Back in 1974, I lived in NYC and worked at Columbia University’s press office, known as Public Information. I was a messenger/typist/file clerk by day and at night I sang Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in a church downtown.
I lived in an apartment with my aunt, a doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College. She had connections in the University’s Visitor Center, which in turn had connections in the Public Information Office—so she was able to get me a job.
Our press office announced the Pulitzer Prizes every spring. We set up press conferences for Columbia’s Nobel laureates and welcomed politicians, actors and celebrities from all over the world. I really liked working there.
One morning during the second week of November, on a cold, sleety, gray day, there was an accident on the East river involving several members of Columbia’s rowing crew. A shell tipped over in the icy waters at dawn and one of the oarsmen drowned. His body would not be recovered until spring.
Our office was alerted. Fred, the Director of Public Information, wrote a statement which he read at a press conference later that morning. Mary Anne, the office secretary and I had to read the same statement over the phone to any reporters who called.
We were warned to read the statement and say nothing else. The release ended with this sentence:
… The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The name of the victim is being withheld … the name of the victim … We read it so often that morning to so many people, that the words stopped meaning anything to me. I started the day shocked and saddened by the drowning. Later I felt nothing, except fatigue and boredom from having to read the same press release over and over again.
At noon Mary Anne pulled rank on me and went to lunch first. After lunch, she was going to deliver press releases to various offices on campus. So she escaped, while I was still stuck on dreary phone duty.
One of the more annoying aspects of the whole thing was that every reporter wanted something extra, some little scandalous or horrifying detail that no else had so that he or she could
scoop the others. They bugged me for more information until I finally hung up on them, sometimes in mid-sentence.
After a lull, I got a weird call. It was a man who didn’t bother identifying himself or his press affiliation. This guy spoke very quietly and said
Tell me the name of the boy who died.
As it happened everyone in our office knew the boy’s name, though normally we would not have been told it. We found out because Larry, one of our student aides, was a rower and at first we were afraid he’d been the one who had drowned. Mary Anne got the name out of Fred and then proceeded to tell everyone else. Fred called us all into his office and told us our lives would be worthless if we revealed the name to anyone before the family was notified.
So here’s this guy on the phone asking me, point blank, for the victim’s name. Something about the quiet, intense way he asked, sent the hairs on my arms into an upright position. However, I spoke with assurance.
I’m sorry sir, but I can only read you the official statement. I read it, but when I got to the part that said,
… The name of the victim is being withheld … he cut me off in a rush.
My son is a rower. He was out on the river this morning. Would you please tell me if he’s dead?
I had no idea what to do. This was not a call I had expected. The worst part was, I could have told him the name. But really I couldn’t tell him. Instead I stuttered out something about putting him on hold while I got my boss, but he exploded.
Don’t put me on hold. Not again. I want answers, damn it. I’ve called his dorm, the rowing office, even the president’s office, for God’s sake. No one would tell me anything. They all put me on hold. The sports information office transferred me to you.
There was a major pause, into which this shrewd, desperate man read what he needed to know.
You do know his name, don’t you? My silence assured him that I did. When I spoke I was whimpering like a child.
I can’t tell you. I’ll be in trouble. We’re not supposed to tell anyone. Please let me get my boss.
But he knew I was young and he knew what to say.
Listen, I know you don’t want to disobey your boss, so I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll say my son’s name and you just say yes or no, ok? That way you won’t really be telling. Just yes or no, that’s it. Please?
I was shivering. I could hear someone else drawing a shaky breath on an extension, a woman, I think. She didn’t say a word but her breathing made me understand I was maybe about to tell a mother and father that their son was never coming home again. I was 19 years old and this was the biggest moment of my whole life. The press release I’d been so bored with all morning had turned real. A real boy died and real parents didn’t know yet.
I should have put down the phone and gone to get Fred. But I just couldn’t leave them there, alone, on my desk. It seemed to me they needed to be held. In the smallest, tightest voice possible I said,
What’s his name?
His mother said it first, the father echoed a beat behind. When I heard it, I jumped up and shouted,
No, No. That’s not the name, it wasn’t your son!
Fred came to his office door and put a disapproving finger to his lips, but I barely noticed him. I was listening to the Dad choking out
Thank you as he began to cry.
I was high on what must have been adrenaline mixed with relief. We three had played Russian Roulette and cheated death. The living boy’s mother brought me down quickly.
We’ll pray for the parents who don’t know yet, she said.
After I hung up, my adrenaline deserted me. I stood on shaky legs waiting to regain the powers of speech and movement. Then I walked into Fred’s office to tell him I wasn’t going to answer the phone again that day. But he spoke first. The student’s parents had been notified. The name was being released to the press. We’d be getting a new statement to read soon. I walked back to my desk, sat down and picked up my ringing phone and said,
Public Information …