One desk, two pandemics
Finding inspiration from my dad’s heirloom and my hometown newspaper’s ’editor emeritus’
I spent a part of pretty much every day of our COVID-19 pandemic year seated at the antique roll top desk in my home office.
It isn’t at all ergonomic, but I love this desk so much. It’s a behemoth, with under drawers that extend out a full 3 feet and 16 desktop cubbyholes of varying sizes including a lockable box and three secret compartments. It takes up about a quarter of the floor space in my small office.
Whenever I open the center drawer, a small piece of my childhood comes to life. That drawer still smells like it did when I would search for a homework pencil. It used to be my dad’s desk and he always had pens and pencils, emblazoned with Brown’s Shoe Fit Company advertising, stowed there. “A fit for every foot” declared the promotional swag, but through the printing process, the word “foot” often looked like it said “fool.” My friends used to rib me about that.
My dad ran his Longmont, Colorado, shoe store for 42 years. He retired in 1985 but today Brown’s is as busy as ever at its Main Street location. That would make him happy. It would also make him happy to know I love sitting at his desk because he once told me it was meant to be mine.
While dad was the desk’s most recent owner, he was only one part of its history. An avid woodworker, dad painstakingly restored its tiger oak charm. But he didn’t buff away the marks left by still-burning cigarettes that line the desktop or the bottle water mark stain from inside one of its deep drawers. Dad felt the desk earned those scars and they told its story.
The desk made it to my dad’s possession back in the late 1960s or early 1970s. According to him, he was at Longmont Daily Times-Call newspaper office one day to finalize a shoe sale ad when someone in charge started complaining about how the desk took up way too much space in the newsroom.
“How much money do you have in your pocket, Paul Holmes,” the fellow bellowed. My dad had a $20 bill and it bought him an antique desk.
Another part of the desk’s story is recounted in a matted and framed 1957 newspaper article that he hung on the wall above it. “The latest news by shotgun” reads the article headline. The story announces the retirement of Ray Lanyon, the publisher of the Longmont Daily Times-Call. The accompanying picture shows him seated at his/my desk.
Ray Lanyon began work at the Times Call when he was just 14 years old. He climbed his way up from newspaper carrier to printer. He became so proficient at operating the linotype machine, he was able to compose stories directly on it. That’s quite a skill, as anyone who has ever watched a linotype operate can attest. In 1919, Ray and his wife Elsie mortgaged their home to purchase the newspaper and he served as its publisher for the next 38 years.
Almost every time I sit down to write a story, I glance up at that picture of Ray and wonder what he would think. “You and I are both reporting the news, but I bet it would blow your mind to see how the job is done today,” is my usual thought. But that changed this year.
At some point during the early days of COVID-19, it struck me that in all likelihood, Ray also covered a pandemic. The Spanish Flu hit Longmont hard during 1918. Last April, Eric Mason — who is the curator of the Longmont History Museum — wrote a Times-Call story that detailed how by Dec. 3, 1918, the flu had claimed the lives of 55 residents in town. Longmont’s population was just 5,500 back then so that represented 1% of the city’s population.
That’s a hard image to shake. If 1% of Eagle County’s population died from COVID-19, we would be talking about 550 deaths. We have lost 22 neighbors to COVID-19 and that’s left a noticeable hole in our community.
I spent a lot of time during the past 12 months looking at that newspaper photo of Ray, wondering how many stories he wrote about the Spanish Flu. Did he repeatedly remind people about public health orders and deal with residents who refused to believe the pandemic was real? Did he interview families about lost loved ones and then tear up as he typed?
Ray has been my periodic muse ever since his desk made its way to my house. But this year, he was also my imaginary friend. I never had the chance to actually meet the man — he died on Oct. 7, 1961, two weeks to the day after I was born. Maybe we were both patients at Longmont Community Hospital at the same time. But I’ve enjoyed learning details about Ray’s life, thanks to the help of the aforementioned Eric Mason.
He served as Longmont mayor for 12 years from 1931 to 1943. “He couldn’t stand to see men out of work and it is said he got more WPA projects for Longmont than any other mayor in northern Colorado,” reads the memorial editorial that appeared in the Oct. 9, 1961 edition of the Times-Call.
Back in the early 1920s, Ray editorially battled the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in Longmont. “He was threatened at the office and at home. A campaign was launched to have subscriptions canceled. He never relented,” reads that same 1961 piece.
But my favorite line from that editorial is this: “After selling his holdings in the Daily Times-Call, he was named editor emeritus in honor of 38 years as the previous publisher. Until his recent illness, there was seldom a day he wasn’t at the desk reserved for him.”
My imaginary colleague
For the past year, while I was working alone in my house, every now and then I would talk to Ray. It made for a nice break from my conversations with the dog and the cat. “See Ray, here I am, trying to let people know what they need to know,” I’d say. I think he would have appreciated my efforts at relevance. I think he would have recognized them.
I wonder how his work writing about the Spanish Flu pandemic stacked up against all the big stories Ray must have covered during his career. Was it up there with the 1929 stock market crash or Pearl Harbor Day? Did the job of extended Spanish Flu coverage produce the same combination of exhaustion and fulfillment that covering COVID-19 has? At the Vail Daily, we worked hard this year and we are proud of our pandemic reach. We remain committed to this reporting effort as demonstrated this week with our Shining Through series.
But even after a year when I spent a ton of time at my desk, I am certain that I will never bang out as as many stories there as Ray did. I can almost see him pulling up his chair and pounding away at his Underwood typewriter, as he did for almost four decades.
Many years ago, my dad told me we wanted me to have the desk because it needed to go to a journalist. I like to believe that Ray — my silent partner in pandemic reporting — would have thought so, too.