- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

On the evening of May 16, 1957 — 50 years ago this week if you’re keeping score at home — I left the office after a 12-hour first day on the job and headed for my snazzily finned Plymouth Fury.

But where had I left it — on Fairfax Street, Royal Street, Cameron Street, or somewhere else in unfamiliar downtown Alexandria?

A futile half-hour search followed. Finally, desperately, I stumbled into the nearby police headquarters.

“I’m sorry,” I told the desk sergeant, “but I just finished my first day working for the Alexandria Gazette, and I can’t find my car. I don’t think it was stolen — I just can’t remember where I parked it.”

The sergeant could have snickered, snorted or sneered at the teenager standing before him. Instead — bless him! — he turned to an officer and said, “Hey, Earl, go help this lad find his car.”

The hunt took only five minutes by police cruiser, but it left me with a warm affection for and appreciation of Alexandria that has lasted half a century. Even so, it was an ignominious way to start a full-time sportswriting career that, unbelievably, has lasted more than half a century.

I grew up at a time when there was no Beltway and little reason for someone living in Northwest D.C. to visit the Old Dominion. As a part-time writer for the Washington Daily News, I had covered games in Alexandria and Arlington but never driven to them. When sports editor Eddie Crane agreed to interview me for a job at the Gazette, I had to ask directions.

Crane, then 29, was a native Alexandrian who talked like someone from the Deepest South. My first assignment, he said after miraculously hiring me for $50 a week, was “to git yo’ behind over to the Old Dominion Boat Club” and write a piece on the Hammond High School crew team as it prepared for the Stotesbury Cup regatta in Philadelphia. Somehow I managed even though all I knew about rowing was what a football coach once told me: “It’s the only sport where you win by sitting on your butt and going backward.”

Eddie and I became fast friends during nearly 25 years together on first the Gazette and then the Washington Star — two newspapers that sadly no longer exist. To me, he typified the Alexandria of the late 1950s — a warm, friendly, slow-paced Southern city where everybody seemed to know everybody else.

The Gazette building was located at 317 King St., where the City Hall plaza and fountains are now. Built in 1912 for use as a bank, it was something of a wooden firetrap by 1957. To get to the second-floor editorial department, you had to walk through the front door, duck your head under the single press and climb a rickety flight of stairs.

The firetrap reference was no joke. One day, a small blaze erupted on the third floor, which was used as a storage area. The Star had the story in its late editions the same day, but we didn’t because everybody was too busy watching the firemen at work. Thus were we beaten on a news event in our own building.

Across an alleyway from the newspaper was the Royal Cafe, where the city’s movers and shakers spent a lot of time. On too many cold mornings, I would buy coffee and take it to my desk only to discover the cream had curdled, so I began taking my java black. Still do, as a matter of fact.

I was amazed the first time Eddie and I walked a few blocks along King Street to its busy intersection with Washington Street and he met perhaps 25 people he knew. If you worked for the Gazette in those days, you were important to Alexandrians. The Washington newspapers and television didn’t cover the suburbs that much, so residents relied on the local paper for news in sports and other areas.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to cover rowing much. Our summertime staple was Little Major League and Junior Major League baseball. Each morning on my way to work at 6 a.m., I stopped at the ballpark to retrieve score sheets from the night before and then write up the games. Frequently the latter was a problem because not many of the scorekeepers had studied the Palmer Method of penmanship.

In late August, our thoughts turned to football. Crane covered the Alexandria teams while I handled those in Fairfax County. Back then the county seemed to open one or two new high schools every September. Soon Mount Vernon and Fairfax were joined by Groveton, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, ad infinitum.

It was no surprise that some of them were named for Confederate generals. During this period, the state’s public schools were segregated as part of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education. Nonetheless, Crane made sure that Parker-Gray and Luther Jackson — the only schools for black students in Alexandria and Fairfax County, respectively — received ample coverage in the Gazette’s sports pages. With him, skin color didn’t matter as long as you were a good person.

All told, I spent six years during two tenures at the Gazette, sandwiched around jobs at the Northern Virginia Sun and in Richmond. When Eddie became managing editor of the Gazette, I succeeded (but didn’t replace) him as sports editor. After I moved to the Star in 1964, I continued to live in Alexandria for the next 17 years. By then, you see, it was my hometown, too.

Though we’re in suburban Maryland now for reasons of geographical convenience, I visit Alexandria often and marvel how the city has changed. It’s much more cosmopolitan and much less Southern now, and between 1950 and 2006, its population zoomed from 61,000 to an estimated 130,000. But I’ll tell you what — I’ve never had the crowd stand and cheer me when I walked into a stadium or gym as folks sometimes did back then.

And people are always reminding me of the old days. A few years ago, a man approached me at a sports memorabilia show and said, “I played football for Mount Vernon in 1959. Remember how you came around after the season and tried to get us to admit that we deliberately tried to lose games so the coach would get fired? Well, I couldn’t say anything then, but … it was true!”

What a scoop! Too bad it came 45 years too late.

I’ve been around long enough now to talk about the good old days in Alexandria — and I haven’t lost my car lately.

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