Interview with LeRoy Keller

LeRoy Keller, as he reports in this interview, joined United Press in the 1920s as a newsman but soon switched to the sales side. He sold the wire service widely throughout the country and overseas and was a top executive of the company in the 1970s before his retirement. After UP, he became a newspaper broker and prospered. He founded a journalism institute at his alma mater. He remained an active Downholder in his retirement, attending frequent reunions. He died in the last week of 1998 in Florida, and is survived by his widow, Peggy. This is one of several interviews he had with Dick Harnett for the UPI history project. This interview took place Sept. 11, 1995, at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco.


Keller: Once I got on the business side and found that I was successful I never could get off again. Now I want to show you some pictures. I thought Id take them up to the meeting (Downhold 9/14 at Sonoma) and put them on a table. Anyone there you don't know?

Harnett: You have them identified here, Hugh Baillie, Frank Bartholomew. I recognize those people.

Keller: Of the 35 people there, only three are alive today, Stanley Whitaker, Fred McCabe. He lives in Wyoming. His wife also has a home in Atherton and they were here this winter. But Whit, you know, had a fall. He's 96 years old. I'm the second oldest ex-Unipresser from the point of where we started service. I started in November, 1929. Whit started in November 1922. That was just seven years after United Press was born. I came aboard 22 years after the UP was born.

Harnett: You came on in Kansas City?

Keller: No, in Denver. Hugh Baillie came through that year. There's Hugh in the middle. And so what happened to me was this. Clyde Byers, who went to Colorado as bureau manager from Indiana, Clyde Byers had tuberculosis. He suffered manic depression, alternately. He came in some days filled with energy, and then again in a deep mood, a deep mood of despair, and would take it out on everyone in the office.He used to tell me there were three things he wanted to do before he died. One of them was to get insurance. He had to get his lungs cured. He had a collapsed lung. He had to get health restored enough that he could obtain insurance. After he got insurance he wanted to divorce his wife, a very pretty girl she was. And then, he said, "The third thing I am going do is commit suicide." He did all three, in that order. He got insurance, he divorced his wife and then he committed suicide. Jerry Rock was with him. I don't know if you ever knew him. Jerry Rock came aboard in 1936 from the Denver Post. He was a pal of Clyde Byers. But what Clyde wanted to do is hire his friend Doc Campbell, who was just out of Wyoming state penitentiary. That's when he asked me to split my salary, and that's when I quit. He regretted the move later and did all he could to help me get back. Enough of that. Now here are four of the great presidents of United Press. The only one who wasn't there up to and including Bartholomew was Bill Hawkins. Bill was briefly president of United Press after Roy Howard moved to Scripps-Howard newspapers. That was Karl Bickel. That was a man who really had a vision of what United Press ought to be. He got into a fight with Roy Howard because United Press elected to sell news to radio and Roy Howard thought that was a false thing to do and he took Karl Bickel out of the job as president of United Press and sent him over to Continental Radio, the Scripps-Howard radio stations at that time. We got into radio about 1934 or 1935. We managed to sell Esso. At that time that was the domestic name for Standard Oil Company. Ted Williams was then general sales manager and he negotiated a huge contract for United Press with Esso. Esso sponsored 15 minutes broadcast news on a whole group of eastern radio stations.

Harnett: We supplied the advertiser, not the station?

Keller: Technically we didn't. They bought the time but we sold the news package directly to the stations. They wanted United Press news. In fact AP wouldn't sell news to radio at that time. We had a clear field. Any station that wanted the Esso contract, a very lucrative one, would naturally buy the United Press news service. I made a tour later on in 1944. I toured all the Esso stations in the South to see how everything was going. Now see if I can tell you about more pictures. This was a UP picture in 1961. Bart had just become president. You might know several of those.

Harnett: They are executives back in New York?

Keller: That was at ANPA.

Harnett: I see you there.

Keller: This was in 1953, before Bart became president. He became president in 1955. There is Hugh Baillie. Anyone there in the front row you don't know? On the left is L. B. Mickel. That's Earl Johnson. This is Bisco. That's Wilson. That's I. This was in 1951. There's Bill Payette, You know him. Wendell Burch.

Harnett: Yes. There are faces I recognize.

