A keeper: Working for Barry Bingham Jr. was a true honor

Apr 4, 2006 at 8:09 pm

Whenever Barry Bingham Jr. read something in The Courier-Journal or Louisville Times that he particularly liked or disliked, he would cut the story out of his paper and send it to the reporter or editor with a note that he typed personally and signed with a flourish in orange ink. I got a few of those notes during my years at Sixth and Broadway, and, thankfully, most were complimentary. I saved every one. To me, they were more precious even than Barry Jr.’s signature on a paycheck.

On Monday, the day Barry Jr.’s death was announced, I began the day by attending Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy’s speech at the University of Louisville.

When his late brother Jack was president of the United States, the administration became known as “Camelot.” To me, that’s also what it was like to work for Barry Jr. in the 1970s and ’80s. Every day, donning the armor and wielding the swords the Binghams provided us, we tried to slay dragons, rout evil and seek justice for even the poorest among us.

Corny? Sure. I plead guilty. But it’s also the truth. Of the various places I’ve worked and publications for which I’ve written, The C-J of the Binghams was the best. They put almost all their profits back into their properties — both the newspapers, WHAS radio and TV, and Standard Gravure — and it showed.

They hired people with extraordinary talent and provided them the means and the encouragement to do extraordinary things. The pursuit of excellence was an everyday thing, taken for granted. It was, indeed, a journalistic version of “Camelot.”

Sadly, we shall not see its like again.

I left The C-J sports department in 1968 to work for Sports Illustrated in New York, only to return to Louisville four years later to work on The C-J’s news side as a special projects reporter. Some of my friends in New York thought I was nuts, but they just didn’t understand how good The C-J was. By paying wages that were more than generous, the Binghams were able to recruit more talent than almost any publication this side of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

In fact, both of those giants conducted such frequent talent raids on the Bingham papers that it became something of a running joke in journalism. Brilliant writers and editors such as Bill Greider, Ward Sinclair, Bill Peterson, Dave Kindred, Chuck Babcock, Carolyn Lee and David Creed honed their skills at Sixth and Broadway. It’s tempting to say The C-J was the Triple-A farm team for The Post and Times, but that would be unfair. We were in their league. At least, that’s what Time magazine said whenever it ran a story about America’s Top 10 newspapers.

Barry Jr. became publisher of The Courier and Times literally by accident — and a tragic one, at that. The way his father had it planned, Barry Jr. would be trained to take over the family’s broadcast interests, WHAS radio and television. The newspapers would be run by his son Worth. But when Worth was killed in a freak accident in 1965 — the car in which he was riding was sideswiped, causing a surfboard to hit Worth in the head — Barry Sr. changed his thinking and decided Barry Jr. would run the entire Bingham empire — both newspapers, the radio station and TV station, and Standard Gravure.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve been told how much I would have really liked Worth and gotten along with him. I suppose that’s because Worth liked sports a lot more than Barry Jr. Indeed, Worth was one of the investors in the Louisville syndicate that sponsored the boxer Cassius Clay when he turned pro after the 1960 Olympics in Rome. The syndicate was in place when Clay defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship in 1964. But soon thereafter, the fighter changed his name and his religion. Known as Muhammad Ali, he terminated his relationship with the syndicate and turned his career over to the Black Muslims.

It’s true that Barry Jr. and I didn’t have a lot in common. Even our mustaches were different. He affected the handlebar and I sprouted something that, at one time, came dangerously close to a Fu Manchu. But Barry Jr. worked hard to know something about everything that was important to the public, including sports, and I can’t imagine that even Worth would have been a better boss.

Behind his back, the cynics in the newsroom made fun of Barry Jr.’s handlebar. It was so, well, effete and old-moneyish. We also had great sport with his safaris to Africa. Cartoons about the “Great White Hunter” were tacked up on the newsroom bulletin board. But Barry took all the kidding in stride. He tried hard, with indifferent success, to be one of the guys. But it was tough because he could be hopelessly naive about life in the middle class.

But, my, was he ever honest. Obsessed with ethics, he once decided that the newspapers could no longer publish race results and entries, his theory being that we were providing gambling information to illegal bookmakers. The horseracing industry went nuts. So did those of us in the sports department who understood the importance of such information in a city, and state, where horse racing is a way of life.

Finally, after we pointed out that injury reports and boxscores also provided gambling information, he relented. That was another thing about Barry Jr. He always was willing to listen and learn and consider viewpoints different from his own. When he was wrong, he admitted it and fixed it. He also tried to safeguard against mistakes by surrounding himself with an array of superb editors, mangers and advisers. I have fond memories of George Gill, Maury Buchart, Jim Ausenbaugh, Elmer “Tiger” Hall, Carol Sutton, Stan Slusher and so many more. Trust me. They could have worked anywhere.

The truth be told, we all loved and admired Barry Jr. In the early ’70s, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, we watched and applauded silently as he battled it with dignity and grace. When it went into remission, everyone in the newsroom was happy and relieved — for him, certainly, but also for ourselves, selfishly. Why, hell, if Barry Jr. had died at that point, his father might have been forced to sell the papers to some mammoth conglomerate who was interested only in the bottom line. Heaven forbid!

Under Barry Jr., The C-J became the first large metropolitan daily in the nation to appoint a female managing editor, the aforementioned Ms. Sutton. The C-J also was one of the first to appoint an ombudsman, John Herchenroeder, and The Times was one of the first to hire a full-time media critic, Bob Schulman. And long before it was popular, The C-J was devoted to diversity in the newsroom, employing respected reporters such as Merv Aubespin and Curtis Riddle.

Politically, he was a liberal Democrat, which used to be an admirable thing before the Rush Limbaugh Mind Police came along to twist the language and demonize it. He believed that government should do everything in its power to eradicate poverty and ignorance. He believed in conserving the environment. He continued The C-J’s proud tradition of shining the light of truth into coal mines and other dark places.

Camelot, indeed.

I remember a time in the early 1980s when Barry Jr. and his wife, Edie, invited the sports department to their River Road mansion for lunch. Unfortunately, Barry shared some bad news with us. He told us The Courier was no longer going to have home delivery in all 120 Kentucky counties. To me, this was the beginning of the end, and I stood up and told him so in a soliloquy that might have led a less-indulgent publisher to blow his top.
But not Barry. All he did was sympathize. He just said that he really had no choice in the matter.

Although we had a distinct chain of command at the old C-J, his door always was open. I know, because I used to drag in my daughters whenever the Girl Scouts were selling cookies. Barry Jr. would always sign up for a few boxes and pay by check. Somewhere I still have one of his signed checks. I think it might have been for a dollar he owed me on a bet. He always was interested in how the Derby was taking shape, even though he never went so far as to ask me to bet $100 for him in a Las Vegas future book, as his father always did with Mike Barry.

The last time I saw him was the night a few months ago that Johnny Apple of The New York Times was interviewed by Tom Brokaw at U of L’s Kentucky Author Forum. We ran into each other on the way out and chatted for a few moments. As I always did every time I ran into him, I told him what an honor and privilege it had been to work for him. I thanked him, one more time, even though I knew it probably embarrassed the hell out of him.

Just a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from him. He complimented me on a piece I had done for LEO about the downtown arena controversy. Looking at it, I could almost envision his unique signature at the end. Needless to say, I kept it.

Contact the writer at
[email protected]