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READER MEMORIES: Memories of Bill and Mary Bertha Bess

Dec. 02, 2008 @ 01:49 PM

Our grandfather, Bill Bess, owed his career and his marriage to the various papers that along the way have formed the history of The Herald-Dispatch.

Obliged to leave school after the eighth grade to support his parents, Bill worked a variety of odd jobs including newspaper carrier boy in 1914. As fate would have it, he landed upon work in 1918 as an Associated Press telegrapher for The Herald-Dispatch.

In later years, our grandfather often commented that his stint as a telegrapher rounded out his education, teaching him the finer points of grammar, spelling and story composition. The experience also cultivated a keen memory, since the telegraph wire's transmission rate typically outpaced Bill's transcription speed by a paragraph.

Add to this mix a sly wit and native talent for spinning a good yarn, and you have the recipe for a fine newspaper man.

In the early years, news was not the only thing on young Bill's mind. A gregarious, fun-loving young lady worked in the advertising department of the busy publishing company.

Mary Bertha Simpson, a 1919 graduate of Huntington High School, apparently suffered from no shortage of beaux ready to sweep her off her feet. But there must have been something special about that enterprising telegrapher.

Until her last days, Mary Bertha kept an envelope stuffed with flirtatious notes that Bill Bess secretly left for her during their work shifts. Most were hastily written promises to drop by her desk later or bold suggestions that they "sit out on your porch tonight" or an even cheekier proposal to "come out tomorrow if you're home and supervise the work on the bathing suit."

One message was scribbled on the back of a First National Bank of Huntington check. A particularly plaintive note, composed with the typical angst of young love, was typed to "Babe" on Herald-Dispatch letterhead.

The notes obviously worked.

On May 30, 1923, Bill and Mary Bertha officially sealed a marital partnership that, throughout the course of 57 years, became intricately entwined with the Huntington Publishing Company.

In 1927, Bill was named sports editor for The Advertiser — the same year that The Herald-Dispatch joined The Advertiser as part of the Huntington Publishing Company.

Sports editor is a great gig at any time, but in the free-wheeling years between the wars, it must have been something special.

Bill's reporting skills took wing under his column "So I Am Told." He honed a talent for finding the fun and the adventure in every story. And what great assignments!

He and Mary Bertha thought nothing of hopping into their car and traveling across the continent to cover the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Among the memorabilia they brought home was a program signed by Babe Didrikson who won two gold medals and a silver medal in track and field that year. Other surviving souvenirs from the era include a Christmas card from Joe Louis and press passes from the 1940 World Series, Churchill Downs and the ninth annual Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. Somewhere along the way, Bill and Mary Bertha forged a lasting relationship with legendary boxer Jack Dempsey that included a healthy amount of correspondence between Dempsey's New York residence and Bill's newspaper office.

If our grandfather had one certain legacy, it was his founding of The Advertiser-sponsored Golden Gloves boxing tournaments in Huntington.

For twenty-five years (from 1936 to 1961 — with a three-year hiatus during World War II), Bill and his indefatigable sidekick Mary Bertha managed the complicated logistics of this amateur boxing program.

Beginning inauspiciously in a snowstorm in 1936, Bill directed (in the words of the great Ernie Salvatore) "23 tournaments of more than 3,000 bouts in two different arenas that were witnessed by over 250,000 fans and produced one eastern team championship, four individual eastern champions, five national champions, 11 eastern finalists and six national finalists."

While Bill was the front-man and chief worry-wart, Mary Bertha was the "can-do" gal in the background managing the ticket sales and serving up her celebrated cheese balls that (again, according to Ernie Salvatore) "when combined with proper drink, provided sustenance during those long tournament nights."

In 1941, Bill Bess became promotion manager and assistant circulation manager for the Huntington Publishing Company. Eventually he was named circulation manager, retiring from the company in 1967. However, retirement did not mean rest. Bill and Mary Bertha continued to collaborate on a wide variety of hobbies and schemes.

Perhaps what we grandchildren remember most about their retirement is the endless cast of characters who visited the gracious Bess home on 8th Street, regaling us with vivid stories of the glamorous years when Buck (as we called him) worked at the newspaper.

Certainly our grandparents were extraordinarily capable in many ways, but their most enduring talent was a knack for friendship — and their years with the newspaper represented some of the most important friendships of their lives.

On July 3, 1922, in the early years of Bill's long career, The Herald-Dispatch ran a brief notice marking his move to a day job in The Advertiser office:

“Mr. Bess made himself a part of The Herald-Dispatch organization. He was loyal, watchful, gentlemanly in all things and just as zealous for the progress of the paper as the owner or the editor. No better operator ever sat at the keys. He is at heart a newspaper man as well as a telegraph operator, and he possesses a versatility of acquirements and an ambition to succeed which will one day result in his very marked advancement.”

The Herald-Dispatch sure did get it right.

Submitted by F. Douglas Bess Jr. of Lithonia, Ga.; Jack H. Bess of Sugar Land, Texas; and Jane Bess of Winston-Salem, N.C.



 

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