Keller: That was April 1951 ANPA. This is 1956, the year after Bart became president. I was still on Bart's list as non-welcomed guy because Bart didn't get along with me at all when I was general sales manager and I used to get after Bart on some things and he didn't take it very well. Just before he was president he sent word by three different routes that I was the first guy he was going to fire. So I promptly went to my friend Walter Annenberg who had previously offered me a tremendous job as business manager of the Philadelphia Inquirer at $75,000 a year on a seven year contract. I was only making about $15,000 with United Press. I wrote Walter, and his first vice president Joe Furst answered up. He said, "Lee, if at any time for any reason you leave United Press give me a call on the phone." I knew I had a job then. As it turned out, Bart became a better friend of mine than Hugh Baillie. Baillie made me a vice president in 1952, but he was reluctant. I never got along well with Hugh Baillie, but Bart reversed himself completely and fired Bisco instead. And after he had just appointed Mims Thomason general business manager, I went up to see him and said I thought I might as well quit. Bart got up, closed the door and said, "Lee, I want to tell you something." (Keller here nearly cries with emotion). I get a little emotional, but anyway he said, "You're as strong with me as the English Church." He said years later he should have appointed me president instead of Mims Thomason. He said he made a big mistake. However, that's not recorded, and I'm just telling you. This is Mead Monroe who was Cleveland bureau manager at one time. He went over to NEA service and became general manager of NEA. And this is Joe Jones.

Harnett: Those are interesting pictures.

Keller: Here I am giving it to Ferdinand Marcos in Manila. There I am with a leer on my face for Imelda. Here making speech, we had just moved the world report to Asia on a cable to Manila. I got a press bulletin service from ITT for $500 a month and we put all our service on Manila, and from there transmitted by radio to Australia and so on. Later I put through the whole cable deal. We had cable down to Sidney and Moscow, the whole thing, because the carriers had found a way to get us several different lines out of the price of one telephone line.

Harnett: Was that in 1960s or 1970s?

Keller: That was in the early 60s. That was just before I went over to the international division. I had courted ITT and they came through with this press bulletin service for $500 a month. I think you have seen all these.. This was 1962 and 1963. The crowd is getting bigger. This was 1957. Here was in Rawalpundi signing news service for Pakistan. I won't show this around. Here are a couple of stories I did, travelling when I got on international. I had many more that I did after I got out of the UP.

Harnett: You started as a newsperson?

Keller: Yes, everyone did. You don't need to read it. My biggest story I wrote after I left United Press. I went to Russia in 1984. I did a story for J. Hart Clinton. I sent him a copy. We had become friends with him. He's dead now. He was quite excited about my story. Jack Howard said it was a great story. It was from Moscow, all about Russia. It was a fresh look at Russia. It was quite different from any that had been written before.

Harnett: When did you leave UP?

Keller: 1971.

Harnett: Did you resign?

Keller: No, I had to leave. I was then 66 years and I had stayed a year longer than our required retirement age. I was reluctant to quit. But I was glad I did because I became a consultant and special adviser to groups who were buying newspapers.

Harnett: You became a broker?

Keller: I became a broker and consultant.

Harnett: That's where you made your money?

Keller: I made a lot of money afterwards. I made it and I set up the Keller Center for study of the First Amendment at the University of Colorado. I intend to leave it a lot more money. I gave them $300,000 then. They started the center. That was my alma mater. I went to school there. I finished in 1929. I intend leave additional funds to the center and I'm trying to help the university raise money because I think the First Amendment Center is a good thing. It's the second one in the country. Al Neuharth of the Gannett Foundation started the first one down in Vanderbilt University. They are doing some fine things down there, and I've tried to give the University of Colorado the vision that they could become the First Amendment center for the whole western area if they put some might behind it. Lee Hills was a personal friend of mine, and so was Jack Knight. They were two of the greatest newspapermen I ever knew. Both of them were not only newspeople but very capable businessside executives. Lee Hills is just a few months younger than I am. He will become 90 years old next May. I'm already 90. But now I lost the train of my thought.

Harnett: The First Amendment, that's something I think the history of UPI relates to -- freedom of the press in this country and in the world. The impact of losing that competition could have more serious consequences.

Keller: As Lee Hills said in his speech when he donated $1 million to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he said that ever since Milton, the right to free expression was the foundation of any democracy. Because you have to have free expression, unfettered expression. Or anyone can grab power, and the first thing they do is shut off the free press. We are the only nation in the world that at first wrote this into our constitution.

