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“Did you know one of our old cowboys was on the Titanic?” Dean Thornton asked over coffee one day.
“A guy named Tommy Atkinson. He used to break horses for my Dad years ago on our ranch. He’s pretty old . . . in a nursing home now. Could be a great story for you, though . . . if you can get him to talk.”
Photo Credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia
Dean was a prominent local businessman and rancher. He’d given me a number of solid leads for stories.
At 23, I was hardly beyond the ‘cub reporter’ stage in my budding career. But for reasons known only to God and the universe, I’d recently become the newly minted farm reporter for a Pulitzer Prize winning daily newspaper. That sent me on the hunt for newsy stories from the countryside in the paper’s circulation area. This one sure looked like a winner.
As it turned out, Dean’s tip this time became a valuable lesson I’d never forget.
A call to the seniors’ home confirmed Tommy Atkinson was a resident. The helpful woman on the line wasn’t encouraging, however. She said Tommy was 94 and not inclined to talk much. Cowboys were like that. When they communicate at all, it’s mostly in monosyllables.
The woman finally agreed to set up a meeting with Tommy. She’d heard his story and didn’t bother to ask his permission. He wasn’t going anywhere, she said. The seniors’ home was in a small town an hour out of the city. While driving there, I remembered earlier encounters with cowboys. I steeled myself for a tough interview.
Our photographer and I were shown to the room he shared with another man. Tommy was alone. He looked frail and was seated in a chair beside a window. Although early fall, he wore a handsome cream-colored fisherman knit sweater buttoned to the neck. A plaid blanket covered his knees, revealing the legs of his faded blue jeans and ornate cowboy boots. We shook hands. Tommy’s grip was firm; his hand still rough from a lifetime of hard work. His voice was shaky with age but animated with excitement.
I was thinking, ‘Someone’s finally going to tell this man’s amazing story.’ I felt sorry his great saga of survival had gone unrecognized all these years. I was proud and determined to correct that wrong.
While photographer Orville Brunelle snapped pictures, Tommy recounted in stunning detail the events that ill-fated night on board Titanic during its maiden voyage. His voice shook with emotion as he described the heroism of fellow passengers, modestly declining to assign credit to himself for any such acts.
With eyes brimming, Tommy described how he and several other young men he was traveling with had leapt into the frigid North Atlantic. Some had disappeared, he said quietly pausing to gather his emotions. Others like him had managed to cling or climb onto floating debris until rescued by lifeboats from passing ships. He couldn’t recall how long they were in the water. After all, by this time it had been more than 70 years. At his age, Tommy couldn’t be expected to remember all the fine details. He’d done amazingly well already. He’d given me more than enough to go with. I worked late into the night perfecting my big ‘scoop’.
Photo Credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia
The story ran with photos under a bold four-column headline at the top of the coveted third page of the city section. It was the Saturday edition, the newspaper’s largest circulation. We didn’t publish on Sundays. On Monday, fellow reporters were full of compliments as they gathered around my desk. A few were envious. I felt like a star.
Tuesday afternoon City Editor Mel Hinds, my boss, came to my desk and said Bill Hay, the managing editor, wanted to see us. That Mel had come over to my desk to speak with me was an important form of recognition in the newsroom. It hadn’t gone unnoticed among my colleagues. Almost without exception, journalists were called to his desk. I was still pumped by my ‘scoop’ and his appearance at my desk made me feel even more special. And having been called into the managing editor’s office . . . well, being praised by him in person would be my crowning achievement.
When we arrived at Bill’s office, he was standing behind his desk, his back to us. We all admired him for his kindly manner and strict adherence to the highest principles of journalism. All of us felt honored when he’d send us handwritten comments from time to time on a story we’d written, even when correcting us about something in a story or on how we’d written it. He managed to phrase much needed criticism as guidance – firm but kindly.
When Bill turned around, his normally friendly face bore no welcoming smile. Without a word, he pointed to the two chairs facing his desk. We sat. We looked at each other. We raised eyebrows simultaneously. We struggled to hide smiles about that.
“I had a call a few minutes ago,” Bill began. “From Tommy Atkinson’s granddaughter. She’s a teacher here in the city.”
‘Hey, maybe she has more to add to the story,’ I though, already considering how to write the lead for a sequel. This was exciting!
Bill continued: “She wondered where the hell we got the idea that her grandfather had been on the Titanic! According to her, he did nothing of the sort. It’s all in his mind. It’s all bullshit!”
A rare foreboding look clouded his face.
‘Oh shit!’ I thought as the realization hit home like a thunderclap. My heart almost skidded to a halt. I could hardly breathe.
Mel looked over at me. His eyes carried an even more foreboding look, accenting the angry frown on his face.
‘Really deep shit!’ I corrected myself. A thought flashed through my mind – will I ever find another job as a journalist after this disastrous screw-up?
Turns out, over the years Tommy had reaped a great deal of mileage from his oft repeated myth. Only his family knew the truth. They considered it a harmless way for a humble ranch hand to garner a bit of recognition. It became a family secret. They told no one. His family didn’t tell the seniors’ home either, thinking it would mean extra attention – often a scarce thing in those places. They were correct.
Bill and Mel ordered me to write a retraction and an apology. Both edited them repeatedly. I rewrote them, and rewrote them and rewrote them . . . until I finally realized the multiple rewrites they’d insisted upon were a well-deserved form of punishment.
The retraction and apology appeared Wednesday morning, in that same prominent third-page position. It was humiliating. Mercifully, the story was much briefer and under a one-column headline. Going to work that day was an experience I’ll never forget. My colleagues took much pleasure in my abundantly earned discomfort, especially the envious ones. Right then, I vowed never again to have to write a retraction or go through that experience. And I didn’t.
In the months that followed, Bill and Mel, a scattering of senior fellow journalists, and even our brilliant and kindly publisher Cleo Mowers, would quietly take me aside and share stories about their own early-career journalistic screw-ups and retractions. I realized they’d been there and done that, too. I was forever grateful they’d taken the time to ease my discomfort just a bit.
Never again would I rely on a single source for a story. The lesson stuck. From that day on there would always be multiple sources or there would be no story at all. The lessons of ‘the Titanic survivor who never was’ got passed on hundreds of times when I became an editor, and later while a journalism teacher.
Note: This is a true story. However, the names of some characters have been changed to respect their privacy.
Copyright 2012 By James Osborne All Rights Reserved