Richard Reeves

A Death in the Newspaper Family

PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. -- It was a crystal blue sky and white cloud summer day in this old industrial town on the Delaware River last Monday. Perfect except that Tom Corcoran was gone and I was back as a pallbearer at his funeral.

"Farewell to a Man who Loved His Town," said the story on the front page of The Express-Times, the paper published on the Pennsylvania side of the river. Well, they got that right, though God knows Tom didn't love the Express.

Neither did I. We met in 1961 because we wanted to put out a paper that told the story from the Jersey side. He made his living as the boss of the local office of the state highway department, and I was an engineer at Ingersoll-Rand out on Route 22. We'd meet at night in what had once been a movie theater and write most every word of the paper we called The Phillipsburg Free Press. He did the sports and I did the news. He was my memory and mentor on all things local. He was born in P-burg and left only twice, serving as a Navy corpsman in World War II and the Korean War -- leaving high school before graduation because he thought the United States could never beat the Japanese without him.

It was a great time for a kid from the city like me -- if not quite sane. On Thanksgiving days, our families would come in and help put out a special issue on the event of the year around here, the annual Turkey Day football game between Phillipsburg and Easton high schools. I was thinking about those all-nighters -- a handshake, a laugh and then off to our real-world jobs in the morning -- as I drove back to what I came to think of as my hometown. I moved on and so did Tom, though he never left town and never stopped writing his sports column, even after he became mayor of the town. Now the damned Express owns the Free Press. Ingersoll, which had 4,500 employees in town then, now has 40 and the highway department is called DOT, the Department of Transportation.

When I got home last Tuesday and started to write this, I heard the news on the radio that Katharine Graham had died.

I knew Mrs. Graham a little, talked with her more than a few times over the years. For a minute I thought there could not be two more different people than this daughter of wealth who some might think was handed everything a grand and rich family had, and Tom Corcoran, one of nine kids in a factory town on the river. But, in fact, they were alike in some important ways.

Mrs. Graham loved her town, too, of course, though I guess you'd have to say it is grander than P-burg. And she loved the newspaper business -- and was crazier than Tom and I ever were putting out a paper with no money. In the 1970s, she bet her family's company against unbelievable odds. In a singular act of courage and patriotism, with the touch of madness set free always at the edge of journalism, she backed two young reporters named Woodward and Bernstein, who wouldn't even tell their editors all their sources, against the most powerful men in the government led by a president determined to destroy her and her family's work.

But there was more. "Tom was truly a self-made man," said Bill Mandry, the town attorney when Corcoran was mayor, in his eulogy at St. Philip's and St. James' Church. Forget the money; Kay Graham was a self-made woman who took over the family business at the age of 46 after being passed over by her father, who turned the business over to her husband. They speak of Phillip Graham, who later killed himself, as a genius now. But, in fact, he used the paper to serve his friends, beginning with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Mrs. Graham, with no experience and not much respect or help at first, built a great institution and the country is in her debt.

They were good people in my life. And the next? After Tom died, Bill Mandry decided to do what they did together after work in the summer, play a quick round out at Harkers Hollow Country Club. On the ninth hole, 148 yards, Mandry, who isn't that good, used a 7-iron and lofted a shot that rolled across the green in an odd way. A hole-in-one. His first. He looked up at this beautiful sky and said: "Thanks Tom."

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