Unsung: A Tribute to Emma
I worked general assignments for the now-vanished Evening News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the first two years of the seventh decade of the twentieth century.
General assignments can cover a multitude of sins. I started mostly with features. Literally by accident, I wound up doing investigative stories.
The one that made my rep on the paper, and led to many others, was a nationwide telephone chase. It led me, long-distance, from the mean streets and prison records of Los Angeles to the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. I was “walking back the cat,” as intelligence types like to say, back-trailing the history of a local poverty-program official who had fallen under suspicion.
Newspaper reporters were the original “social engineers” with a telephone before the computer age and “phishing” freaks coopted the term. I could bring no public pressure to bear on prison officials in California, the staff of a gutted poverty work-program in Ohio, or the embarrassed director of a bankrupt Dade County poverty agency from which my target fled after sucking it dry. (She wouldn’t even return calls to the Miami Herald reporter who covered her agency. He had to get the story from me.)
So I had to schmooze my brains out to dig up the dirt on this guy, like the California bench warrant for his arrest. I had to learn to strike while the person on the other end of the phone felt like gabbing, before their brain engaged to ask themselves why they were spilling the beans.
In all of this telephone song and dance, the unsung conductor of the score was Emma, the newsroom receptionist who occupied a glass-walled cubicle near the front door.
I don’t think I ever saw Emma without her headset clamped to her dark hair, usually worn short in some kind of “permanent wave,” as the women styled those things then. Emma was a stout woman, perhaps from eight hours a day of sitting at her post directing traffic in the newsroom.
She joined in my hunt with a whole heart — managing my incoming calls, quickly assessing which ones she should break in on me for, and which calls she could safely delay by taking a message. She had an interrogator’s ear for callers who were ready to roll over on the spot, their tongues heavy with secrets. For the rest, her messages were detailed, precise, and gave me a head start when I did call back.
In a just world, Emma probably should have received a co-byline and some of the credit for the three-part series that drew the FBI into the case, unseated the crook, and plugged the bleeding of thousands of taxpayer dollars from a three-county federal program over which he had unmonitored control.
I could not have broken that story without her. Or others, once the city editor kept putting those kinds of investigations on my plate. I have a hunch other reporters would have said the same, if they ever paused to think about it.
My last year in Harrisburg was a strange, bad time for me. The grandfather who helped raise me died from diabetic complications. I was rear-ended while stopped by a car going 60 miles an hour, and transported to Hershey Medical Center with a concussion and miscellaneous other injuries, some of which would bedevil me the rest of my life. Then my gall bladder went crazy on me and was removed — right after I had a biopsy that revealed I was a victim of a weird disease called sarcoidosis that almost no one had ever heard of back then, and with which I was stuck for life.
Then one of my two younger brothers died in a car crash.
The day I got the call that Jimmy had been killed in Indiana, I was just getting back on my feet from surgery, working a story out of Shippensburg that entailed meeting a cop in anonymous motel rooms to hear his tale of a shameless burglary ring run by his own chief and fellow officers that victimized vacationing residents.
The cop was refusing to be named. He wanted to be designated as “a source close to the investigation.” But our executive editor, who had personally assigned me this one, wouldn’t play: there was no official investigation. I gave it one last shot, asking the cop if he would talk to Major Buchinsky, my State Police contact, who agreed he would open a case file so we could cover him that way. Absolutely not! The whistle-blowing cop’s chief had too many state-trooper buddies who could access State Police files. Impasse. The executive editor was disgusted, but not with me. He said go bury your brother and we’ll resume this when you get back. We never did, because that rotten year wasn’t through with me, or Harrisburg.
When my wife and I left that Sunday for Louisville, Hurricane Agnes was still ‘way down south, where hurricanes belong. We buried Jimmy on Monday, a hot, awful, muggy day in the Ohio River valley without a breath of wind. Jimmy did not look good. My father and my stepmother — and his fiancée, who had witnessed his death from another car — were devastated. The Indiana coroner said he died too fast too hurt for a second. Given the details of his injuries, that seemed right. I hoped so.
But this is about Emma.
When we started back for Pennsylvania, Agnes had come to call. We were alone on the Turnpike late Tuesday night with only the long-haul truckers for company — and Agnes. Rain, rain, torrents of rain — then worse rain. I fought the water and the wind across the Alleghenies, a Floridian fighting a hurricane in the Pennsylvania mountains. It got worse and worse the farther east we got. I was drubbed by the time we made it home, and called Emma at the start of the Wednesday shift to say I wasn’t coming in. She expressed her condolences for the loss of Jimmy.
That was the last conversation I ever had with Emma.
Thursday, the creek at the bottom of the hill we lived on was a wide, raging torrent. The little bridge was under to the top of its rails. The creek had filled the park and was rising up the lower part of the hill. I was marooned.
The Patriot-News Building, and the rest of downtown Harrisburg, went under water from the flooding Susquehanna that day, to a level at the newspaper of desktops on the first floor. The house on the West Shore we thought about buying, so I could hunt ducks on the river from the back yard, was wiped off the face of the earth.
Emma maintained her second-floor switchboard post after everyone else but one rewrite man evacuated the building.
Finally a rescuer took her off in a jon boat, and turned up Market toward Cameron, headed for high ground.
The intersection was a rip tide.
When the boat started rocking, she got nervous and tried to stand up. The weight shift capsized the boat and she went under. “Like a rock,” a police eyewitness said.
Gone without a trace. The boatman and Clyde Shue, the dried-up little rewrite man who had shared her final vigil, stayed afloat and were saved.
They found her body snagged in the undercarriage of a semi on Cameron after the flood receded.
Before that I finally made it to Cameron Street on Friday, about a mile from where Emma was under the water. But I didn’t know that then. Cameron was a waterway, covered with a thick oil slick. A lounge chair and some oil drums, sundry junk, floated by on the current. Rescue choppers pounded overhead.
At that moment I still had no idea what had happened at the newspaper, or to Emma. I put on my duck-hunting hip boots and got halfway across Cameron toward the newspaper before the water came up to the tops. Nobody knew the water would continue to rise until it crested more than 34 feet above flood stage, a new record, making it the Great Flood of ’72.
By Saturday the news staff had regrouped in satellite bureau offices and begun to cover the flood. I covered President Nixon’s visit to a shelter for flood victims before I was reassigned to Allentown. The Allentown Call-Chronicle was printing our flood editions while our presses were underwater. A publisher’s representative had to be at press-head to authorize last-minute corrections and give final okay for the press start. Since I had been an editor in other places, I was elected.
I don’t know when they finally found Emma. I don’t know where her funeral was held. I don’t know where she was buried. I am ashamed to admit I don’t even remember her last name. Those facts somehow got lost in the Agnes aftermath as the city emerged, stinking, from the flood waters and we tried to get the newspaper back up and running.
But to me Emma will always be the unsung heroine of those years.
She was a force-multiplier for me on a dozen tough stories. And she possessed a quiet courage no one would have guessed, standing her post until the bitter end as the flood waters came to get her.
The Greeks once famously said all earth is the grave of heroes.
Rest in peace, Emma.