had passed the bar. But at any rate, for a time in their otherwise unfurnished apartment, they had in their living room only three things: two comfortable chairs and one floor lamp. When company came in, like casual friends—like me, I'd go in to see Doris—Cy would go to the back porch and drag in some orange crates, one or more orange crates that were kept there, and he'd put a pillow, an ordinary bed pillow, on top. Then he'd throw a large luncheon cloth over the whole works and line it up against a wall for back support. And really, you could sit on this fairly comfortably for a short time. I mean a very, very short time.
But nobody was embarrassed by this sort of thing because the penury of being out of work was so general that you didn't sense any stigma about it, although I guess there was some, because my folks sent me a $15 gift one day and I canvassed the want-ads and went out and bought a used sofa for $15. It was a pretty good sofa. That brown sofa, I can remember it yet, and it really did wonders for our living room. To be perfectly honest with myself, at this juncture I think it did a little something for my self-esteem, though I hadn't been aware of being humiliated by it.
Biagi: Let me ask you about something else we haven't talked about at all that becomes very prominent in the thirties, the competition between broadcast and print reporters. You have now this newly emerging radio medium. How did that fall into your life?
Richards: Of course we had the radio medium long before we had television.
Richards: You want an honest and frank—
Richards: I'll get run out of town, maybe. In my era, even after the television people were earning heaven knows how much times the amount that print reporters made, the print people always have looked down their noses at the electronic media.
Biagi: Was that pretty much true in the thirties, even then?
Richards: Maybe especially true in the thirties. United Press went into the radio business quite early. AP being controlled as it was by the print media that comprised its membership, they didn't get into that field for a long time after we did. But we set up this separate radio wire. The first time I ever saw Helen Thomas, come to think about it, she was at work in the Washington bureau on a Sunday, preparing split copy for the radio wire, is what she was doing.
They tried for years to make me radio editor for the southwest division, which is an eight-state area. Well, it wasn't that I didn't want my name associated with radio; that wasn't it. But I didn't want to work for free on all those Saturdays and Sundays and holidays that went with the job. The radio situation, to me, that came so much earlier than the television.
Biagi: Sure. Did they move copy differently?
Richards: It was all written differently. The radio copy supposedly was written in the present tense as much as possible. You frankly said "will" on the radio wire, where you could not very well do that in the print circuits. Yes, the writing was supposed to be entirely different. Of course, radio copy was supposedly much shorter, and you up-ended it split after split after split. I'm talking about the regional radio copy now. Of course, the radio wire operated on split, so that you could cut the—Chicago filed, through radio circuit, the general report, but all these points out along the line—Kansas City was another junior-grade relay point. You could cut Oklahoma off to itself and Texas off and Denver, Colorado, off. This was called splitting the wire. During those periods, of course, you moved state copy, or copy of particular interest to them.
Biagi: Did the radio reporters work any differently from you, or did they work alongside you?
Richards: Oh, no. Very frequently they moved from one desk. You had to double in brass if you worked for United Press! What do you mean, work alongside of you? [Laughter.] You ran from the Missouri wire to the west coast wire to the radio layout over to TTS. It was great for keeping your weight down.
Biagi: So you did all of it.
Biagi: So you wrote for radio, did you?
Richards: Oh, sure. You'll never find a United Press newsman that can't punch, at least not one from any of the outlying bureaus. I don't suppose that's necessarily true in Washington or New York.
Biagi: You were expected to do it all?
Richards: Yes, that's right. And you know, yesterday I gave the operators kind of a black eye. I remember I was talking about the man who wanted to take a word count all the time and wanted to make sure.
On the other side of that coin, there were some operators that were just great and were as good, or better, newsmen than the men on the news side of the desk. We had two that I think of in particular. Harry Capell, God love him, he worked opposite me on a night trick during the Second World War. Unless it was Harry working, I would not go to lunch, because the tape flowed in like the river Jordan, you know, I mean off of a jillion circuits, and you've got to move it on circuits that did not coincide with their opening, and there was a bulletin every twenty seconds and all this sort of thing. If you went to lunch and left this behind, you were in a mess when you got back. Not with Harry. You got back with Harry and he had moved all the bulletins ahead. He would sometimes kill out an entire lead because he would see a standing-free bulletin that he knew was going to be incorporated. He did a great editing job. Harry was great. Leo French was our perpetual dictionary. You didn't have to get up and consult Webster to see how you spelled something or other, because Leo always knew. Leo was a good editor, too. So there were operators like that, and I shouldn't have given them such a bad black eye.
Biagi: There are two terms you just used. "Kill out." What does that mean?
Richards: In the sense I used it, let's say they move a third lead slaying, and after they have cleared it, but while I'm still not back from lunch, here comes a bulletin saying that the suspect has been arrested. Well, Harry knew that third lead slaying was not going to stand, because obviously this called for a new top. "A new top" means a new lead. So he would kill out that whole third lead and wait for your return or wait for somebody to move the fourth lead, which then becomes the third lead on your circuit.
Biagi: And "standing-free bulletin"?
Richards: A bulletin that is not part of anything else. It's just there, just a bulletin.
Biagi: An example would be something like what?
Richards: Let me see if I can think of one. It really shouldn't be that hard. Let's take that flash, following the flash that Roosevelt was dead. You would have had Washington, "Franklin D. Roosevelt died today at Warm Springs." Now, at the moment it's sent, it's free-standing. That's a poor example, because that's going to be incorporated, undoubtedly. There will be adds on that, so it's really not free-standing. A bulletin that has no relation to anything presently on the wire—I mean any one piece that's on the wire.
Biagi: You talked a little bit there about writing and working in the newsroom. There are some people who consider themselves better reporters than writers, and some people who consider themselves—
Richards: I think I was good at everything. [Laughter.] No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding, of course.
Biagi: And there are those who think they are better writers than reporters. If you had to judge your skills in those areas, what would it be? Do you think you were good at everything?
Richards: No, I was kidding about that. I didn't get fired for anything. No, I would say I was adequate in most anything, maybe just barely adequate. I don't know. But I didn't have any particular preferences. I didn't like reporting all that much, I don't believe. For one thing, see, I can only talk about the Kansas City bureau, because that's where I worked.
But let's say that there is a big breaking story and we'll have four people with message paper, which is half sheet of copy paper, stacks of message paper in front of them, and they will be on the phone talking to, let's say, the FBI, the police department, general hospital, maybe a couple of other sources. Then there will be another person, usually me, sitting at a typewriter, and all of these people will pass their little message sheets, their little telephone messages, across to this central desk. That person tries to put everything into a reasonably logical shape, and they put it together.
Biagi: In one story.
Richards: In one story, the story out of all these little messages, such as, "Nesbitt says it was not 'Pretty Boy' Floyd," or whatever, you know. They'd pass all this across to me.
Biagi: So you were pretty good at that. Did you like doing that?
Richards: Yes, I liked that.
Biagi: Were you fast?
Richards: Yes, I was fast.
