My son sent me a link to an article called "The Newsboy", written by Carl Cannon, a former paperboy who recalled delivering papers in 1968 San Francisco. [1] It brought back my own memories of being a paperboy in the late ‘50s - reading the news as I delivered the papers.

The school riots in Little Rock, in the fall of 1957, made a deep impression. In my mind's eye I can still see the troops Ike sent down to keep order so some black kids could go to school in peace. It was pretty shocking to see all those angry white faces. Of course, I had no comprehension of how difficult integration was for people who had lived in the segregated south all of their lives.

I can still remember where I was walking, one darkening evening, when I read the shocking news that Roy Campanella, the great catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, had been paralyzed in a car accident - February 1958. The Dodgers had moved to LA after the 1957 season, but he never got to play there. I also recall the front-page article on the 14th anniversary of D-Day (1958). My father had served in Europe after the invasion, so the anniversary had meaning to me.

The big news in early 1959 was Castro's takeover of Cuba. I remember reading of the mounting number of executions, which seemed to shock the reporters who evidently had thought Castro was just a good-looking "freedom-fighter" in the mold of the romantic Spanish Civil War rebels. Very soon, reports began to leak out that he was actually a communist. (Surprise, surprise.) All this must have eclipsed the news that Buddy Holley and the Big Bopper had been killed in a plane crash around the same time, as I have no memory of the story. I wasn't really a fan of their music.

I was collecting from my customers on the day the news broke about Francis Gary Powers being shot down over Russia in the U-2 spy plane (May 1, 1960). I remember one customer telling me, "They're gonna fill his pants so full of lead that he'll make a pencil-mark when he sits down..." (The Russkies sentenced Powers to five years in prison, but after a couple of years he was exchanged for the famous Soviet spy Rudolph Abel.)

The JFK campaign was the big news during the summer of 1960, but I wasn't reading the paper much then, as I had a full-time job chopping weeds and painting stadium seats for the school system during the summer, just before I went to college. I had given my route to my brother, Al. He and our youngest brother, Fred, had the route for the next five years.

Houghton College, where I went to school, was a virtual news-blackout region in 1960. There was no TV, and you could see the newspaper only in the library. (I think they didn't want to distract students with news of the outside world.) News of Kennedy's narrow election-win leaked onto the campus, but not much else did. (Really, FDR's third term was a hotter topic - people were still steamed about it.) We totally missed the Bay of Pigs invasion (spring ‘61), and the news of Dag Hammarskjold's death (September '61) barely filtered through. (The highly respected UN Secretary-General was tragically killed in a plane crash.)

You can take the paperboy away from the route, but the news stays in his blood. I became a lifelong reader of newspapers during those years. When my wife and I got married and set up housekeeping in a tiny efficiency apartment in Wheaton, Illinois, I immediately subscribed to the Chicago Tribune so I could keep up with the news. We had no TV in those days. Our only other link to the wider world was a little radio by which we listened, non-stop, to reports about the Cuban Missile Crisis in October '62. We thought we were going to go to war over it.

My kids have often heard me say that my years as a paperboy were formative in my life. I wasn't just a delivery boy. In those days, a paperboy was a complete businessman. I delivered the papers and was responsible for paying the Call-Chronicle's bill directly - 3.4¢ for every 5¢ paper. In turn, I collected payment of 45¢ a week from my 90 customers. Every two weeks I punched their cards twice and collected 90¢. I usually ended up with a bag full of half-dollars, as many paid in coin. It probably gave me a lifelong affinity for those silver, walking-liberty half-dollars. (For a long time I still had the tan, zippered canvas collection-bag, but I've lost track of it now.)

One customer always claimed that I had just collected the previous week, so each time I had to carefully show her the two weeks I was punching. (Didn't do any good - she always thought I was trying to cheat her.) Some customers claimed not to have the 90¢ and would ask me to return later - a real pain. (Even in the ‘50s, most people had as little as a dollar in their pockets.)

Other customers could hardly ever be found at collection time. Some were in arrears as much as two or three months. I collected from one at 7:30 one morning. He was pretty mad at being bothered at that hour, but he paid up. (I apologized, but I explained that he was very hard to find at more conventional times.) Another moved across town, owing me for 12 weeks. He was surprised when I called at his new address (which the paper had forwarded) to collect. It was only about $5, but big money to me.

I made about $10 a week from the morning route - considered good money for just a few minutes work each day, although it was an early wakeup call (5:30 AM). I pedaled six blocks to the pickup point and walked the route, which consisted of two city blocks of row-houses - down one side and back the other. Most days, the delivery took about 10 minutes.

I usually tossed the papers, Frisbee-style, unfolded, onto the porches, but if it was windy I folded them in thirds - tucked together in that distinctive paperboy style. You took care that the paper didn't get wet or blow away, as customers would complain. (This seems unbelievable today, when the morning paper is usually thrown in the gutter or somewhere on the lawn - sheathed in a plastic bag that sometimes doesn't quite protect it from rain.) Too many complaints could get you bounced from your route, since there was a waiting list of guys ready to step in if you got careless.

If you missed delivering a paper and the customer complained, you found a yellow "miss" notice in your bundle the next day. That would cost you 15¢, so you were motivated not to let it happen very often. My route manager was my 10th-grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Steckel, so I didn't worry about getting sacked. (In those days, teachers made about $4,000 a year, so he probably needed the extra job and just wanted things to run smoothly.) In my last year I won the Paperboy of the Month award. (I still have the trophy.)

In those days, Allentown (PA) had both a morning and an evening newspaper - the Morning Call and the Evening Chronicle. The evening routes were less desirable because you had to deliver around 4:30 PM, which cut into your after-school activities significantly. (Deliver too much later and some customers would get annoyed if their paper wasn't there when they came home from work.) Those routes were more spread out, since fewer people took the evening edition. Also, you made less money, as there was no Sunday evening paper. The best routes were downtown where there were apartment buildings. You might deliver a dozen papers to a single building - a great time-savings.

I actually had three different routes over my three-year paperboy career. My first two routes were evening routes. One extended out into single-family homes on the north side of town. It required about two miles of walking, so it took about an hour to deliver. I was very glad to get the morning route for my last year as a paperboy. One of the row-houses on that route was a donut factory. It opened early, so I often bought a fresh donut for 5¢ to eat on my way home. The smell of those fresh donuts lingers pleasantly in my memory.

I inherited that route from my friend, Gene - the last of 11 brothers. I think his family had the route since at least the ‘40s - possibly earlier. He and I ended up at Houghton College, from which two of his brothers had previously graduated. One brother, John, married the daughter of Houghton's president. During my two years there, I roomed at the president's house. Gene has had a career as a doctor, and John and his wife, Carolyn, have been missionaries in Vietnam and Thailand. The other brother, Ron, became a military chaplain and a pastor. Today, I serve as a trustee of Houghton College. (You could call it the Paperboy Connection.)

Today, fifty years on, I still keep a picture of the Call-Chronicle building on my desk. (The building stands in the old, 18th-century part of Allentown, a few blocks from the Zion Reformed Church where the Liberty Bell was hidden during the Revolution.) When I wear a vest, I often carry a walking-liberty half-dollar in one of the pockets to remind me of where I came from and how I got here. I frequently think of those old days. (Sometimes I still dream that it's 8 AM - I've overslept and haven't delivered my route.) No experience in life is ever wasted.

Today, when I walk down my Northern Virginia driveway to fish my morning paper out of the gutter, I wonder if paperboys in Allentown still toss the papers onto front porches with the same care. I hope so. Sometimes, change isn't really an improvement. We need to keep that in mind.


[1] See Mr. Cannon's article at