THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
THE PRESENCE OF GREATNESS
died a few months ago.
When I was hired at Newsday, in 1960, Greene headed the Investigative Team. In the '70's, he became the Suffolk (County) Editor. In those days, Newsday's main office and the printing plant was located in Nassau County. The Suffolk operation was really a bureau working out of a small building in Ronkonkoma. There was a staff of writers, editors and photographers assigned to the bureau. Bob Greene ruled his fiefdom from his small office in the newsroom, looking much like a huge Buddha as he sat behind his desk.
The major thrust of the stories that appeared in the paper then were generated in the main office in Nassau. Suffolk was the 'burbs; a sleepy little agricultural county that didn't count for much to those who ran the paper in Nassau.This would change in the coming years, enhanced by the fact that the paper chose to erect it's modern new office and plant just over the Suffolk border, doing away with the need for a Suffolk Bureau. At that point, both Nassau and Suffolk operations were combined under a Long Island Editor.
Until then, Bob Greene ruled Suffolk news and tried valiantly to promote Suffolk stories to run in the front of the paper. At one point, I served as Night Photo Editor and would have to attend the nightly news meeting where all editors would present their stories and all would push for their stories to lead the paper. This was around the time that Dave Laventhol was the paper's Editor and he would conduct the meetings and rule on which stories would run where. The Nassau Editor, the National Desk Editor, the Foreign Desk Editor, the Sports Editor, the Features Editor and I, representing the Photo Desk, would sit around the large table in the conference room. Bob Greene, the Suffolk Editor would be in attendance via a conference call hook up. He could hear what was being said and we could all hear his comments.
Laventhol would query the Nassau Editor first.
He might suggest that his best story was a break in a hot homicide case that we had been featuring for the past few days.
Laventhol would jot down some notes and say, "OK. National, what do you have?"
The National Editor would say something like, "Well, there's the always popular presidential campaign, with both sides slinging mud."
The Foreign Desk was next and he might lead with, "Two members of the International Peacekeepers were killed in escalating violence in Haiti, today."
Sports would push for the story about the NY Jet's football team getting their first round pick in the Player's Draft.
Features loved their big take on the latest home decor for Long Island homes. They had their own special section, though and weren't competing for space in the main section.
The only contributions from me came with a simple nod or shake of the head when Laventhol asked me if we had any art for any of these stories.
Then he would lean towards the speaker phone in the center of the table and ask, "What does Suffolk have tonight, Bob?"
He would smile at us, knowing what to expect.
"OK, Dave," Bob's voice would boom over the speaker. "We have a bunch of up front possibilities. But, the strongest one is cauliflower. The prices have dropped. We've talked with dozens of local farmers who are facing disaster because of lower prices for their product."
Greene would go into a long explanation of why this story should beat out the homicide story, the presidential campaign, the violence overseas or the local team's luck in the draft pick.
Laventhol would chuckle and say, "Thanks, Bob," as he reached over to disconnect the phone circuit. Then he would glance at his notes and say, "Haiti looks good for the cover. Let's put homicide on three and share it with politics if there's room. Put cauliflowers on twelve but work in a teaser on the cover pointing to the story."
That's not to say that Greene never had important stories. It just points out his competitiveness and his zeal for the importance of his and his staff's efforts.
He is best remembered for his work as an investigative reporter and the leader of the renown "Greene Team."
Bob's happy band of warriors tackled everything from dirty local politics to crime and international events. His most telling work as a team leader came when he led a mixed group of writers from papers all over the country in bringing to light the death of Don Bolles in 1976. Bolles was an investigative reporter from an Arizona newspaper, whose car was wired to a bomb when he got too close to the truth while investigating a story involving land fraud and mob influence. This monumental task which was known around the country as "The Arizona Project," eventually produced a 23 part series which ran in papers around the U.S. and resulted in justice being served in Arizona.
