Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2014

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Hank takes on R-J

Editor's note: Alan Jarlson, one of the Sun's top reporters during the 1950s and 1960s, also was a newscaster for KLAS Channel 8 and news director at KTNV Channel 13. While at the Sun, Jarlson went to Cuba to cover the revolution and later covered the early days of the U.S. space program. He produced CBS News coverage of the Gemini 9 mission. Jarlson is now retired and living in California.

It was the summer of 1950. Memories of World War II were receding from the minds of most Americans. That June armed forces of North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, igniting an armed conflict a world weary of war did not want.

Harry Truman was in the White House. Across the Pacific Gen. Douglas MacArthur was rallying his forces against the military onslaught on the Asian peninsula.

About 6,500 miles to the east, in the Nevada desert oasis of Las Vegas, the news of MacArthur's desperate stand at Pusan on the southernmost tip of Korea was being faithfully reported on the front page of the town's newest source of information -- the Las Vegas Morning Sun.

The Sun was born that year when Hank Greenspun, a tough-minded but extremely caring newcomer to Las Vegas, took the paper off the hands of the International Typographical Union.

The union's members had mounted a losing proposition, the thrice-weekly Free Press, in competition with the town's leading daily, the Review-Journal. The R-J's new owner, Don Reynolds, had locked the union out of his composing room.

Success doubted

Many of the movers and shakers of Las Vegas in 1950 gave the square-jawed Jack Dempsey look-alike Greenspun and his new paper little or no chance of succeeding.

After all, he was following in the footsteps of two failed journalistic enterprises: Mark Wilkinson's Morning Tribune and its successor, the Dooley brothers' Nevada Courier, both tabloids that were crushed by the Review-Journal.

The only pinprick to the R-J's authority as Las Vegas' newspaper of record was the Las Vegas Age, a weekly that had been publishing under the editorship of one of the community's most distinguished citizens, Charles "Pop" Squires.

The Age enjoyed the honor of being the town's longest continuously published newspaper. Its first edition hit the dusty streets of Las Vegas in April 1905, a month before the town was officially born.

But Reynolds bought out Squire, and the Age ceased to exist.

Aggressive staff

The Sun was launched on a flatbed press in a warehouse on Main Street, a block north of the Bonanza Road underpass. Its earliest staff was a band of young Turks from the old school of newspapering: Ray Germain, Ed Oncken, Clarence Heckethorn and Adam Yacenda.

Germain was the son-in-law of Frank Garside, longtime publisher of the Review-Journal and owner of the town's busiest printing shop. Germain's faith in the Review-Journal was shattered by the cruel expulsion of the paper's backshop by Reynolds. Greenspun named Germain managing editor.

Oncken had worked as a reporter under the old-fashioned Hearstian journalism of Agatha "Aggie" Underwood, city editor of the old Los Angeles Herald-Express. He arrived in Las Vegas in 1948, went to work for the Review-Journal and was fired by the paper's city editor, John F. Cahlan. Greenspun hired Oncken as Sun city editor, and his skill and sagacity became a thorn in Cahlan's side.

Heckethorn, who was working at a local government agency after leaving the Review-Journal, became the Sun's sports editor. No one in Las Vegas knew more about prep sports than "Hecky."

Rounding out the staff was the newspaper's sole reporter, Yacenda. A newspaperman from Los Angeles, Yacenda was an articulate, prolific writer.

Yacenda left the Sun in the early fall of 1950 to return to Southern California to serve as a speech writer for then-U.S. Senate candidate Richard Nixon. It was my mother, Astrid Jarlson, the guiding beacon of my life who died in 1996 at the age of 91, who called Oncken and gave a gritty description of my journalistic abilities to fill the job.

I was awful. I couldn't spell, I could barely type, but -- as Oncken told Germain, who wanted to fire me -- I had flair as a street-smart kid. I knew crooks in and out of public office, in the back alleys and in the smoke-filled back rooms of Fremont Street.

Ed Oncken was the best editor and teacher I ever served under.

Greenspun's first advertising department consisted of one person, another expatriated Review-Journal employee, an extraordinarily gifted salesman named Norm White.

Greenspun arrives

When Greenspun arrived on the scene, ITU steward Pete Piretti was heard to say: "Damn it, now we have a real newspaper."

The name Hank Greenspun, new to the nearly 25,000 folks who resided in Las Vegas in 1950, would soon become synonymous with fearlessness.

"This newspaper," Greenspun said, "will not be intimidated by anyone."

Politicians as powerful as U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, who had been a Nevada icon since his election in 1933, would soon learn that this newcomer was about to unravel every thread of the long-protected blanket of security under which many officeholders had enjoyed total immunity from public scrutiny.

When press foreman Herman Weir first punched the button of that old flatbed press, he and his fellows at the Morning Sun declared war on the status quo, not only in Las Vegas, but also on the political machine that controlled the entire state.

Where I Stand

Review-Journal Executive Editor A.E. Cahlan, older brother of John Cahlan and Nevada's Democratic national committeeman, authored a daily column entitled "From Where I Sit."

It was a most unfortunate choice of words, as Greenspun named his front-page column "From Where I Stand" (later dropping the word "from"). It was a direct challenge by Greenspun to the Review-Journal, which he always referred to as "that little paper down the street."

As he began his career as a newspaperman, Greenspun was indicted for violating the Neutrality Act by supplying guns to the freedom fighters of the new state of Israel. Al Cahlan thought that incident surely would make short work of Greenspun, who pleaded guilty before a federal judge in Los Angeles.

"He'll never put that in his paper," Al Cahlan was overheard saying. "We will headline it tomorrow afternoon and that will end his tour as a so-called newspaper publisher."

As he would do to the day he died, Al Cahlan misjudged Hank Greenspun, who had called Oncken at the Sun and ordered that his newspaper banner the news under the headline "Greenspun Guilty."

In the courtroom in Los Angeles, Greenspun told how he had seen children strap grenades around their waists and throw themselves under enemy tanks and pull the pins.

"Your honor," Greenspun said, "I wear my guilt of supplying arms to Israel as a badge of honor."

The federal judge who presided over the case said, "Mr. Greenspun, I sentence you to 10 years in federal prison and fine you $10,000, but I do not have it my heart to send you to prison. The prison sentence is suspended."

The cloud of being a convicted felon would not escape Greenspun until 1961 when, at the behest of Sens. Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, President John Kennedy gave Greenspun a presidential pardon, thus giving the Sun publisher the civil rights to travel abroad and to vote.

In 1950 Greenspun was viewing with a broad eye the political shape, not only of Las Vegas and Clark County, but of the state as well. Many local and state politicians would become targets of Greenspun's relentless campaign to clean up politics.

He was a publisher and editor the likes of which the town had never known -- a force who was ready to do battle with the venal and the wicked. No holds barred.