Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Death of the Paper Route

Before there were Frisbees, there was the Baraboo News Republic.

When I was a young teenager, one of the coveted jobs for boys was having a paper delivery route. The job paid all of about $4.31 a week, involved long hours and miles of walking (in Winter) or biking, but was one of the main business-training and memory disciplines available to lads.

I knew about this occupation through Timmy O'Keefe--one of the famous sporting O'Keefe brothers of my hometown, Baraboo. Timmy was my baseball captain the year I broke into the Baraboo Little League; me with my burnt-potato-casserole overstuffed glove and my burning desire to play God's game. Timmy's nickname was Spazz because he had this little nervous twitch, but I found the twitch to be just part of the charm of the guy. He was a few years older, was a southpaw, and gosh, he was one of the famous O'Keefe's. For a period of time, he became my hero.

Timmy had a paper route. It took him up Second Ave to Park, and back down Third and Fourth to the library. He and I could sling that route in no time, riding both sides of the street. I think I remember being paid in chocolate cake donuts. I remember Timmy carefully instructing me as to which houses to deliver to, and my soon memorizing the whole route. I vaguely remember Timmy having a special status among the older paper boys by having a younger boy to do his work for him. Timmy would call me "Bear"; it was his way of saying my middle name--Bayard-- a name too foreign and puzzling to pronounce. I was too young to have a route, or else there weren't any open. But the day came when, having perfected the famous Baraboo News Republic delivery system handed down from boy to boy for perhaps generations, I got my own route. It wasn't a great route, of course. When you broke into the System, you got the leavings that the more senior delivery executives didn't want.

Mine took me to Baraboo's South Side, which like every south side in every city and small town in America is where the poorer of the town's occupants resided. I attended a brand spanking new grade school on Baraboo's south side, learning to cipher with some of the poorest-read youngsters in town. I remember it being a long, very cold route in Winter. I remember not being dressed warmly enough, and always having cold feet. I remember the long slog home after the route was completed, all the way up Lynn Avenue to Moore Street. I also remember the joy of being given a better route in the Spring; of finally being able to deliver the papers on my bike. The Spring I was in seventh grade I tried out for the junior high baseball team, and made second-string catcher. After school, I'd ride over to pick up my newspapers, and then scoot down to the ballpark for baseball practice, and then rush off to deliver the papers before dark. It taught me that I could be efficient with my time; that more things can get accomplished than you'd think.

After school and on Saturday mornings, we paper carriers would gather at the News Republic office, half a block from the junior high school, and, in the other direction, half a block from the town square. The sporting goods store was around the corner, and an electronics store was a few doors down, selling 45's and LPs. At the newspaper office, we'd collect our allotted portion of papers, count them, and then sit down outside or along the wall by the long counter inside to fold them.

Folding a Baraboo News Republic was also a time-honored hand-me-down from years past. The paper was just the right size--you couldn't do this with a Wisconsin State Journal--to fold three times across, and then three times again, tucking the last folds together so it was a neat, 7" square, flying saucer. In a pinch, this folding business could be done on the run, as one walked the mile or so to the start of one's route. Its purpose was to enable the delivery personnel to fling the paper from the sidewalk onto a client's porch, thus saving innumerable steps and adding immensely to both the danger and satisfaction of delivering papers. The satisfaction was seeing a square of the News Republic go sailing through the air to land neatly at the screen door of a Mrs. Carmichael's front porch. The danger was what happened when you missed. Paper boys were assigned only the absolute correct number of papers based upon paid-in-advance subscriptions. If an errant paper ended up on someone's porch roof, it called for a certain panicked creativity if the situation wasn't going to result in an indignant phone call from the client to She Who Must Be Obeyed. Yes, it can now be admitted. We'd climb up there and get it down.