Biagi: What makes you say that?
Richards: Nobody could read it, of course.
Biagi: Oh, what do you mean?
Richards: My typing became terrible! Just awful. Just awful. That was another thing. Now, I can blame Harry Capell for that and all these other great operators. They fixed your copy. You never bothered, really, a lot of times. If you dropped the "M" out of "Smith," the operators, God love 'em, would put it in. If you misspelled a word, French would fix it before he ever transmitted it. So that ruined my handwriting, too. Of course, we worked with pencils and we just gave things this. I suppose everybody does that. But my handwriting was barely legible then, even to me, ten minutes after I wrote it. But they would fix it one way or another. Sometimes they would interrupt and ask you what you meant if they were in doubt. But they were good. They were said to be the highest paid—I don't mean ours; I think the AP operators drew the same pay—but they theoretically were the highest paid operators anywhere.
Biagi: You described a working environment that's very demanding. What did you do in your spare time?
Richards: What spare time?
Biagi: [Laughter.] Did you read and travel and take cruises?
Richards: No, I surely did not. That was after I retired. No, I tried to keep my household together, you know, and rear a kid. I don't remember, really. Well, the staff—this kind of dwindled off after I got so old. Maybe they were still having the parties and I didn't know it. But there were a great many UP or UPI parties. We'd meet at somebody's house or we'd go to the Crossroads or we'd get together. We had a lighted badminton court at our house, and there was a very frequent gathering of the clan on that badminton court. We did a lot of playing together.
Biagi: So your work friends became your social friends, too?
Richards: Yes, to a great extent.
Biagi: Later on when you had Clint, how did you manage the relationship between being a working mother and having a family?
Richards: Well, that would have been difficult, except I think I told you that we built an apartment upstairs for my husband's parents. They were there in that apartment for the first year and, of course, the first year after Clint was born. Then thereafter, we had a live-in babysitter until he was thirteen or fourteen years old, largely because housing was so hard to get and people were so glad to have an apartment to themselves.
Did I tell you about the difficulty? We were going to talk about wartime shortages, maybe. Did I tell you about the difficulty we had getting a bathtub for that thing?
Richards: There was only a half-bath up there. There was such a shortage of bathtubs. This is after the war now, barely after. You had to do endless paperwork and argue and try to pull strings and everything to get a bathtub! I mean, to get physical possession of a bathtub, used or otherwise, to put in up there. But that's why I was able to get along. And Jake was always awfully good about Clint, too. He took him a lot of places.
I have a picture of Clint when he was maybe two, maybe eighteen months old, and I had an awfully corny thing to have written on there now, but it was a glossy made by the UP photographer who was out there, and the caption is, "The youngest reporter on the Mother Truman death watch." Well, I had been out there anticipating Mother Truman's death, and Jake had brought Clint out to see me. But he was good about looking after him.
Biagi: Were you unusual in your neighborhood, both parents working?
Richards: Oh, yes. It was very unusual, yes.
Biagi: And your typical workday was?
Richards: It shifted. That's one reason why I say Jake was so good about this thing. During Greenlease [kidnapping case], I worked about eighteen hours a day every day for, I think, nine consecutive days. Same way in any emergency. There were other times. When Truman was in his last illness, I think that was a twelve-hour stint at the hospital. But there were no days off or anything like that, ever.
I retired just a little bit early. They asked me if I wanted to keep working after sixty-five, and all my life I dreaded retirement. I was amazed when I said, "No, I'm going to quit." But I thought I'd better quit before they had to carry me out in a basket, because I was just getting so tired. I retired, actually, a few months before I reached my sixty-fifth birthday, anyway. But that was because I got this obsession with the possibility of TWA dropping one in the middle of the Missouri River just by the ASB bridge, and I didn't think I'd have the vinegar to stay with it physically as long as I felt I was morally obligated to do.
Biagi: Chasing the fire engine got a little bit old, did it?
Richards: Well, it didn't get old, no. It's just that I became fearful that I did not have enough physical strength to stay with it as long as was required.
Biagi: So it really was pretty demanding?
Richards: Oh, very demanding. Oh, yes. I was trying to think of Lyle Schwilling's line. He had announced he was quitting, and they were trying hard to keep him from leaving. When they became real insistent, he said, "Well, I think I'd better quit while I still have my health. I'm just not up to this anymore," and he was thirty-three or thirty-four at the time! [Laughter.] Which is considerably younger than I was then.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: You said you wanted to talk about Boss Pendergast, so that will be our next subject here.
Richards: All right. He wielded practically total political power in Kansas City and Jackson County in the 1920s and 1930s. For considerable period during that interval, he actually controlled the entire state of Missouri, although this wasn't generally admitted to. He and his henchmen had built this empire basically on patronage and on largesse to the poor. Any poor person that wanted money or coal—he kind of specialized in coal, Pendergast did—and I understand you could go to Pendergast and he would give you the money for food or for coal, or he'd pay off your utility bill or whatever. He had a particular rapport with policemen. I never heard of any individual policeman who was accused of anything evil where Pendergast was concerned. But he and his people, the people under him, had made a fine art of vote fraud and kickbacks and privilege of every sort—payoffs, whatever.
Biagi: What was his official title?
Richards: He was a member of the City Council, but not all the time. His official permanent title was chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club. He controlled and manipulated the strings of government from a tiny little cubicle of a room in a nondescript building at the edge of the business district. But he operated two other offices from which he ran two companies, a wholesale liquor business and a ready-mix concrete business. The concrete business, of course, was wonderful. It paid fantastic profits because the county, the city, and the state bought megatons of the product. But the first scandal that broke about him, really, was the vote fraud.
Biagi: What year would that have been?
Richards: Who knows? Way before my time.
Biagi: In the twenties?
Richards: Yes, in the twenties sometime, I suspect, or maybe 1930. At any rate, there were literally tens of thousands of names on the registration lists that were taken fresh from tombstones, and the biggest fraud in this category was in the river wards, or what was commonly called the North End. But the irony of all this was that really this vote fraud was not to win an election. Most political analysts believed the Pendergast forces would have won handily anyway. The ghosts voted because of competition between the ward heelers, the precinct captains and the ward captains. Who could turn in the biggest majority and get the biggest patronage out of Pendergast was what all that was about.
But Pendergast dearly loved to gamble, and his favorite spot was the Riverside Racetrack, which was just across the river from Kansas City. While that was his favorite spot, he gambled really all over the country by phone, bet on the horses all the time.
Biagi: When did you and he begin to have a relationship?
Richards: I wouldn't know the man if he walked through that door! This was purely a matter of phones, and sometimes this was difficult to get in, and grand-jury reports, things of this kind. Pendergast the man, I did not know that well. A federal investigator said that he gambled,
in one year, 1935, he gambled, I believe it was $2 million, and he lost $600,000. So this was his beloved avocation, the horses.