As a photographer, I rarely had much contact with Bob. Even during the times when I would be sent out to work the Suffolk Bureau, filling in for one of their shooters while they were on vacation, I didn't find myself involved with him. We all got our marching orders from the Photo Editor back in Nassau, and that included the Suffolk photographers as well. So, I really wasn't familiar with all of the things that made him a truly great man. The little involvement that I did have was cursory, at best, and I found him to be a bit pompous and chauvanistic regarding his self imposed reign as emperor of Suffolk County.
This came to a head at one point, after a terrible blizzard which inundated all of the northeastern coast of the U.S. The Photo Staff was put on full alert the night the snow began to fall, and as the drifts began to close down road after road, we had to resort to herculean efforts to get around Long Island to photograph the effects the storm was having. Every one of us came through with fantastic shots of people struggling to cope; traffic snarled by drifts and abandoned cars; snowplows fighting vainly against the deepening snow. This was before digital cameras and lap top computers. There was no transmitting pictures from wherever. We all straggled back to our home office, be it the main plant in Nassau, or the bureau in Suffolk. The next day, Newsday put out a magnificent paper that showed all of our efforts in the best possible manner. We had done well.
Later that day, in the newsroom in the main office, someone posted a long announcement on the bulletin board. It was from Bob Greene, praising the magnificent effort put forth by his team of reporters in the bureau, resulting in the fine product that was delivered to all of Long Island that day.
Dick Yarwood, my friend and associate, was reading over my shoulder. We both had the same thought. It was bad enough that Greene didn't mention the efforts of the Nassau staff, but there was not even a mention of the Photo Staff. Not even the photographers from the bureau.
That was unconscionable.
Yarwood was the Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll. I have always been a rather laid back, conservative kind of guy. Yarwood speaks out. He takes risks. And, he has a way of conspiring to get me involved. And, damn it...I end up doing it with a passion. So, we sat down and wrote a response to Greene's heinous note. We pointed out that Greene was so involved with praise for his little band of reporters, who, we pointed out, probably did all of their reporting by phone from the warmth and comfort of their desks at the bureau, that he found it uneccesary to give any credit at all to any of the photo staff, who spent long hours up to their asses in wet, cold snow to showcase the wordsmiths feeble efforts. Oh, we showed no mercy.
Later that afternoon, our response was posted on the bulletin boards of both offices. Another missive came from the leader in Suffolk. In it Greene pooh-poohed our juvenile attitude, calling photographers spoiled children who need to be led by the hand in order to get any meaningful work out of us.
Needless to say, we had another acerbic reply on the walls within the hour. This went back and forth for a few days, escalating in intensity with each successive missive. The staffs of both offices watched in amusement as the tone of the notes became more vituperative; more personal.
It was late one night when Yarwood and I conspired to fire our latest shot back to Greene. We pondered long over the choice of words we would use. I wanted something to counter Greene's accusation that we were a a bunch of sniveling miscreants and to stress his obvious abuse of power.
I had it. I found just the words to use. I typed it into our word processor. I wasn't quite sure what one of the words meant, but it sure sounded like something I wanted to say.
"Perfect," Yarwood said. "Sent it."
The next day at the office, the Photo Editor picked up the phone and handed it to me. It was Bob Greene on the line.
"You win, Kraus." He was chuckling.
"Petty Satrap. Wherever did you come up with that? I can't beat that one. You win."
It takes a great man to admit defeat.
It took many years and then his demise and that tribute to his amazing career before I realized how truly great a journalist and a man he really was.
And, I found out that we had one thing in common. At the end of the tribute to him, they showed some video clips they had made of him, shortly before he died. He was seen sitting in a chair; his arms folded across his ample girth, addressing a classroom full of journalism students at Stony Brook University. His face beamed as he told them how all through his career, he couldn't believe that they were paying him so much money to do something that he enjoyed doing so much. Until the day I retired, I felt exactly the same way.
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