The paper's main counter was commandeered by a tall, scary, taut schoolteacherly older woman whose name I probably have buried too deeply in my subconscious to recover. She knew what was necessary to efficiently run a slew of amateur schoolboy paper deliverers, and the main factor was fear. It took a certain amount of courage to just approach her to ask for a job. Once asked, one was subjected to a scouring evaluation, each question innocent enough--"How old are you?" "Where do you live?" "Are you Bayard Gee's boy?"--but delivered in such dubious and accusing tones as to make a boy think this woman saw into his very soul. Believe me. No schoolboy wants an old woman to be able to do that.

Her approach was a good one, looking back. She knew the delivery jobs were in demand; she knew if she started a boy out with the right understanding that there wouldn't be trouble down the road. She knew that every now and then an example had to be set. Any boy not working up to her expectations would be subjected to a public dressing down that would bring smirks to the faces of the other paper boys. The smirk is a boy's most potent weapon, most often used against those younger and less experienced in life's ways. Smirks, public humiliation, the possible loss of a steady income. It was what made us shimmy up porch corner-posts in search of awkwardly thrown curve-balled papers that landed on roofs.

There are cruel paper routes where the newspaper people require the boys to collect the subscriptions. In later years I had one or two of those, and learned firsthand the valuable lesson that if you spend all of the subscription money up front, sooner or later there will be a day of reckoning. The Baraboo paper wasn't like that. There was one house where every day I had to go into a screened-in porch, drop off the paper, and collect seven cents for it. Every day. It happened to be located half a block from one of those corner grocery and candy stores you no longer find scattered across small-town America. Seven cents could buy me a bottle of cold chocolate milk and a nice candy bar. But this was the exception. Most people mailed in their paper subscriptions, and we paper boys were left to simply deliver the goods. I seem to recall we were paid according to the number of papers we delivered. The coveted better routes weren't just about location; they were about delivering more papers and making--who knows?--ninety cents to even a dollar per week more. As I said: coveted. Saturday morning was glory day, when the stern counter lady would parcel out our hard-earned wages. I remember well the sense of exuberance and freedom of those Saturday mornings. The printing plant was just on the other side of the wall from the cramped business and editorial office. This in turn was corralled by the high, long counter, past which a paper boy never strayed. The smell of printer's ink, the sounds of the huge print machines were all part of the ambience of the place. It bustled with copyworkers, an editor, the Counter Lady, deliveryboys, and the strange, inked men who worked the presses in back. A sense of purpose permeated the air on Saturday mornings. We bellied up to the counter one by one, collected our measly pay, and collected our allotment of the day's paper--still warm from the printing presses. And then we'd scatter outside or along the base of the wall to sit and fold papers, and gossip. Or we'd make a donut run to the bakery, beckoning to us down the block and across the alley.
I am reminded also (by Tim O'keefe himself, roused to life by my writing this little story) that the paper had an interesting but archaic motivational tool at its disposal. It would charge each boy ten cents for every paper he lost or that wasn't delivered, and at the end of the week, those boys who had delivered every paper perfectly got to divvy up the fund. I may have forgotten about this painful detail, as only rarely did I cash in on an extra couple dollar's worth of perfection. There were weeks, however, when I was sooo close!

A paper boy was assigned a paper bag, of course; new stiff canvas with the name of the paper stencilled onto the outside. It had a long sling so that a boy could carry it over his shoulder. If you were lucky enough to have a Schwinn with risers, you could wrap the sling around the handlebars and carry papers, donuts, ball gloves, school books, even a bat in one of those. A Schwinn bike with risers and with a Baraboo News Republic bag hanging from the risers was at one time in my life the highest status symbol to which I could aspire. Having attained it, I basked in the confidence, the status and surety of what it all meant.
For a span of time in my youth, I had, finally, arrived.

UPDATE: I got an email from my old friend Tim O'Keefe. In it he writes: "You must be referring to Mrs. McIntyre behind the counter. Donuts seemed like fair compensation at the time. Those were good years. I think we were the most important people in town in those days…especially on Saturdays when you needed to read Curt’s write up on Friday night’s basketball win. Fun article to read.
Tim O’Keefe"


Rebecca said...

I loved it, Bro. Rebecca

Bruce Gee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Gee said...