He did not stay clear of trouble, really. Out of his regime, the county got a brand-new courthouse. The city got a new skyscraper, City Hall. You could imagine how much concrete went into these structures! Then, finally, Pendergast paved Brush Creek. Brush Creek is usually a trickling stream that meanders through some of the finest residential and business districts in Kansas City, including the still upscale and still fashionable Country Club Plaza. Brush Creek goes right through it. At any rate, Pendergast had Brush Creek paved. [Laughter.] This just struck the populace as horrible! You must have been able to hear the cries without benefits of phones from New York. But this subsided very quickly because the people finally realized that paving this open sewer, if you want to call it that, in a way, was an absolute and an urgent necessity. So that died down quickly.
There was also some outcry over the vote fraud, but nobody ever took it very seriously. For one thing, you could not get elected dog catcher in Kansas City unless Pendergast endorsed you. It was widely believed that he controlled the people that he backed for office, or at least influenced them. This was the general perception of what went on. But you couldn't possibly win without his endorsement, and he was wrong about controlling people in at least one instance, or maybe he himself was fooled. He sent Harry S. Truman to the United States Senate with his blessing, and in later years after Truman was in the Senate, of course, everything he did, past or present, was under microscopic examination by the Republicans and everybody else. But nobody ever was able to find one thing that he had done.
What else was I going to tell you about that? Oh, I was going to say that I didn't finish up with Pendergast at all. It wasn't the vote fraud, nor the conflict of interest or anything like that that finally brought him down; it was a payoff to him direct of, I believe they said, $350,000 he got in a personal kickback out of a state of Missouri fire insurance scandal in 1929. Well, it took them ten years to unravel that, but ten years later he was indicted for income tax evasion. He was sentenced to fifteen months in prison and fined $5,000. He was ordered to pay the IRS $430,000, I think it was.
At any rate, he served less than a year, but when he was released, he was a broken man and he just came home to die. He did die on January 26, 1945, at which time he was seventy-two years old and he was still on probation from this scandal that had collapsed his empire. Harry Truman, vice president by this time, flew home to the Pendergast funeral mass at Visitation Church. This really could have been a serious political problem for Truman under the circumstances, but his return was so Trumanesque. Friends and neighbors knew him as a man who never, never forgot a favor and he never forgave a grudge, or seldom did. So that really wasn't all that surprising. [Tape interruption.]
As the years went on, the community's memories of Pendergast mellowed quite a bit, and the clan, comprised of his relatives, grew both in numbers and respect. In 1990, Mike Pendergast, who was a great-nephew of Boss Tom, was the Jackson County collector. Also in 1990, a move was under way to have his tiny little office in his nondescript building added to the list of National Register of Historic Places. Doesn't that get ya?
Biagi: Well, it did have some historic significance, wouldn't you say?
Richards: Oh, yes. It was a very important fact of life in Kansas City.
Biagi: How many stories would you say you wrote about him and about all those events?
Richards: Oh, I have no idea. See, one thing I was going to point out about strange life in the wire services is you never see your own copy in print unless somebody sends you tear sheets.
Because you're working in this town, and that paper is going to carry its own copy on whatever goes on there, so your copy shows up in Timbuktu, if at all. If you don't happen to have a friend in Timbuktu, you never see it. That's the only way you get tear sheets back is when some friend sends them to you or maybe somebody in the nearby bureau, something like that. But you do not routinely see your own copy in print.
Biagi: Did you cover his trial then?
Richards: No, I don't remember the trial, so I must not have. Wait a minute. Did I say trial?
Richards: No. He pleaded guilty. What am I thinking about? He pleaded guilty in the end.
Biagi: So there wasn't a trial.
Biagi: There was just a hearing or something?
Richards: He just entered a guilty plea.
Biagi: You reported on that?
Richards: Oh, yes.
Biagi: That brings up an interesting point. Wire service people are known for covering breaking news. Were there stories that you actually broke that were your stories, that you felt you had initiated? Or was your main responsibility to cover what went on?
Richards: Yes. I initiated them, maybe. Let me see if I can think of one. I'm sure the answer to that is yes. I talked a little bit about Harry Nesbitt's study of the gangs long afterwards. This was by my request. New York asked me some silly question that I couldn't answer, and I called Harry about this and said, "Look. Why don't you figure out, now it's over and done, sit back and look at this stuff?"
So he said, "All right. I'll drag out the files." So he did, and out of that I got everything that was in this about the gangs, really because I preserved that tear sheet. But I initiated that story in that sense.
It depends on what you mean by "initiate." I can remember going out to central Kansas on a story about the Amish that I enjoyed very much. There was a fight up around Liberty, Missouri, over preservation of the old Jesse James family farm, and some people wanted him written off as the villain he was, and others wanted to romanticize him and preserve this place. Well, I went up there and promoted that fight. [Laughter.] To some extent. But no big stories that I initiated.
Biagi: Did you spend most of your time in the bureau, physically in the bureau, or were you out and about?
Richards: That's one of the realities of life, another one of the wire services. You do not staff anything but the most important stories or the most interesting stories. You don't have the people to do that, and either your staff gets on the phone or some stringer covers it or something like that.
Biagi: So you really were in the office, so to speak, most of the time?
Richards: Oh, yes, most of the time.
Biagi: Describe what that looked like, where you worked, in the thirties.
Richards: In the thirties, right at first. Well, we were on the third floor, the top floor, of what was once a factory building. There were windows wall to wall and ceiling to floor, almost, on the west and on the north. You can imagine how the sun came in those west windows. On our side of the south partition was a row of dynamos which you had to have in that era in order to provide power for the TTY [teletype] circuits.
Biagi: What's a dynamo?
Richards: You got me. I don't know. It's a big round thing on a stand, and it whirs and it throws out heat as you go by. It's like passing an open oven.
Biagi: Oh, like a heater?
Richards: Yes. But this row of dynamos was on the bureau side of that partition. On the other side were the furnaces where the Journal Post melted their type metal. In the summertime, the temperature in that bureau just went through the ceiling. One summer we kept a thermometer in there until the powers that be took it down, in the interest of improving morale. [Laughter.] But it registered, I think, 114 every day for a long time. Of course, that goes on here all the time. But we thought it was awfully hot.
Biagi: Did you have a particular desk, or did you just work at any desk?
Richards: I have the chair that I sat in for forty years. When I retired, they had reupholstered it two or three times over the years, and they put a plaque of the chair where the support is that has my name on it and says, "UPI Reporter, 1931-1974," and gave me this chair at my retirement reception. But, no, you don't have an individual desk. I kept a drawer in Sam Hales' desk where I kept certain personal items, but you don't have a desk because you work all these positions simultaneously.
The business of wire filing in that era was much more complex. To cite a specific case, the night wire from New York opened at three o'clock. The wires which Kansas City relayed opened at five o'clock. The New York circuit was a double trunk—two wires. So you had accumulated, when your wire opened, you already had an accumulation of four hours of copy staring you in the face.
