- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

I was still blessedly asleep when the phone rang much too early that morning in our Mount Vernon townhouse. The caller was George Kolb, an assistant sports editor at my newspaper, the Washington Star.
"I'm sorry, George," my wife said, "but Dick isn't up yet."
"Well, you'd better get him up," George said. "The paper is closing."
It was July 23, 1981— 20 years ago today — and easily the saddest day of my life. It also was a sad day for thousands of Washington-area residents who had grown up reading what was then called the Evening Star (with Sunday morning edition, as the masthead proclaimed).
In a bygone era when most large cities had three or four newspapers, the Star had been No. 1 in circulation and advertising here, from its founding by the McKelway, Boyd and Noyes families in 1852, until 1954.
More precisely, until St. Patrick's Day 1954. That's when The Washington Post, which had been sold to financier Eugene Meyer at bankruptcy auction in 1933, bought the rival Washington Times-Herald and acquired a morning monopoly. Everything was downhill for the Star after that, as it was becoming for most evening papers.
Who wanted to read news that was four or five hours old when, with the twist of a TV dial, you could get up-to-the-minute information, plus Huntley and Brinkley? And as traffic and gridlock increased, the Star's deadlines grew earlier so the trucks could get the papers delivered. When I went there in 1964, we could get breaking sports news into the final edition as late as 3:45 p.m. By the time the paper closed, it was more like 2 p.m.
There were rumors at the time that the owners of the Times-Herald had first offered to sell out to the Star and had been rejected. In any case, The Post knew a good deal when it saw one. Surprisingly, the politically liberal Post retained most readers of the conservative Times-Herald — a bigger share, in fact, than in any newspaper merger in history. Immediately, The Post and Times Herald, as the hybrid publication called itself at first, jumped ahead of the Star in circulation by about 200,000.
By 1961, The Post was ahead in all respects and widening the gap. By 1970, the Star was losing money, and there were reports that it might be bought by Scripps Howard, which owned the afternoon tabloid Washington Daily News. When the reverse came to pass in 1972, the Star had an afternoon monopoly, but it no longer mattered. Its prestige bolstered by the Pentagon Papers imbroglio and Watergate, The Post became one of the nation's most successful papers.
In the mid-'70s, the Star's founding families sold out to banker Joe L. Albritton. He, in turn, peddled the paper in 1978 to Time Inc., which thought it could take a run at The Post. The Star tried a breezy, featurized front page under Mr. Albritton's editor, the flamboyant James Bellows, then a straight-laced format under Time's Murray Gart. There was talk of turning the paper into a tabloid. In the last few years, neighborhood sections and a morning edition were added. They didn't help. It was too late.
By 1981, the paper was losing more than $1 million a month. Time Inc. had pledged to support the Star for five years, but there was no hope. After three-and-a-half years, corporate executives huddled through the night and into the early morning hours of July 23. The announcement came about 6 a.m.: We would go out of business in two weeks, putting some 1,300 employees out on the street.
In sports, our staff scattered. Columnist Morris Siegel and veteran beat reporters like Steve Guback and Merrell Whittlesey left the business. Others joined USA Today and The Washington Times when they started publication the following year. Prominent political columnists Mary McGrory and Jack Germond switched to The Post and Baltimore Sun, respectively. Other papers sent in job offers, which were posted in the Star newsroom and snatched up almost immediately.
Unlike with most deaths, the victim survived for two more weeks while Time Inc. tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer. The end came on Aug. 7. A young reporter assigned to do the page 1 weather box improvised this way in the first edition: "Showers tonight. Starless tomorrow." The people in charge deleted this reference in later editions, as if it mattered.
We put out our final sports section the previous night, then gathered for the wake at a staffer's apartment. About 3 a.m., somebody arrived with the final edition bearing the headline, "128 Years of Service Ending." Then the tears flowed, and they didn't stop for a long time.
Probably, the Starwasn't a great paper in its final decade; The Post had more money, more people, more everything. But it was our paper, and we loved working for it until death did us part.
On the morning of Aug. 7, I drove through Alexandria and over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge trying to buy more copies of the final edition. Every place was sold out, so I went to the Star building on Virginia Avenue SE, where hundreds of people stood in line to get their own copies as TV cameras rolled. In the newsroom, I said goodbye to people I knew. After a while, with all the good wishes and tears expended, I walked through the throngs to my car a block away.
I had a flat tire.

Dick Heller worked at the Washington Star from 1964 until 1981. He has been a sports columnist and copy editor at The Washington Times since 1986.

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