I received this email this morning, found it interesting, and post it with permission:


I really enjoyed your paper route blog. It was forwarded to me because my wife is Tim "Timmy" O'Keefe's niece.

I enjoyed it because it was well written and talked about Tim. I also enjoyed it because I, too, had a paper route when I was in 7th & 8th grade. It was the mid 80's and things were a bit different for me, but so much of your blog resonated. Like you, the paper route was a highly-sought gig and you had quite a bit of competition.

My papers were too big to fold square, but I could fold them 3 times into a tight rectangle. The problem for me, though, was I grew up in western Pennsylvania. Too hilly for riding bikes and no sidewalks. I had to walk them up to each door. It was the first thing I did after school. Unless, of course, I snuck in a viewing of Inspector Gadget on TV before hitting the road.

I also had to "collect" one a week. If I didn't get paid by my customers, I'd eat the cost of the paper. What a drag that was, except for Christmas (big tips!) and for the wonderful grandmother who always had a bag of cookies waiting for me.

The blessing and curse of my paper route, however, was Sunday. It was a curse because those were the big, fat papers that I had to assemble and deliver early in the morning. Seventh grade boys don't do early very well. The blessing, though, was the fact that my dad helped me. We loaded up the station wagon with 40 or so Pittsburgh Press' and did it together. And when we were done we'd either go buy donuts or go golfing (weather permitting).

I look back upon those mornings with my dad as some of the best times of my childhood. Thanks for writing your blog and jogging those memories.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

I , too, really enjoyed your paper route story and reminiscences about Baraboo in the "olden days." I am Tim's oldest sister, now living in So. Cal., where Tim is such a frequent guest that he has started making inroads into the closet and bedroom drawer spaces. He doesn't have me folding his papers or anything, but is an inspiration in getting me to walk and exercise regularly. There are no chocolate donuts in the deal either, believe me. Thanks again for the very enjoyable article.
Another Thunderbird,
Joaline (O'Keefe) Stedman

Bruce Gee said...

I'd always heard rumors about a pretty O'keefe girl, but never did have the pleasure, if I recall properly, of meeting you. I know you are pretty because I knew your mother, who was a pretty gal herself. I grew up the only boy with three sisters, so I may have some idea of what you went through. Whew. That was a lot of boys in your family. I remember playing catch for hours and hours with Bobby in your front yard in Baraboo.

So, are you senior to Mike, or in there between Mike and Jack? How many were there of you, anyway??? Mike would umpire our high school games when I was a catcher--and Bob the pitcher--for the Tbirds back in 70 and 71. He'd growl and snarl back there, make surly comments about my catching technique, and generally amaze me. And occasionally miss a call. Once or twice.

My wife grew up in SoCal, and has family in the San Diego area still. Glad to see Tim gets out of Baraboo once in awhile.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, I don't have the memory of Tim and you, but I do remember what a nice family the Gee's were; Bruce Gee, a good ballpalyer with lots of nice sisters.

Jim "Stanley" O'Keefe

Bruce Gee said...

Geesh, even Stan the Man weighs in! I'm inclined to agree with you about your memory of my ballplaying skills, but I do have three nice sisters. The last memory I have of you is this: church softball, Bennie Pederson is coaching; sometime in the early to mid seventies. I'm on first base, and you nail the most perfect opposite field liner. Had it not hit me as I jumped straight up in utter surprise, it might have made the Baraboo River. "You're supposed to run, not jump!" was your exasperated cry.

Sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

Hello Bruce Gee,

I have only vague memories of working as a Baraboo News Republic paperboy - a sacred position for sure - but I think I only made it up to being a substitute.

But I have vivid memories of playing baseball together, including you and I teaming up to as the battery in Sauk City to get the Babe Ruth team into the State tournament. I always appreciated your enthusiasm - and you were a good catcher !

I also have fond memories of both of us attending the Methodist Church in Baraboo. I recall both of us singing enthusiastically, maybe even almost competitively, "This is My Father's World". Funny how some things stick.