Biagi: So the relay job was—
Richards: The relay operation was quite taxing. They had a rule that anytime a relay was in operation, there had to be somebody present who had at least five years' experience. Now, who cooked up that rule? I don't suppose it stood up for very long. When the pinch really came, I suppose they abandoned it. But I screamed like a Banshee the entire time I worked at night, and there was somebody else that wanted that job, but they did not meet that five-year requirement.
Biagi: Did they ever ask you to take a management job?
Richards: Oh, they asked me to take that Kansas City bureau at ten, two, and four every day, practically! Yes. And they asked me to take a division editor's job—not the division; news editor. But the division radio editor, that was an eight-state division. I think they would have given me anything. Well, no, I don't mean that if I had aspired to be president of the company—
I don't mean that at all. But I never asked for anything that—of course, I didn't ask for anything, so what do I know what I could have gotten?
Biagi: What was offered? They offered you different editors' jobs.
Richards: In fact, they let me get by with a refusal of transfer repeatedly. In that era, if you worked for a wire service, you went where they told you to work and no screaming about it. You just packed up your belongings and left. But they ordered me to Dallas one time, the first time I ever said no. They ordered me to Dallas at the time, in fact, that the Kansas City relays went out. They eliminated, or re-jiggered them. At any rate, they ordered me to Dallas, and I first said I would try, and Jake, God love him, went to Dallas to see what the situation was like down there, and concluded that he couldn't take any part of the situation in Dallas, although he had jobs offered him.
So we came back home and I said, "I'm sorry. I can't go to Dallas."
And the division manager's response was, "Well, we're sorry to lose you. You've been a good employee and we'll be sorry to see you go."
So I said, "What time will this be effective?"
Biagi: What year was this?
Richards: This was probably about the time of World War II, about 1945. At any rate, several weeks went by and nothing was said about my being terminated or anything. Finally, I said, "Look. I want to look around for another job. How much longer do I have here? I don't want to leave before I have to, but I have to be finding another job."
He just laughed and said, "Well, if you won't work anywhere else, you'd just as well work in Kansas City." So I stayed. Then they offered me transfer to Washington, D.C., and to New York, Jefferson City, Dallas, as I said. And if I had wanted, I feel—now, I could be wrong, but I don't think I'm that wrong—I think I could have said, "Look. I want to be transferred to New Orleans," or Timbuktu or whatever, and they probably would have granted it. I really think they would have.
Biagi: Why did you decide not to take the editors' job when they were offered?
Richards: Because I knew what that would work out to. A disaster happens or for some reason Kansas City needs three times as many people as they've got, who do they call on to work overtime? Well, they call on everybody to work overtime, but who doesn't get paid for it? The titled people. They not only don't get paid for it, but they probably work more overtime than the rest of the people. Sounds very mercenary, doesn't it?
Biagi: No, it doesn't. You knew the reality.
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: Did it have anything to do with your family responsibilities?
Richards: Well, definitely. It was my family that kept me in Kansas City all those years. I simply did not want to leave Kansas City. This was my home and had always been my home, and I was just not about to be transferred out of Kansas City.
Biagi: Jake at this time was working in Kansas City?
Richards: Oh, yes. He's always worked in Kansas City.
Biagi: And his job there was? We didn't discuss that.
Richards: He was sales manager for a paint manufacturer.
Biagi: He did that for a long time?
Richards: He was with one company twenty-eight years.
Biagi: We talked a little bit about World War II and what it meant to Kansas City. Do you want to stop now and take a rest?
Richards: Whatever you say.
Biagi: If you're ready to go on, we can.
Richards: What was I going to say? At the moment I don't think about what I was going to tell you about what went on on the homefront in Kansas City.
Biagi: You talked about rationing.
Richards: Yes. And something else I want to tell you before we leave. I would like to talk about the flood before we're through.
Biagi: Okay. We'll get to that.
Richards: That was probably the most spectacular story I ever covered, was the flood.
Biagi: All right. Do you want to talk about that now or do you want to wait?
Richards: Let's go through the war years and get that out of the way.
Biagi: Okay. How did the war affect the bureau?
Richards: Like it affected every other business. The whole economy was in an upheaval and so was the individual workplace. Especially the men moved out of there very fast. Of course, it brought a tremendous influx of women everywhere, not only in the war plants where Rosie the Riveter became so famous, but in less rugged workplaces.
Biagi: Did that happen in the bureau?
Richards: Oh, yes. There was this big exodus of men. That was when, I think, ultimately all the men left. They weren't replaced entirely by women, but other men came in. There was this constant shifting. Really, though, life on the homefront was not as uncomfortable as you might anticipate, although there were serious shortages of various kinds of food and housing, which I mentioned before, and other things. Meat and sugar, for instance, were both rationed. As far as I know, there was no black market. However, you could trade ration points. Like we didn't need very much sugar, but we liked lots of meat, so we'd trade off sugar points for meat points. The thing that I felt personally the most was gasoline. That gives me the horrors when I think what we may be heading into here. Most people—or maybe I should say a lot of people; I never took a count—didn't really have enough gasoline to even take a short outing on a Sunday afternoon. You stayed home and read or played cards or maybe went for a walk.
Biagi: Was there any rationing in the bureau of personnel?
Richards: Well, you just hoped they'd ship somebody in that could both read and write. Yes, you did. [Laughter.] Sometimes it was a touch-and-go proposition.
Biagi: You began to wonder about some?
Richards: Yes, you surely did.
Biagi: Is there any particular case you can remember of somebody who was particularly difficult?
Richards: Yes, I can remember a boy who was literally a baron from the Netherlands—literally! And I mean he did not know from up. He was the most ignorant human being I ever encountered in my life. I finally told some superior that I had had all I could take of this.
Biagi: Were there examples of that?
Richards: Oh, yes. And in the interest of racial unity and respect, I primarily hired one. A man came in for me to interview, sent there by somebody in New York because they thought he would make a good wire service hand, maybe. He came in. His grammar was appalling! He did not know the difference between a singular verb and a plural verb. His teeth were haggledy. He had on an almost ragged suit that he had picked up somewhere. Well, he was just a complete misfit. But I interviewed him like they said, and after the interview—I think it was Gene Gillette called me from New York and said, "What do you think? Should we hire this man?"
And I said, "If you want my honest opinion, no, not unless you've got somebody breathing down your neck and we have to have a black. I certainly can't recommend him." So the next thing I know, he's on the payroll. They hired this man purely to get a brownie point for their racial balance.
And another one, we had one in Kansas City and he was the son of an Army colonel who was stationed at Olathe, or lived at Olathe. He was retired. That was it. The boy was out of school. He had graduated from Northwestern, I believe, and we thought, "Well, now here's a man that's got some of the difficulties polished off by now. This is our man. This guy will work out all right." He came to work and he lasted like two months, and they had to fire him. This probably is not at all a diplomatic thing to say, but it's the livin' truth—he would not show up for work. He just wouldn't show. He wouldn't call or anything. They tried and tried to deal with him about this, and I tried. I remember one instance when he had left us in the lurch under terrible circumstances, and he said, "Well, that's all right. You don't have to pay me. I don't expect to be paid if I'm not here." You know, I never could get through to him. I could tell by the look on his face that he just did not understand that it wasn't a matter of paying him; it was reliability that we had to have. So we had to let him go.
