When the future was in Topeka

Topeka Capital-Journal
Sept. 25, 1992

There have been times when I would have liked to buy back my introduction to Gene Gregston, times when I wished I’d never seen him. Not many times, but a few. The reason is, he’s the man who, some 40 years ago, got me to move to Kansas and go to work for the old Topeka Daily Capital.

He lives in San Diego now, and we got together when I was there last week for the wedding of my son, Kurt. We had a California lunch: a vegetarian sandwich featuring avocado, sprouts, cucumber, cheese, lettuce and tomato, with a little white wine. The lunch is healthier, but not nearly as tasty, as a cheeseburger and a beer.

Gregston is an Okie, from the little town of Marlow, which means he can’t be all bad. He was in journalism school at the University of Oklahoma when a printer on the school paper gave him a clipping advertising an opening for sports editor on the Odessa, Tex., American.

He said he figured at the time he had learned all OU you could teach him, so he applied and got the job. He went from there to the Abilene, Tex., paper for a short spell, then to the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

He was there in 1951 when Jim Reed was named the new managing editor of the Capital. He wanted a new sports editor, so, for some reason, he called Harold Keith, legendary sports information director at Oklahoma, and asked for a recommendation. Keith named Gregston, and Reed hired him.

Gregson was allowed to hire two new sports writers, so he called me. I was in Odessa, where, as a matter of pure coincidence, I had become sports editor. We had become acquainted at various sporting sports events, the most memorable being when I accompanied the Odessa Golden Gloves team to Fort Worth for the state tournament.

The future was in Topeka, Gregston promised, so I drove up, was interviewed by Reed, and took the job. The pay was $78 per week, and I never learned how he arrived at that mysterious number. The only perquisite that went with the job was free ice water when the water fountain worked. There was no retirement plan, no health insurance, no thrift or savings plan.

Worst of all, the expense account allowances were so frugal there was no way to steal. You had to forge a round trip to Manhattan to steal a dollar, and it was hardly worth the trouble.

Gregston called again and asked if I knew a sports writer who might like to join us in making history in Topeka. I recommended Bob Hurt, whom I had met at the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman and Times. So it was that Hurt, and I arrived in Topeka together in his Packard convertible on a hot summer day, ready for all challenges.

The first one came when we tried to find a place to live. There was virtually nothing available, and we had to settle for a one bedroom apartment in what we were told was a converted lightning rod factory on Fourth Street. Gregston, who was married, found a tiny apartment in a remodeled house.

The next challenge came when we saw the space the newspaper allocated to sports. It was ludicrous. There were days we couldn’t get all the major league box scores in, much less any local news. Gregston began a running battle for more space, and it’s a battle I soon would inherit.

Gregston shook him up with his expenses, too. Shortly after we arrived, he went to Chicago to cover the College All Star game, and old-timers at the paper were shocked that the Sports Department was frittering away money like that. He had us all out covering events in what was called at the time, a “spending binge.”

But Gregston missed Fort Worth, and Fort Worth wanted him back. He got calls almost daily urging him to return to his old job, and four months after he arrived here, he resigned and went back. I replaced him, Hurt replaced me when I left sports to become managing editor, replacing Reed, and Bob Hentzen replaced Hurt when he returned to Oklahoma City.

That’s the way it happened here, and the way it happened in Fort Worth was that in 1958, Gregston departed to become sports columnist and editor in San Diego. In 1965, he became managing editor and stayed on that job until 1975, when he had a major falling out with the owners, again over the issue of space.

Out of a job, Gregston tried his hand at writing books, and one of them was a winner. His book on golfer Ben Hogan, titled, “Hogan, The Man who Played for Glory,” was hailed nationwide as an outstanding effort on a complicated subject.

An interesting point about the book is that Hogan didn’t authorize it. A virtual recluse even in those days, he didn’t want anything written about him. Gregston wrote the book under contract to the publisher, Prentice Hall, and Hogan, once a friend, hasn’t spoken to him since.

In 1979, Gregston took a job running the San Diego office of a congressman, and retired from that in 1989. Naturally, he went right back to writing books, and his latest “Storm Center,” has been doing well. It’s about the tragedy and terrorism involving the US Navy cruiser Vincennes, its captain and his wife.

It started when the Vincennes fired Aegis missiles that shot down an Iranian jetliner, killing all 290 on board. The skipper was Captain Will Rogers, and the incident led to the pipe bombing of his wife’s van by terrorists in front of their home. It’s a book that tells you what happened and why, and it’s both interesting and exciting.

I still say Gregston lured me to Topeka and then abandoned me, but obviously I have learned to live with it. I moved back here seven years ago, and this time I have no one to blame but myself. I have no choice but to say I like it here.

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