by Murrel Bland
A recent story in the Big Daily Over Town about Helen Gray’s retirement as faith editor for the newspaper made me recall the time we were part of a group of “20-somethings” who worked for the newspaper.
I also recall the biggest news day of my career: Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1968. Helen, who was then Helen Gott, and I had been assigned to cover the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He had a brief layover in Kansas City on his way to speak at the Landon Lecture series at Kansas State University, Manhattan.
A delegation of black leaders including several from Kansas City, Kan., met with King at a news conference. Among those there were Chester Owens Jr., Clyde Townsend and George Haley, who were crowded into a room that Trans World Airlines provided at what was then Kansas City Municipal (now Wheeler) Airport.
I recall that Helen told King that the Big Daily had two black reporters (Helen and Lacy Banks) and a black photographer, Don Coad.
I took several photos of King. Then the photographer for The Kansas City Call wanted a group photo. He insisted that Helen and I be in the photo. Unfortunately, the Call photographer forgot his film, so I gave him a roll.
The interview with King was in mid-morning. We had another interview at the airport with a group of Quaker pacifists who were planning to go to North Vietnam. Once that was wrapped up, Leroy Scott, who was then a photographer for KMBC-TV, asked us if we had heard about bank robbers who gunned their way into the Metcalf State Bank in Overland Park. They first had set off a diversionary bomb at the Overland Park City Hall.
Scott had a reputation of being a jokester, so I didn’t pay much attention to him. However, when I got to my car, preparing to drive back to the newspaper office, I turned on the office radio. I heard all sorts of chatter. Scott was right. I recall that a Kansas Highway Patrolman was killed in pursuit of the bank robbers. He lived in Wyandotte County.
The big national story of that day was that Robert McNamara announced that he would resign as President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. Several years later, McNamara confessed that he had been wrong in supporting extensive military action in Vietnam.
About 3:30 p.m. that day as I was getting ready to leave the office to go home, Buck Martin, who was the newspaper’s art director, had just got back from his brief daily afternoon visit to a nearby saloon.
“There is something going on down at 16th and Grand,” Buck said. “There are all sorts of police cars there.”
I tried to get an editor’s attention at the city desk, but they were still enthralled with the bank robbery. I decided to check it out on my own.
When I arrived, I got a photo of a police detective escorting a young man in handcuffs out of a store. I learned that the man had robbed a thrift store, taken a hostage and escaped to the building next door. The police detective gave up his weapon and talked his way into the situation, convincing the young man to give up.
Helen’s departure from the Big Daily is the last of the group of young folks who were there in the 1960s except for those who work on a freelance basis, including Roy Inman and C.W. Gusewelle. The 1960s at the newspaper was an excellent place to learn the trade and about Kansas City. There were plenty of “old heads” who were eager to coach younger folks and usually corrected mistakes before they got in the paper.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He worked for The Kansas City Star from 1964 until 1968.