Biagi: Was that during the war years?
Richards: No, this was much later. They had sort of selected him in a way because, as I say, his father was a retired Army officer and we figured that he probably had had some advantages that would be helpful. But it didn't work at all.
Biagi: Going back to World War II now, in the bureau, about how many reporters were there before the war started?
Richards: Oh, it varied so from week to week and day to day according to who had got mad and quit, and who had thought better of it and come back. But let's say twenty-five, maybe, maybe thirty, depending on the circumstances.
Biagi: Let's say that's 1939 or so, or '40. You were the only woman there out of that number?
Richards: Yes, that's right.
Biagi: So then when the war broke out and there was this exodus of men, roughly what was the composition at that time?
Richards: There was one brief interval when there was a total of three women in the bureau.
Biagi: Out of how many reporters? Still twenty-five?
Richards: There were probably twenty at the outset, and then we went down to fifteen, and then we went down to probably ten. I don't really remember. But there was this constant flux in there all the time.
Biagi: Who were the other two women in there with you?
Richards: One was Virginia Tieman. She was real great. She married another Unipresser. The other was Jo Hoffman Hewitt.
Biagi: That was the most you ever had?
Richards: At one time. Yes.
Biagi: Then when the war was over, did they stay?
Richards: Those same ones didn't. There was another one in there, though I think she came later than those two I mentioned. There was a Joan Hoelscher, and she was a recent graduate from Kansas State University. Oh, she loved the pay and all that sort of stuff. She loved the work, but she hated that working weekends. So ultimately she quit and took a job on a trade publication here in town, Box Office magazine, I think it was. I saw her years after that on the street, and she said, "Oh, I made such a terrible mistake." Not that she would have been rolling in wealth if she had stayed with United Press, but I think she said that she would have been making about three times as much if she had just foregone the dances at Kansas State University.
Quite often we had people who returned. There was a man named Jay Wells, and he got tired of that rat race and resigned. However, this was before the war. He was gone when I came there. One day Jay Wells walked into that place and said, "I'm going to write the night lead. I've just been up at that lynching at Maryville, Missouri," and he came in, he wrote that story. They had lynched a black man who was accused of raping a schoolteacher. They hanged him from the schoolhouse rafters. Isn't that gross? But at any rate, Jay had been up there. And what did he do when it was over? He came back to Kansas City, wrote his copy, hung up his coat, and never left.
Biagi: When was that?
Richards: This would probably have been maybe '35, maybe '36. I don't really know for sure, and I don't know what finally happened to him. He disappeared. I don't know what prompted that. But I know that he couldn't take it. I think in the interval he had been selling insurance or something else that he had not enjoyed.
Biagi: So those are the women that you can remember at any one time working in the bureau at that time.
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: None of them stayed after the war?
Richards: Oh, yes. Virginia Tieman married a Unipresser who was stationed in Dallas, Judd Dixon. He was the division sports editor. Virginia moved to Dallas with him, and I don't think worked anywhere after that. As far as I know, she didn't. I got letters from her all the time.
Biagi: Were there women, moving into the fifties, in that bureau with you?
Richards: See, I get confused about dates. We had a great little girl named Til Haggerty. Her name, I think, was really Matilda. She was a really talented young woman. She was there, I remember, because she and I were both assigned—I was assigned and she went along—to cover the wedding of Margaret Truman, Mr. Truman's daughter. This was one of the worst, absolute worst, assignment decisions that New York ever made. They just saw the name of a female, you know. [Laughter.] They said, "Oh, that Margaret Richards. Maggie is the very one to cover this wedding."
Biagi: Why was that a bad decision?
Richards: I didn't know then—and don't know today—the difference between corduroy and peau de soie. That's why! [Laughter.] Til didn't either, as a matter of fact. So the way we got out of that dilemma was that they hired the fashion director of Harzfeld's store, which was the plushest women's apparel store in Kansas City. She stood at my elbow and described the gown for me.
Biagi: Very useful.
Richards: Otherwise I could only say, "Well, it's hiked up on one hip." [Laughter.]
Biagi: Let's go back to World War II here.
Richards: Oh, you want to stay on track.
Richards: The most [women] I think there ever were in the bureau at one time was a total of three, me and two others.
Biagi: What was the primary role of that Kansas City bureau during the war?
Richards: We were still a relay point in part. Not the major relay point that we had been, but we were still a relay point. The handling of this copy, because there were so many bulletins all the time, you couldn't get a lead out of the way until another one came in, that sort of thing. And then our coverage area was the state of Kansas and the western half of Missouri. But, of course, UP or UPI was never one to quibble over boundaries. No bureau was ever staffed for an emergency. So when an emergency occurred, they sent two people in from Denver and one from Oklahoma City and this sort of thing, and they sent us out in the same way.
Biagi: Was your experience during the war years that there were a lot more women working, in general, in Kansas City?
Richards: Oh, sure! Oh, sure. Sure. The war plants, where Rosie the Riveter became so famous, yes, they were full of women. I think that was generally true. I think women were moved in everywhere in previously unfrequented fields.
Biagi: What is your impression of what happened when the war was over?
Richards: Of all these women, I'd say about half of them turned out to be good newsmen. The other half, maybe and maybe not. And that other half that was maybe not, they mostly drifted into something else. One thing, working in a bureau in that era was so very, very dirty physically. We worked with eight copy books with ditto carbons separated by flimsy. This carbon came off all over your hands and, of course, from your hands you got it on your face and you got it on your clothes and you got it everywhere. From that standpoint, if you were going out anywhere, you really had to do a clean-up job. I kept a hat and a pair of gloves and sometimes a wig at the office all the time against having to go to federal court or whatever, you know.
Biagi: You couldn't work in those clothes, is what you're saying.
Richards: No. I suppose I could have worked in the hat, but I kept so that I could clean up. I don't remember that I ever kept it, although if I knew I was going out and had to look presentable, I'd take a dress or I'd wear the dress I was going to wear out, like you might take a house dress with you.
Biagi: You said you knew of, and worked with, John Cameron Swayze.
Richards: Yes. He never worked for United Press, but he had an office. In fact, he was a book reviewer, I think, among other things, for the old Kansas City Journal Post. And also he used to do newscasts for a radio station, WHB, and he kept a microphone on the Universal desk in the United Press bureau. Whenever anything was going on, he would come in there and pick up his copy and this sort of thing. So did Jack Morehead behind him. But at any rate, this is where I knew John Cameron Swayze. His closest associate on the Journal Post was a man named Tom Collins, who became a very good friend of mine through a good many years, and I knew him better, really, than I ever knew John Cameron Swayze. I don't feel that Swayze stayed there very long after I came, though I can't really be sure about that. I don't remember. And I don't remember just where he went, either.