Harnett: This ties into UP. There has to be competition. AP can do whatever they want now. There is no competition.

Keller: That's right. Someone, the Chicago Sun, Marshall Field, brought suit against the AP because AP wouldn't sell them service for a new paper in Chicago. He wanted both AP and UP, but couldn't get AP, so he brought suit, and it went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court ruled that AP could not be an exclusionary news service. It was a major blow to United Press in one way because then we had to stand wholly on the merit of our news for the papers. Before that we had a captive bunch of newspapers, including Scripps-Howard papers, who didn't have AP. The Baltimore Evening Sun and a lot more papers which came along and weren't able get AP.

Harnett: Do you think anybody up there in Colorado will get an interest in writing the history of UP/UPI, as a freedom of information, competitive thing?

Keller: I don't think anyone in Colorado is particularly interested in that fight. The thing gave United Press esprit de corps was the motto, "Beat Rox!" That was our raison d'etre for existence, just to beat the AP. We loved it. United Press produced some of the best known journalists in the world. Walter Cronkite, Dave Brinkley, Ed Newman, Eric Sevareid. All these were people who started with United Press, Hedrick Smith. It was a tremendous school of journalism in itself. Many people who worked for UP at one time went on to better jobs newspapers.

Harnett: That's one of the things that bothered me. It more or less implied that if you were any good you'd leave. There were some of us who liked our work and didn't leave. In SX I heard one of the business executives bragging how many of us left for the L.A. Times. That wasn't a selling point for a service promoting itself.

Keller: The problem with UP was this, Scripps-Howard never put a dime into it. We had to make our way entirely by selling the product we produced. That gave us a very strong competitive feeling to produce a better report than AP because then we could sell it to newspapers. And we did. We sold against the AP pretty well. For example, I'm the only one who ever sold the president of AP the United Press report, in the Philadelphia Bulletin. Baillie sent me a wire saying, "This is a monumental day in the history of United Press." Major MacLean was president of AP for many years. Later I in effect sold the Washington Star, whose Frank Noyes was head of the AP for many years before Major McLean.

Harnett: Did Scripps-Howard in some years have to subsidize UP?

Keller: They never put a nickel into it until the regime of Mims Thomason or Rod Beaton when we put in the computer system. We computerized the whole report. That was a $10 million expense. Ed Estlow, then general manager of Scripps-Howard newspapers, stood up at the UPI meeting at ANPA and announced that the UP was not a profit center for Scripps-Howard. I suppose he thought he was helping us put through an assessment. Ultimately, he's the one that sold it, gave it away. (pause). What a tragedy that was. Look who owns it today. lt shouldn't have happened. I told all this to Steve (H.L. Stevenson). Steve and I became very close friends at the end of his life. He was writing a book encompassing the whole history of United Press. I had dinner with Bunny (Stevenson's wife) before I came. She is a sweet girl. She has all his notes.

Harnett: I am interested in helping the history project. Steve barely started. I don't think he had written anything.

Keller: He wrote two three chapters. Bunny showed it to me. Did she show you? Stevenson died, and Tatarian was going to do a book. He sent it to Steve. I had a copy of it. I failed to bring it to you. Roger had a pretty good idea. I thought Roger was a very fine man.

Harnett: One of the difficulties is that people all over the world have these things. I am sure Roger's widow has some stuff.

Keller: Did I send you the envelope of the economiums or Roger when he died? I meant to send you a big envelope that Eunice Tatarian sent me.

Harnett: I didn't get that, but I know the McClatchey papers made a big thing of it. He wrote a column for them. He was a director.

Keller: He wrote a damn good column. I used to get it. Roger and I were very close friends. I was shocked when he died. He died about two months exactly after Steve died.

Harnett: I had a heart attack at that time. When I got home, somebody told me about Tatarian. Do you ever talk to Whitaker?

Keller: Oh yes, I talk to him often. I am going to see him this winter. Whit started in November 1922, at the Kansas City bureau. He later became Denver bureau manager. At the time, Scripps-Howard ran a little paper called the Denver Express, and Roy Howard stepped in there in 1927 and bought the Rocky Mountain News. We had to beef up the bureau then because we then had to serve the Rocky Mountain News. We didn't have much night coverage and we had to get that. UP was an afternoon service for many years. It wasn't until along about 1930 or so that we had to develop a night report. It was first called United News. Later it became United Press and UP became a 24-hour service.

