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Geneva Overholser, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, is paid to catch flak from irate readers with all the Southern charm she can muster. But even she may have been apprehensive when she took the floor at the Nov. 13 gathering of the Post’s “E Streeters” alumni society. She was, after all, facing an assembled group of elder newspapermen and -women, and she half-expected them to pepper her with questions about sinking journalistic standards, displaying as much tact as Sam Donaldson on a helicopter pad.
And, as it happened, the old-timers did quiz her vigorously when she finished her speech. “Aren’t there too many puns in Post headlines?” complained one former scribe. “Do you make it a point to crack down on loaded adjectives in the news columns, like all those nasty things they’ve been writing about Mrs. Clinton?” asked another. “Isn’t there too little space allotted to local news?” challenged a third.
“They were actually a bit more complimentary than I expected,” she said afterward, adding that she was impressed at the intense interest of E Streeters in the fate of their old employer.
Maybe the Post was better in the good old days, maybe it wasn’t, but it’s the nature of an E Streeters’ luncheon that such questions remain unresolved. Baseball has old-timers’ games, when grizzled, out-of-shape heroes try to relive their glory days. High schools hold their class reunions, where star-crossed sweethearts rekindle ancient flames. And every May and November the Post invites the E Streeters, the veterans of the Post’s old E Street NW offices, back for a visit to the swankier digs on 15th Street NW. About 75 snazzily dressed former editors, ad reps, reporters, and press operators gather for a free lunch, open bar, discussion with current reporters and editors, and, most important, the chance to swap stories about the way things used to be.
Like the time in 1941 when Robert Tate Allan, the Post’s late church editor, saw his item about a new minister bumped despite his strident lobbying: Editors decided that the attack on Pearl Harbor was more important. Or the time the Pulitzer Prize was won on the sunny shores of southern Turkey: Jean Friendly couldn’t drag her husband Alfred away from the Washington grind. Then she told him she would spend two months a year at their new Turkish vacation home, with or without him. He quickly took the Middle East beat and won the Pulitzer for his coverage of the Six-Day War.
The E Streeters mostly hark back to the ’40s and ’50s, when the Post was only one of four daily newspapers in D.C., and they slapped the paper together in a ramshackle, soot-infested building near the U.S. Treasury. “It was right out of The Front Page,” says Elsie Carper, an early female reporter at the Post who retired a few years ago as an assistant managing editor. It was an era of mixed blessings: Manual typewriters and linotype machines were the height of technology; blue-collar workers served as jacks-of-all-trades rather than handling only union-approved tasks; and Washington’s black community received scant coverage, positive or negative, in the local news pages.
The E Street building was razed long ago, and only a few E Streeters, such as cartoonist Herblock and sports columnist Shirley Povich, still appear in the paper with any frequency. But almost half a century later, the survivors of that “mess” of a building still can’t get enough of their old employer. People still feel “something special about their early days at the Post,” said Allan’s widow Dorothy Allan before the most recent luncheon. “It’s amazing how we never run dry of things to talk about—things that happened, or our memories of people.”
The society was born in early 1974 when Robert Tate Allan convinced a group of his lunch buddies from the National Press Club to schedule gatherings for ex-Posties. When Allan died in 1975, a series of Post veterans made a point of keeping the society alive. By 1977, the group had grown to 113 dues-paying members. (Dues have held rock-steady at $5 per year since the ’70s.) Membership actually increased over the next two decades despite the inevitable defections to the Sun Belt. The society received formal Post sanction in the ’80s after the Graham family—owners of The Washington Post Company and E Street luncheon regulars themselves—decided to host the alumni get-togethers at the Post’s new headquarters. Today the E Streeters society claims 135 members, including retired Posties (white- and blue-collar) and spouses and widows who once depended on the company for their families’ livelihoods.
E Streeters make it clear that their affection for the Post has much to do with their affection for the family that has owned it since the 1930s—present-day matriarch Katharine Graham, as well as her late father, Eugene Meyer, and her late husband, Philip L. Graham. The Meyers and Grahams, they say, used to run the paper like a family. “It was a wonderful place to work,” says Sue Oremland, who retired from the advertising department in 1985. Eugene Meyer was known for playing regular games of poker with his printers. And Sam Stavisky, a one-time reporter who’s now the E Streeters’ vice president, recalls his embarrassment when he had to refuse Philip Graham’s invitation to play tennis because the birth of Stavisky’s first child was imminent. Even so, he says, “the first gift for the baby came from Phil.”
More than other generations of reporters, the E Streeters lived through wrenching changes in the journalism business—and they aren’t shy about gabbing about them. Common targets are computers (longtime reporter Chalmers Roberts, hired for $15 per week in 1933, remembers that when he was posted to Geneva in 1954, he had to file his copy with the Swiss post office and “hope to hell it got to Washington”) and the resources available to today’s big reporting staffs (editors once frowned at having to shell out for a reporter’s bus fare to Baltimore, Stavisky says).
The E Streeters will keep meeting for a while longer, but the society can’t last forever. Officially, recent luncheon attendance has been holding steady at about 75, but one member said that compared to the old days, the crowd recently seems to be “thinning out.” While a regular feature of the E Streeters’ newsletter has always been the obituaries section, no event made more of an impression on E Streeters than what happened the day before the Nov. 13 luncheon.
At the May 1995 gathering, longtime Post theater critic and E Streeter Dick Coe gave the featured speech to his former colleagues—a performance that, Jean Friendly recalls, “was so full of life.” But on Nov. 13, E Streeters woke up to the news that Coe had died of lymphoma. At last month’s luncheon, society President Albert Manola led the assembled crowd in a moment of silence for Coe. And then, wistfully, the E Streeters began nibbling away at their appetizers and murmuring softly to the buddies who were still around.