Biagi: Let's move on to another subject that you said you wanted to talk about, which was the flood that happened.
Richards: Yes, the flood. Truman called it "the most destructive disaster by water in the nation's history," which I really believe it to be. The head of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, a man by the name of [Major] General Lewis Pick, placed the damage at $1 billion. Now, remember that that billion dollars, in terms of what it was worth then, it would be worth a lot more than a billion today. But at any rate, the principal culprit in all this disaster was the Kansas River, which nobody ever heard of that lived anywhere near it. It was the Kaw to everybody else, and to heck with the Kansas legislature, which somewhere back in time had decided the river should be called the Kansas. Indeed, all the maps designated it as the Kansas, and it is officially the Kansas. The only thing is, nobody knows what river you're talking about.
Biagi: What did you say it was? What river is it to everybody else?
Richards: The Kaw. The Kaw took forty days of rain, and its tributaries.
Biagi: What year is this now?
Richards: This is 1951, the summer of 1951. It had already gone through—oh, I don't know, probably fifteen or twenty sizable Kansas communities before the climax came. I'm looking for that copy now, because there are a lot of figures in here.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: We can continue now with our discussion of the flood in 1951.
Richards: I've already said that Pick said it cost a billion dollars, and that was a lot of money in that era. In the course of its rampage across two-thirds of Kansas, it overran 250 million acres and more than 150 communities that lay in the flood plain along the way. The climax came on Friday the thirteenth, when it battered down the flood walls that were protecting Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas. The oddity about this, or the tragedy about this, was that right up to the very last minute, both the engineers and the weather bureau insisted that there was no danger to Kansas City, that community, the flood walls were too high, they were too sturdy, the river wasn't going to get them.
Well, on Thursday night, a spokesman for the U.S. Corps of Engineers told the United Press, specifically me, by phone that, "The civil authorities are hysterical. There's no danger to Kansas City." Well, this was because the civil authorities had ordered the evacuation of the low-lying areas and the engineers just insisted this was not correct.
Biagi: How long a period of time are we talking about, from the time it started to be a danger?
Richards: To Kansas City?
Richards: I suppose when it was battering Topeka, way upstream, but I don't know. He told me this on Thursday night, and just ten minutes later after he told me this, the flood walls protecting the Argentine district of Kansas City, Kansas, collapsed and this torrent poured into this area of railroad facilities and grain elevators and industrial plants of one kind and another. That was Thursday night.
Then it hit Armourdale, which is an industrial community, and a community of hundreds of very neat little houses, hundreds of them. They had a lot of industry in Armourdale, too. That levee failed.
Then at about mid-morning on Friday morning, July 13, it smashed down the walls protecting Kansas City, Missouri, central industrial district, which was one of the most concentrated and one of the richest industrial areas in the entire midwest. It housed limitless kinds of industry. Water thirty-five-feet deep and more poured into the Kansas City stockyards and drowned literally thousands of head of animals. For hours after the flood broke, you could see horses, even, and lots of cows and hogs swimming in the water, which was, as I said, was thirty-five feet deep.
Biagi: Did you go out to cover this?
Richards: Oh, sure. Sure. Oh, yes. This is a horse of a different color when this one comes. At any rate, the engineers said that this water was moving at a rate of half a million cubic feet of water per second. Well, of course, the water quickly picked up every kind of debris, and the debris became battering rams that leveled a lot of things. After it was over—I'm jumping a little bit here—the engineers said afterwards that this flood destroyed 2,500 homes, damaged 25,000 others, and forced the evacuation of 87,000 people.
A lot of people referred to this as a bureaucratic debacle, because the engineers blamed the weather bureau, saying that it was the weather bureau's responsibility to determine how much water was coming, and the weather bureau blamed the engineers for not knowing the strength or the capacity of the levees and flood walls. Altogether, in the end, suits totaling millions of dollars were filed against the government, but the government won in every instance and nobody ever collected a dime.
The force of this water leveled factories and warehouses and poured all sorts of stuff into the flood. I remember the specifics. There was mayonnaise in there and flour and wallpaper paste, and every kind of thing that you can imagine was poured into this thing. Some of these animals made it to safety, but the vast majority did not, and their carcasses piled up to such an extent that in some places they barricaded streets down there. The estimates ran as high as 15,000, but that probably was not that many. There was a hastily organized disaster corps, equipped with gas masks, and that outfit hauled away 5,000 dead animals.
Biagi: What was your role in all this?
Richards: I was mainly a reporter. What I would do, I would go down into the flood area and pick up the information that I could, and then I would phone the spot information such as, "The CID [Central Industrial District] levee has been breached," and somebody would do the spot copy on the basis of this. Then I would go into the bureau and write feature-type copy maybe at the end of that stint. But I did both things.
Rats by the thousands somehow escaped this disaster, and they prowled the flood area. Authorities used rat poison in such quantities that they literally prepared it in concrete mixers, because they had so much of it and, of course, they didn't have time. The health people set up stations for typhoid shots on an assembly line basis. Jake was down there. The people he worked for were in the flood area. He went down there in a rowboat and crawled in a second-floor window in order to retrieve records that they thought they could not lose.
Then fire came along. The menace of fire was as bad as the menace to health, really, I think. A tank of fuel oil somehow broke loose from its moorings and crashed into a high-voltage line and touched off an inferno. Well, of course, the tank ruptured and burning oil went everywhere, and it touched off other cars of flammables. Seven square blocks of industrial property burned to the waterline. The firemen used flood water. Now, why they used water on an oil fire, don't ask me; I don't know. But they used the flood water itself to try to fight these flames. The city water service had failed completely when the huge Turkey Creek pumping station went out, and there wasn't anything but a trickle of water coming out of open faucets anywhere on high ground in the city, which meant, of course, that if a major fire had broken out anywhere else—the city officials never would admit it, but, as they say, my sources said that they had drawn up contingency plans for the dynamiting of surrounding property, which would have been the only way they could control it.
Biagi: In all this horrible devastation, did anybody die?
Richards: Well, I was getting to that. There were relatively few deaths. The engineers said that from the time Big Creek flashed out of its banks in Hays, Kansas, until the Kaw disgorged its load into the Missouri 250 miles downstream, in that whole time there were only eighteen deaths. There have been much less ruinous floods that have caused a lot more fatalities. The engineers credit fast communication with this. The weather bureau and most everybody else credited those hysterical civil officials who ordered the evacuation.
Biagi: Who do you credit?
Richards: Well, are you asking me a serious question?
Biagi: Yes! [Laughter.] What's your answer?
Richards: The civil authorities. The engineers were falling over their feet the entire time. [Laughter.]
There are two scenes, looking back on all that, that I can recall the most vividly. With both of these, it's just as if it were yesterday. I see a group of elderly people standing in front of a window on a hilltop building in Kansas City, Kansas, overlooking the Armourdale flood, and they were looking for some landmark that would tell them where to look for the roofs of their little houses. I knew even then where their little houses were. When those flood waters went down, there wasn't a recognizable house; it was nothing but just piles of rubble. At that moment, of course, I knew even then that it was rubble beneath about thirty-five feet of water, and that they'd never see their houses again as such. But I remember that with a good deal of sadness.