My wife and I live in Pewaukee, Wisconsin and both work in the Milwaukee area.

Thanks for sharing some fun memories.

Bob (f/k/a Bobby) O'Keefe

Bruce Gee said...

I KNEW sooner or later I'd hear from Bob! Yes, many good memories indeed. Jauch at first base, Gary Brown at short; Don Doro, Jerry Mayer, Dave Krunnfusz (later on anyway), Schneider, one of the Bildsten boys, and of course Coach Saloutas.

Do you remember baseball road trips to Richland Center, after which coach would feed us hotdogs at his dad Louie's greasy spoon?

I remember a road trip somewhere where you and I sat in the front seat with coach Saloutas: you had to keep telling him his signal indicator was on.

Good to hear from you, Bro. Larry Schultz and I have taken to having lunch every couple months at a jamaican place on Monona Drive. It ends up being one of those take-you-back conversations. We ought to have one of those sometime.

Anonymous said...


I'd like to have lunch and catch up. I tried the email connection on your profile and can't make it work. I think my niece has your address - I'll get it from her.

I suspect you have a better recollection of our HS years than I have - I don't remember the specific incidents.

I'll be in touch.

"Bobby O"

Bruce Gee said...

Bob, try

Believe me, there is alot about HS I've blocked out! But I'd enjoy sitting down and seeing you again. I'm pretty flexible; Friday night I do a prison Bible study. Otherwise, pretty open if I know ahead of time.

Sandra Leidholdt said...

I loved reading this article! I think you may be referring to Hazel Dahl, who was in charge of the Baraboo High School newspaper. My mother was the linotype operator at the Sauk County Publishing Company where the school paper was printed.

I was very sorry to hear of Mike O'Keefe's passing! I adored him!

We lived across the street from the O'Keefe family for a few years, on Ninth Avenue, in Baraboo. What a great family!

Bruce Gee said...

You must have lived next to to the Doros?

I remember Hazel Dahl, and did some writing for her. No, Tim Okeefe reminded me that it was a Mrs. McIntyre who was "The Counter Lady".

I hadn't known about Mike's passing. I'm sorry to hear about that. Bob and I are supposed to get together for lunch one of these weeks and catch up. I'll find out more about the Okeefe family then.

Glad you liked the article.

Gorde Ranum said...

Well Bruce, you certainly did describe well the travails and simple joys of being a newspaper delivery boy. I had forgotten the square folds but now it becomes so clear from the story. We played catch with newspaper like that. It floated to the roof a few times.

I too had a route but with The Milwaukee Journal on Baraboo's south side. It was so hilly. Customers didn't pay up. I remember girls like Peggy Knight telling me for her parent in the kitchen, to try next week. She charmed me but I was so too young and easy going at that age to get demanding. I thought I heard someone chuckling as I left.

I started dropping in on customers when they didn't expect me. That worked sometimes. The Knights did pay up but I always hoped Peggy would answer the doorbell.

Sunday mornings were such a reality check to get up so early. If it weren't for my Dad during the wintry months I may have given up sooner. This was a good lesson early in life.

Did you know the billionaire Warren Buffet started out his investments career being a newspaper boy. He took on several routes to earn more money to speculate with.

At the BNR I remember Pearl Kilmer. Very heavy set woman. She became a family friend having dated my single grandfather. Curt Page, the photographer, was our buddy. Several times he published photos of us and the fish we caught by the dam down the street. Such a nice man.

The O'Keefe family is synonymous with Baraboo throughout the years. I never knew a shy O'Keefe and I knew a lot of them. Donna wasn't afraid to give parental advice to me or any of the rascals who got within earshot. She had her hands full and did a great job with the family. My condolences to all the O'Keefes on the loss of older brother Mike also.

And, now today, I read about Baraboo photographer Ron Brayer being struck and killed by a car near the square. A sad news day.

It was a noble beginning, delivering newspapers. I really enjoyed reading your story along with all the others chiming in. Keeping in touch is good therapy for the heart, mind, and soul. Thanks Bruce.