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The Boiler Room Reporters: A Hot Time in a writing career

At Broad Ripple High School, Indianapolis in the 1950s, the only spot available for the school newspaper, the Riparian, was in the basement of the “Old Building,” next to the furnace. Here we huddled at ancient, beat-up desks, about twenty-five of us coming in for different “study hall” times. We were a  group of cub reporters for the newspaper, the news service (sending articles about Broad Ripple to the Indianapolis Star and News) and the yearbook. It was the best training any of us would ever get in how to craft a writing career.

Why were we there? Because we wanted to write, of course but mainly, I have to admit, to study and learn the craft under master teacher Ruth Marie Griggs, who headed the national Journalism Educators of America just before our crop of student writers had come—and to hang out, eat snacks, read the first editions of Mad Magazine and exchange jokes with people who would become lifelong friends. And to create a publication which would regularly win “All American” awards—best in the nation. And that is just what we did.

During those boiler room years on the Riparian staffs were people who would become leaders in Indianapolis: Carol Elrod, reporter for the Indianapolis Star and Dick Moll, future admissions director at Princeton and author of books on college admissions.  John Mutz, who would be lieutenant governor, was on the newspaper staff.  Just before us were Sue Hetherington, a civic leader for Prevent Blindness and other causes  and just after us was Steve Goldsmith, future mayor of Indianapolis. Deborah Paul of Indianapolis Monthly called  Mrs. G “Mrs. Bullwhip,” so she worked under her as well. I don’t know if other famous grads of BRHS like David Letterman and Jane Pauley were on the staff but the list is long. Students may have learned more next to that furnace than they did in some of the classes.

“Mrs. G” was a stern taskmaster and for many of us it was the first introduction to the fact that writing was disciple. Although there was a journalism class that accompanied the on-site experience next to the boiler room, it was at those grubby old tables, sitting around at staff meetings, that we learned. And even more, as we met the deadlines which were strictly enforced. In those days the yearbook, where I served as assistant editor, came out the last week of school, and that meant: everything had to be planned and dummied up early, with clubs and sporting events and plays covered and stories written in the fall and early winter. The final deadline was in March. Every day during our study halls and after school we were at work, and the photographers knew no breaks from their work of taking group photos or the ping pong club or the football team.

Mrs. Griggs had developed the unique concept (for student publications) that advertising, so necessary to the self-supporting yearbook, could be done professionally, as Madison Avenue did, with clever concepts, photographs of students in every place which advertised, and well-crafted copy. They would be a viable reading section in themselves. We ourselves visited the prospects, did a selling job on why their ad investment would be well placed with a publication serving a thousand homes, and contacted students to be photographed in the business. It was exhilarating to feel part of a larger world of commerce, and it provided lifetime lessons. Actually all of the time in that boiler room publications office shaped our future.

What did I learn?

  • That sophomore silliness won’t work when serious writing has to be done. Grow up and write methodically, even if you are only 15 was the message. Long hours, fact-checking, delving deeply and sometimes tedious re-writing will be part of your lifelong work formula if you opt for a writing career. That’s what you are “hired” for. That is what will advance you. ( Top staff assignments, editorships, were sought after and announced with pride at formal meetings.)
  • That process is as much a part of good writing as inspiration is.
  • That excellence is not won by “easy,” We were not allowed, nor did we want, to observe outmoded or tired clichés students had used for years to throw a yearbook together. No baby photos, no wills and fortunes, no hidden insults, no “favorite friends” dopey photographs in The Riparian Yearbook, 1952, All American.
  • That news, freshness in writing, and creative expression can hide behind everyday events and must be looked for, appreciated and cultivated before they become good writing. A nose for news will lead you to the subjects which will mark the best of your writing career.

The Old Building was long ago demolished and through the many years since we left, the Indianapolis Public School system spent millions of dollars refurbishing Broad Ripple High School into a beautiful campus, distinguished as a fine arts magnet school. Ruth Marie Griggs died in 2003, with a few of us who had kept close near her side in the last days.  She had received the ultimate teaching honor in her field in 1964: national Journalism Teacher of the Year. The newly trendy Broad Ripple neighborhood, sadly, does not have enough school-aged students to come to our halls any more to our high school. It closes this spring forever, but as long as there are any of us from the Riparian staff left, that basement office will be remembered as the “hot spot” which taught us how to write.

Nancy Baxter, Hawthorne Editor