The other scene that I remember so well—and at the time I was worried about that, too—was the sight of a fox terrier dog who was floating peacefully along on top of a floating boxcar. He looked dry, which I'm sure he wasn't, but from where I was he looked dry and he looked totally calm. He was just as calm as you please. Occasionally, over forty years now, I've thought about that little dog and wondered if he made it, and I still hope he did.
Biagi: When you are covering a story like that as a reporter, it's obviously a fast disaster that comes all at once. What are some of the kinds of things you have to remember, to be a good reporter and to get the story?
Richards: Probably more than I was ever able to remember. There's another thing. We did not have tape recorders. I'm not talking about fine electronic gear; I'm just talking about that $25 tape recorder that you can buy. Of course, they came in long before I retired, but we didn't have any tape recorders. I do not write shorthand. Isn't that terrible? I can barely read my own writing, anyway. But the operators were pretty good. They could read my writing better than I could. Well, you just take notes as fast as you can, I guess. Except for speeches, I don't think I took many notes except on figures and names and things like that. I don't really know for sure.
Biagi: Other than that, what about reporting on a disaster? What's important to remember about being a good reporter, how to work, what to pay attention to, what to look for? What were you looking for when you went out on those kinds of stories?
Richards: I don't think I ever knew specifically what to look for on any story. How are you going to know in advance what you're going to run into? Of course, I can remember one instance when I dashed out of the bureau about three or four o'clock in the morning one time on a police report that two people had been shot to death. The bodies were in a car over to the west of the bureau there, and I went down there, and, indeed, they were very dead. The police were looking for the husband of one of the victims. For some reason—now, I did not say this; I came to myself—but I had a preconception that the killer was outside the car. I just went in with the assumption that somebody had shot them from outside the car. He hadn't; he had been in the car at the time. But if you go in with a preconception like that, it seems to me you're likely to fall over your own feet before you're through.
Biagi: What are you looking for when you get out there? What makes a good reporter? I guess that's what I meant.
Richards: I haven't the faintest! I'll try to get a little experience and let you know later. [Laughter.]
Biagi: I think you know more than that.
Richards: No, I don't know. I don't know anything to put into words. Of course, you have to be observant all the time and you have to try to eliminate your own prejudices, your own fears, all of those things. You have to sort of get out of yourself.
Biagi: What do you mean by that?
Richards: Forget about yourself and think only about the thing you're supposed to be reporting.
Biagi: Pay attention?
Richards: Yes. Sure.
Biagi: Were you ever in a situation where you forgot about yourself and put yourself in any danger because you forgot what was going on?
Richards: No, I don't think so. I wasn't scared too often. But I was scared on occasion.
Biagi: In that flood, was there ever any danger to you?
Richards: No. There wasn't, because only one viaduct linking the two Kansas Cities remained above the flood water, and it was way above. I went across on that viaduct and picked up a taxi and went up on the hilltop. I did not get down into the flooded area physically, but Jake did. He got into a boat and, as I said, crawled in a second-floor window in his employer's factory, and came out with the records, [which is] what he went in for.
Biagi: When the flood subsided, what was left?
Biagi: What did the place look like?
Richards: I never saw a battlefield, so I won't say that was it. But it was just unbelievable piles of debris. There was concrete that had crumbled, apparently. There were splinters of kindling, just immense quantities of broken-up wood. There were pieces of broken telephone poles. There were automobiles turned over on their side and every kind of debris you could think about. But what it looked like at this intersection, it maybe didn't look like at all at the next intersection. It varied according to what had been there in the first place, of course.
Biagi: So the job, then, was cleaning up and getting it back to what it had been before?
Richards: Oh, yes.
Biagi: Did you cover that?
Richards: Yes, but I did not go in and witness the spreading of the rat poison and all this kind of thing. For one thing, there was really a lot of serious fear about health, and the authorities did not encourage anybody to go in there unless there was good reason for it. I suppose I could have if I'd wanted to make an issue of it. I do remember that I carried a pass. I do remember that. You had to have a pass to get across that viaduct.
Biagi: Let's move on to one more thing before we finish today. I just want to mention it because I know we'll talk more about it. What comes to mind when I say the name Harry Truman?
Richards: You got three hours?
Biagi: I will eventually. [Laughter.] I know I will. What kinds of things come to mind?
Richards: Not ignoring the question, I'm trying to think of what to select. As far as I could determine, Harry Truman is the only politician that I ever knew or knew about that I thought was really actually the man that he presented to the public. Harry Truman was definitely a man of the people. He loved to describe himself as a "meat and potato man," by which I think he literally meant he liked meat and potatoes. In the last years of his life, Wallace Graham, his physician, told me that Truman wouldn't eat anything but peanut butter, which may have been true. But at any rate, he used to like to say, "I'm a meat-and-potato man."
His deference, really, to women was remarkable, even in that era. He took me several times, after his arthritis had become really quite crippling, and I got so I'd hate to have him take me through the museum section of the library, because I knew exactly what he would do. Those interior doors weigh a ton, and I would try to get around in such a position that I would reach the door first and be able [to open the door for him]—I never once succeeded. Crippled up as he was in his knees, Harry Truman opened the door for ladies. This was just part of Harry Truman.
One time he remarked to me that he believed in treating all ladies with respect, and, "As far as I'm concerned, every woman is a lady until she proves herself otherwise," which used to kind of anger me about all the material that was written about his very earthy language. I'm sure this is true, but I have been talking with him when his anger, I could tell, was at a white heat, but the worst I ever heard him say was "doggone it." And they represent, you know, that one-man show that portrayed Harry Truman, showed him swearing in Rose Conway's presence. He would no more have sworn in front of Rose Conway than I'd participate in a nudist parade. I mean, this is just impossible! Rose Conway was a beautiful, extremely refined lady who had been his secretary for many, many years, and I am sure that he would no more have said anything offensive to Rose Conway than nothing.
Biagi: From your perspective, when did you first start covering Harry Truman?
Richards: In a way, of course, I covered him when he was a senator. When he'd come home, I'd see him then. But the day he got off the train in Independence on his return from Washington, he said that the first thing he did, somebody—it wasn't I—asked him what the first thing was that he did, thinking that he'd talk about maybe relief from the cares of state and what a relaxing thing it was. Instead, he said, "The first thing I did was take the suitcases up to the attic." [Laughter.] Which was sort of typically Truman, too.
Biagi: He was there to stay?
Richards: Yes. Well, he didn't call Mike Westwood, the family driver, or anybody else to do it. He, Harry Truman, took the suitcases up to the attic.
