By Rod Davis . . I heard from passing renegades, Geronitno was dead.” ‘ Shropshire, England When I heard Bob Ford died at last of the bone cancer he often cursed as gout, I swore the one thing he didn’t need was soft-headed praise. When the AP moved a simple, warm piece to announce the death of the long-time Texas state editor, I clipped it to remember. When I left Austin a month later, tired of it all and emigrating to the past, I threw the clipping away. Today, an ocean away, I read a newspaper story, some hostages in London, and I remembered Bob Ford, choking in cancerous cigar smoke, yelling at me over the phone as I covered a similar story: “How do you know?” For more than 20 years, Bob Ford was the bottom line on the AP in Texas. The AP in Texas: that threadbare, tough skein of bottled-up ambition cowing nervously toward New York, its master and way out. Bob was what is called the state editor. He came to work five days a week \(not alp.m. Though there is an extremely disciplined office structure, and the four or five people on duty have specific jobs, final word on anything that requires final word goes through the state editor, and went through Bob Ford. He became the link between the AP and the over 250 daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, not to mention New Mexico and Arkansas, also part of Dallas’ computer-linked domain. Even so, he was, like most other wire service reporters, a public non-entity. How could it be otherwise? He could never leave his desk. It was from there he directed, coordinated, and fretted over The Report. Toward the end of his life, he perceived the pressure to be so severe, so constant, that he wouldn’t even leave for his half-hour lunch, nibbling instead from his brown bag, buying 15 cent bags of Servomation Fritoes and carbonated drinks in soggy cups. His only consistent by-lines were on election nights, when he wrote the “lead”, or main, AP story. I think elections became more difficult for him as he got older. He panicked at timesten people asking questions, three lines ringing, copy on the wrong spikes, the blasted computer down again, new totals from Houston, some radio disc jockey with a complaint that UPI was two minutes earlier on the last countand yeah, he panicked. You could see it, and winced a little. But there was no time for that, not with a deadline every minute. So election planning started going to a few other people. If anybody ever saw Bob’s by-line, Robert E. Ford, Associated Press Writer, it was probably on two very strange feature columns: “A Texan Lost in Texas” and “Southwest Review of Books.” He did these once a week. The book review got to be something of a joke after a while. He had little time for it yet he seemed to feel that it ought to be done. Bob had to use the time honored write-from-the-book-jacket method. Still, every publisher of Southwestern facts and fiction, Indian lore, cowboy stories, sent books to Bob. As if it were one more burden, oh lordy, he tried to see they got a mention that might show up in a paper or two somewhere between Brownsville and Denver. “A Texan Lost in Texas” was what Bob liked doing best, and it showed his easily parodied style of beginning sentences without the subject : Went to Abilene last Sunday. Took my battered old wagon. Some of us made merciless fun of that style, writing terrible Fordisms as leads.to see if he would catch them. He did. I didn’t understand the title until recently. I had always thought of it as typical AP schmaltz. But it was not about trips to Abilene, it was the stubborn, bravura chronicle of a man stuck in his fate. Lost. In Texas. He had written a book, too, Sergeant Sutton. He was as proud of it as of belonging to The Institute of Texas Letters, and of his literary pals, Frank Tolbert, et al. The novel recounted what must have been the single most terrible event in his life, Iwo Jima. As a marine lieutenant, he saw most of the men in his company killed. I think he never forgot it. We called him the “Colonel,” and on slow Saturday mornings he’d tell some old stories while I punched out the 8:25 radio split. Radio. Television. I think that did Bob in, along with the computer. I came to the AP from a Dallas television station. I know Bob had seen me, because he seemed to have ambivalent feelings toward me. I think it hit him that I, 25, was known to several hundred thousand people while he, sixtyish, was a denizen of the catacombs. But he took me under wing. Perhaps it was a challenge to him, for while the celebrity status of broadcasters might have made him secretly envious, he absolutely scorned any pretensions such folk might have to proper reporting. He referred to radio announcers as “talking dogs.” The first thing he ever told me was: “Just remember this about the AP. There are thousands of little pieces of paper that have to be in the proper place. As long as you keep them straight, you’ll be all right.” During my two years there, we became close. When I left, he said he often wished it weren’t too late for him. He averted his eyes when shaking my hand and mumbled,` keeping on writing.” I think I quarrelled with Bob as much as anyone. He was the guardian of the AP credo: absolute “objectivity.” It was useless to discuss the subject with him. Anything that he could construe as “editorial comment,” he did. I think he made some mistakes there. I find it impossible to blame him. He made some enemies when he quit the Wire Service Guild in the 1972 strike. But he had helped start the Guild in Texas years ago and he hung on, I think, until, though he had survived Japanese bullets, he lost his nerve in the face of becoming a jobless old man. He was a left-over. He learned journalism when people still said “Stop the Presses!” Back then, to be a good reporter you primarily needed guts, no family, and a style that would make Hemingway seem verbose. He watched colleagues die of the bottle or tremble with bad nerves. He saw them live on $60 a week and less, and curse and revel in their toughness. And drift with Black Jack from Dallas, to Houston, to Corpus, to Tyler, or maybe a weekly in Pecos. Lost. Bob would have become an alcoholic, I’m sure, but his wife, a stubborn Baptist, kept him from it. In his last year, Bob was absent more and more. State editor duties were passed around. You would see Bob in the corner of the’ office, along with his Byzantine filing system \(Once a staffer messaged New York that Dallas couldn’t answer a query because Ford wasn’t in and no one could figure out was given the duties of Enterprise editor, and spent more time on his columns. Jim Brigance and Eloy Aguilar shared and then divided the main duties, but Bob’s advice was still sought on points of libel and style. Many of the questions, you knew, didn’t really need asking. Someone told me Bob Ford always secretly wanted to be assistant chief of bureau, but knew he was too old. His thin neck bristled when the young assistant COBs would order himhimto do something. But assistant COBs are by nature management flunkies and I don’t think Bob ever wanted that. He ,couldn’t leave the news side for what he scornfully called “the front office.” There is something terrifying about old reporters. It’s because reporters aren’t supposed to get old. It is a young man’s trip, the domain of renegades. God help you if you stay too long. Old wire service reporters are probably the oldest of all. No ‘laurels for venerable January 30, 1976 13 +am.
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