Al Benn Notes 40th Year in Journalism



Montgomery Advertiser

SELMA -- What a day, what a way to start a career!

I walked into the Atlanta headquarters of United Press International on Aug. 4, 1964 for what was supposed to be a wire service orientation session.

Discharged from the Marine Corps early that morning, I spent the long bus ride from Parris Island, S.C., wondering if I had made the right decision.

It didn't take long to find the answer. People were shouting, banging on typewriters and cupping their ears as they tried to listen to callers on the other end of their telephones.

They were collecting information about the biggest news event in America that day the discovery of three bodies near Philadelphia, Miss. The atmosphere was electric. I knew I had to be part of it.

Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were civil rights workers who vanished on June 21 during a trip to look at a black church that had been burned by arsonists.

Ku Klux Klansmen, some of whom were law enforcement officers, shot the three in the head and threw their bodies into an earthen dam. Reward money and the FBI found them the bodies and the killers. It took a few years, but several of those arrested were convicted.

"We don't have time to talk," said Chiles Coleman, a UPI editor who was to have handled the orientation session. "Get over to Birmingham as fast as you can. You can learn on the job."

And, so it was 40 years ago tomorrow.

Journalism has changed a lot since that time. Technology has eliminated typewriters. Today, we carry modern versions when we are on assignments away from the office. They are laptop computers. We also have cell phones. They help us avoid late night dashes to phone booths to meet deadlines.

Cameras have gotten a lot smaller, too. Big, bulky speed graphics were still used back then by some photographers. They had a capacity of two photographs. Today, we have digital cameras that can take dozens of photos without flash bulbs, too.

Technology aside, journalism today isn't much different than what it was 200 years ago. Writing styles have changed, but honesty, integrity and dedication haven't.

Oh, sure, we make our share of mistakes. We misspell words, fracture grammar and dangle modifiers, but we try our best to limit them.

I've made my share of mistakes and I'm truly sorry for them. None was intentional. Mistakes can happen to the best reporters, even at The New York Times. I'm not in their league, but I try my best.

Journalism can be a lot of fun, especially for those of us who are news junkies and love sports.

In the past four decades, I've covered six former, future and current presidents, governors in three states, lots of mayors, killers and business executives the good ones and those who got caught with their greedy hands in the cookie jar.

Nothing that happened during the past 37 years could match my first 2 with UPI. It wasn't unusual to interview Martin Luther King Jr. one day and the head of the Klan or the American Nazi Party the next. We never knew what would happen in the town they called BOMBingham back then.

Journalists have opportunities to interview political movers and shakers as well as sports legends. During the past couple of years, I've had a chance to cover the two Bush presidents and Hank Aaron. Before them, I interviewed Bear Bryant, Shug Jordan, John Glenn and Wernher von Braun.

During our "leisure" time, we might toss a question or two at movie stars like Drew Barrymore, Troy Donahue and Chill Wills (remember the last two?) and literary giants such as Nelle Harper Lee and Gay Talese.

That's what journalism is all about. There's no formula. You just learn to expect the unexpected. You never know what the next day might bring, but you do know it's going to be interesting.

My newspaper stops along the way included Decatur, Alexander City and Selma in Alabama, Natchez in Mississippi and LaFayette in Georgia. Until we arrived in Selma 25 years ago, we seemed to be spending most our time packing and unpacking.

All in all, I've had a ball. Sharon and I have been blessed with the two best kids in the world Dani and Eric and four wonderful grandchildren. The downside is they live too far away.

It's still fun doing what I do on a part-time basis. It probably won't happen, but I'd love to write a column just like this one in 2014.

Now, wouldn't that be a golden moment for an old codger like me!