Harnett: Didn't Bartholomew have a kind of franchise for the west coast?

Keller: No he didn't. He didn't have a franchise. He just worked for United Press. He was a very good salesman. At one time we had a big lead over AP.

Harnett: Yes, I remember when in California we had 100 papers.

Keller: Well, Bart did that. You know Bart, when he died was worth 20 or 25 million.

Harnett: Was any of that from UP or was it all from the winery?

Keller: He didn't make it from UP. He made it in several different areas. He never made a big salary. In fact, one of the things he had against me and other executives was that we had bigger salaries than he did as head of the Pacific Division. But Bart was a great saver and he would make loans to his newspaper friends when they needed it. He had an interest in several newspapers. Where he really made his money was that he picked up 400 acres of prime vineyard land up there around Sonoma. He bought it at a distress sale. The state had taken it over. He sold that winery for $10 million to some Germans. Then he started a little winery called Hacienda. Then he sold that to a man who was his general manager out in the vineyards. I remember meeting Bart in the Dominican Republic. Was it Santiago? No, in the Dominican Republic, right next to Haiti. Well anyway, the IAPA had a meeting there. Bart came down. That was after I had taken over as general manager of all the international divisions. Bart came over to the meetings. We had breakfast together. He told me Roy Howard had asked him if he would leave his money to the Scripps-Howard Foundation. Bart said, "I told Roy Howard no way." He said, "I'm going to use it to help people who helped me." Which he didn't do.

Harnett: He left a lot of it to the park.

Keller: They built that pavilion up there to be used by the wine industry. I don't know what he did with the rest of his fortune. Where we have the picnic, I think they rent that out.

Harnett: They have a library for Bart's papers. I asked the estate lawyer if I could examine them. He said he threw most of it out because it named names. I told him that's why he left it, to be used after he died. Most of the stuff left in the library are clippings about his exploits. I didn't get to know him well until after he retired. I worked in San Francisco many years. Bart was the boss.

Keller: He was as bad as Mickel as far as handing out raises. He was tight.

Harnett: He was interested in the news, basically a reporter. Hugh Baillie was that too.

Keller: Yes, and Baillie used to call us double threaters. I can remember when Honda, who was general manager of our client newspaper in Tokyo, Mainichi, was coming through San Francisco. It was the year of the 1950 strike of the telegraph operators. Do you remember that strike?

Harnett: It was just before I joined UP.

Keller: At that time Bart had an operation for prostate cancer and he overcame it all right. But Baillie sent me out here to run the division while he recuperated. That's one of the reasons Bart resented me for a number of years. But he got over that and we became good friends.

Harnett: With you guys was it a day-to-day thing? You didn't have any grand plan for United Press, did you?

Keller: Well, I had several grand plans for United Press. Ed Williams started a wire for radio, for reading, then selling a lot of radio stations. A little outfit was started by a former UP man, Herb Moore. He started a little outfit called Trans-Radio, and they were selling radio stations all around the country. We wanted to eliminate them. I told Ed Williams that if we didn't produce a wire written for reading on the air, a radio wire, we were not going to oust Trans-Radio.

Harnett: Who was Ed Williams?

Keller: He was the son of Ed Williams who had started a journalism school at the University of Missouri, a fine man. Ed Williams was a dreadful man.

Harnett: He worked for UP?

Keller: He was apparently heir to Hugh Baillie, but I knew he would never make it. Baillie had a habit of bringing up inferior people next to him so they wouldn't threaten him. He reigned longer as president than even Karl Bickel. Bickel only had a run of 13 or 14 years.

Harnett: Didn't Bart do that too?

Keller: Yes, but Bart was ready to quit. Bart didn't want to stay longer. He stayed to 1955, seven years. I don't think he was feeling too well, and he didn't want to stay on as president. Mims Thomason had been courting the Scripps, Charlie Scripps, and Jack Howard, and persuaded Bart to name him as president, and he was a terrible president, frankly.

Harnett: He drank too much?

Keller: And he made bad decisions. Rod Beaton sort of forced Mims out because of his drinking. Mims got to the point he was drinking about a quart of vodka a day. The bad decisions involved Reuters and so on. Do You know about that?


Click here for Part II.