Teletypes and Tyrants

Cathy and an early kitchen teletype

“Sometime around 1960 Gene Rutland [Commercial Appeal Tri-States Edition editor] asked me if I would let them put a teletype in for me, and I agreed. It was then they began listing Greenwood as one of their bureaus and paying me a small salary. The first teletype they brought was big and bulky and took up so much room in the corner of the kitchen that we had to cut off part of the eating counter, which Russell said was his part. It sounded like a big machine in a newspaper office and had to be left on most of the time. You couldn’t even hear the phone ring when it was on. I resigned myself to not having a kitchen anymore but a newsroom instead. We didn’t have it long, however, and they brought in a smaller, quieter, more modern one. It stayed on and you could read all of the news going into Memphis from the other bureaus so we always knew what was going to be in the paper the next day.

The Commercial Appeal gang. Once again, Sara is smack in the middle. I believe that is Bill Street leaning on the typewriter.

“We would send little notes back and forth to each other and could converse with folks in the office. Rutland was like a little Caesar and very hard to work for, so I tried to have most of my contacts with Bill Street, who was assistant tri-state editor and later political editor. He and I were very close, and I knew I could relay things to him that I did not want to go in the paper and that he would honor my request.”

I thought I had a normal childhood until I went off to college and found out that no one, no one, grew up with a clattering wire service teletype in their kitchen except me. And Cathy. There was a series of teletypes, each one a bit wider and bulkier than the previous model, and they sat in the corner of Sara’s kitchen, wedged between the built-in table and the window with the air conditioner. It was a tight squeeze, and poor Russell came home one evening from a long day on the road to find a small mound of sawdust where his place at the table had been that morning. He looked at the table, looked at the teletype, shook his head and ate his supper standing up by the stove. We all squeezed in a bit tighter and made room for him somehow.

For all its weird presence, the teletype was our window to the world. Way before anyone had ever dreamed of the internet, this magic machine chugged away on its own, its yellow paper scrolling out with notes and news from all over the Mid-South. Some of it was serious; much was just banter between Sara and her cohorts in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. They were a tight-knit bunch, united in their dislike for Gene Rutland, a tyrannical editor who laid impossible demands on their shoulders. Bill Street was more of a Perry White type, who understood what it took to motivate his writers and made them feel appreciated and valued.

I have hundreds of pages of teletype chatter which Sara saved, and these informal notes provide invaluable insight into her mindset as she covered the news of the area. And I wonder if there are others of my generation, other children of the Commercial Appeal’s lost legion of correspondents and bureau chiefs, who are also sitting on such a treasure?

A typical teletype page

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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