I told you, I think, that if you called his office phone between 7:30 and 8:00 on a weekday morning, he always answered. You always exchanged some sort of unimportant pleasantries with him before you got on to what you called him about. I was talking about his being a man of the people. One day I called him and our son, Clint, happened to be home from school that day. He was sick. Nothing serious, flu or something like that. But at any rate, in the course of this brief conversation, I told Mr. Truman that, and I didn't talk to him again for maybe a week. The next time I called, the first thing he said to me was, "How is your boy?"
Biagi: He remembered.
Richards: He remembered. He loved reporters. Harry Truman loved reporters, and he hated their editors. He had absolutely no use for the editors and the publishers, particularly not Roy Roberts of the Kansas City Star.
Biagi: What's the evidence that you have for such a broad statement that you're making like that, that he liked reporters and hated editors? Give me some hard facts here. I'm testing you now.
Richards: That's a matter of my judgment over years of dealing with Harry Truman. I do have a concrete example. There was a man in Kansas City at that time named Randall Jesse. He's now dead. He was the first television personality in Kansas City that anybody ever heard of. Randall was just a reporter. He fell into the fish pond in the penthouse at Hallmark when Hallmark gave a retirement reception for me. Randall had new glasses and he fell into the fish pool—literally. Didn't he, Jake? [Laughter.]
Jake Richards: Yes.
Richards: But at any rate, when Mr. Truman had been at home for a while, Randall said he got to thinking about him and he thought, "I'll bet he's lonely, because people probably don't feel like going up and asking a former president of the United States to come have dinner on the kitchen table." Not that it was really that bad. So he decided he'd ask him. Randall said—to his vast surprise—Mr. Truman said, "Yes. When?" So Mr. Truman came to dinner, and from that beginning, a friendship developed in which, in the course of this, Randall became the family spokesman—insofar as was possible, to the press, all through his illness and all that kind of thing.
But Truman would tell you. You could tell by his behavior. He loved Sammy Feeback, the great big burly man that I told you about.
Biagi: The photographer.
Richards: The photographer. Besides his burly build and his scarred, misshapen face, Sammy wore the oddest clothes in the world. He loved to wear kelly green socks and a red knit cap, or any kind of ridiculous clothes. I approached him about this one time. We were going someplace like a luncheon at the Muehlebach Hotel or something, and I said, "Sam, why don't you wear a suit tomorrow?"
And he looked me straight in the face and he said, "Maggie, I can't compete as a gentleman. You know I can't. All I can do is be Sammy Feeback, and I'm not gonna change."
Well, Truman just adored Sammy Feeback. You could tell that he did, and he really did. He loved all reporters. I think he was very fond of me. Not that he lay awake nights wondering where I was or anything like that. He just plain liked reporters. And he was not a man who knew how to hold his tongue. He'd tell you what he thought of Roy Roberts, who was the publisher of the Kansas City Star at the time, and who was a big Republican. Truman was very frank about his opinion of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was about as bad as you could get in respectable society. [Laughter.]
Another thing Truman did, and I've thought about this so much with the Reagans, keeping the gifts that came to him in the presidency. Truman would take you through his museum, and he had all these beautiful hand-woven rugs, beautiful paintings, beautiful everything, jeweled scimitars and all sorts of things. He would say, "Now, this was a gift to the United States from the people of so and so," or, "This was a gift to the United States from the King of Siam," or whatever. But never once did he say, "This was a gift to me." Never! And he never kept one of those things, either. All of it went into the Truman Museum, which was certainly not the way presidents since that have acted.
Biagi: What were some of the highlights of stories that you had to cover about the Truman family?
Richards: I mentioned the Truman wedding, of course. Mrs. Truman had—Lord, I still feel like I should defer to her desire for privacy. Let's say that she had surgery. Then Mr. Truman himself was gravely ill. He had gall bladder surgery and had a bad allergic reaction to an antibiotic, and his condition, I guess, was quite precarious for a while. I'm probably the only reporter that ever went under those circumstances to cover what I thought might be the death watch on a president with her hair in curlers and a towel wrapped around her head. This was on Saturday night, and the office called me on a Saturday night and said, "Get out to Research Hospital. They're taking Harry Truman to surgery!"
So I went and sat there all night, mostly really trying to catch a glimpse of Wallace Graham, his personal physician. But at any rate, I and Charlie Nethaway, I think, some other reporter, sat at the end of a rather long corridor, and at the other end of this corridor were the double doors leading to surgery. Outside those double doors immediately adjacent to surgery were Mrs. Truman and Randall Jesse, of whom I spoke. But at any rate, we sat through that and, of course, he came out of it all right. But I remember that very vividly.
Biagi: Did you leave the curlers in your hair?
Richards: Well, what do you do if your hair is soaking wet? If you take them down, why, you know what's going to happen. Besides, nobody was really going to see me. It didn't matter.
Mrs. Truman was an interesting person. So was the Truman house, which is now open to the public on the first floor only. I was never upstairs. The upstairs will not be open to the public until after Margaret Truman's death, I understand.
Biagi: You said you wanted to finish up today talking about Bill Dickinson.
Richards: He was Bill Dickinson, Jr. His name really was William Boyd Dickinson, Jr. He was working in the Kansas City bureau when I went there in September. Along about February, he and his wife Eileen had a little boy—William B. Dickinson III, he was.
So the years went on, and after a while William B. Dickinson III came to work at the Kansas City bureau of United Press. William B. Dickinson III, incidentally, is now—or was, last I heard; and that hasn't been over a year since I heard from him—was working on the Congressional Quarterly in Washington. But at any rate, I said when he came along and went to work in the United Press bureau at Kansas City, I said, "I've just about had it. When your son comes along, I'm quitting!"
So I was sitting at the TTS [teletypesetter] desk one day, about 1973, I guess, '72 or '73, and somebody approached from the back and tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up, and this tall young man was standing there. He said, "I'm William B. Dickinson IV."
I was talking about this strange loyalty among United Press people. Well, the Dickinsons are a prime example of that. Bill went on to bigger things. I think I told you. The first Bill retired as managing editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin. But here he sent his son and his grandson. Both returned to the "sweat shop" that Bill had hollered about so often. Talk about tear sheets—Bill used to send me tear sheets all the time. I had notes from him. I had a note from his wife maybe a year before he died, saying that he had throat cancer. After he died, she wrote me a note. When she wrote saying that he had throat cancer, she said that they had planned a summertime visit to us in Kansas City. But, of course, he would not be able to come and I never saw him again.
But this is the sort of friendship I was trying to tell you is built into Unipressers. Bill Dickinson, I can assure you, he never quit being a Unipresser.
Biagi: Did you ever quit being a Unipresser, really?
Richards: Oh, no! I'm a Unipresser today, and anybody that says I'm not is just nuts! Of course. One of the first things I did when I got here [Boulder City, Nevada] was call the Las Vegas bureau of UPI, although there's no resemblance anymore.
Biagi: What did you say when you called?
Richards: I just said, "I'm Maggie Richards. I'm a retiree from United Press in Kansas City." Myra Borders was most cordial. She's the only one out here I know.
That ends my story.
Biagi: Thank you.
© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.