David W. Dunlap | June 2, 2016
- Times Insider shares historic insights from The New York Times. In this piece, David W. Dunlap, a metro reporter, looks back at the 50-year career of Rudolph Stocker
While everyone has been talking about the future of The New York Times, the past slipped out the door.
Rudolph Stocker was the last printer at The Times working under a guaranteed lifetime contract; the last Times employee who knew how to operate a Linotype casting machine; the last journeyman of the old International Typographical Union and its New York local, No. 6, a bargaining unit that was once so powerful and important that everyone in the newspaper business knew it simply as “Big Six.”
On May 18, Mr. Stocker, who is 78, said goodbye to his friends around the 11th-floor publishing distribution center — the closest thing to a composing room in the digital age — and left The Times, with no more ceremony than that. Through his colleagues, he made it known that he was not interested in a valedictory interview.
Mr. Stocker deserves a deep bow, all the same, not just for his 50 years of service, but for what he represents: thousands of blue-collar craft workers who cared as much as any journalist about how The New York Times read and how it looked.
The legacy endures in our printing plant at College Point, Queens. But at the white-collar mid-Manhattan headquarters, we’ve lost a living link to the days when each word was set in molten lead.
That said, computers were threatening Big Six even before Mr. Stocker arrived.
Staggered by their losses during a 114-day strike led by New York Typographical Union No. 6, from late 1962 to early 1963, the city’s publishers resolved to begin automating their composing rooms as quickly as possible. Just as quickly, the union shops, or “chapels,” began pushing back.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, newly installed as publisher, tried at first to soothe The Times’s chapel.
“You will remember that my grandfather, Adolph Ochs, was raised as a printer,” Mr. Sulzberger told P. J. Murphy, the chapel secretary, in an August 1963 letter. “I can assure you that his pride at being a member of your craft is a part of our family tradition.”
In July 1964, however, the general foreman, George Lapolla, announced unilaterally that The Times intended to install an IBM 1620 in the fourth-floor composing room within the month.
“We must take advantage of the best printing technology available,” he wrote to Bertram A. Powers, the president of Big Six, and Jack Weiss, the chapel chairman. “We do not believe that the computer need represent any threat to Times printers.”
Fooling exactly no one.
“Please be advised that the union does not agree that this may be done unless agreement to do so is reached between the parties to the contract,” Mr. Powers wrote back to Mr. Lapolla. (These letters come from the archive of the printer Carl Schlesinger, who was a Big Six representative at the time.)
Into this protracted limbo, Mr. Stocker arrived in October 1965, when he formally began his apprenticeship. On June 5, 1966, he was granted a full-time “situation” in The Times’s chapel — distinct from substitute printers who worked in one shop or another as publishers’ needs dictated.
The steampunk machine that Mr. Stocker mastered was called a Linotype because it cast one line of type at a time. At the stroke of a key on a peculiar-looking keyboard (the first two rows spelled e-t-a-o-i-n s-h-r-d-l-u), little brass molds dropped down chutes in an overhead magazine. Once a full line was assembled, the molds were shunted into a casting mechanism, where they received a dollop of molten lead. As it solidified, the lead line was ejected into a waiting steel tray, while the molds were recycled back into the magazine.
Victorian technology for the space age.
You can understand why The Times was thinking IBM.
But it would not be until July 1974 that Big Six and The Times and Daily News reached a landmark agreement. Their new contract freed the publishers to introduce automation, while effectively guaranteeing lifetime job security to 1,785 situation-holders and full-time substitutes, 810 of whom were at The Times — Mr. Stocker included.
“We’re going to see more changes in the next 10 years than any working men have ever seen,” Mr. Powers said.
He did not overstate the case. Within four years, The Times had fully converted to photocomposition. The battery of Linotype machines was used for the last time to set the paper of July 2, 1978, an event captured in the documentary, “Farewell, etaoin shrdlu.”
Mr. Stocker’s career, however, was just beginning.
“Rudy was an expert proofreader,” his colleague Barbara Natusch recalled, “and transferred his skills from operating a Linotype machine to producing ads for the paper on a Mac, using InDesign and Photoshop.”
He also enjoyed reminiscing about his apprenticeship at The Times, she said, and his involvement in 1971 with the production of the Pentagon Papers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning series, based on a classified government history of the Vietnam War, was produced under such a veil of secrecy that a special mini-composing room was built on the ninth floor of the headquarters at 229 West 43rd Street.
“The retiring of the last, old-hire I.T.U. worker should be a story in the newspaper,” said Kurt Ochshorn, another colleague of Mr. Stocker.
He’s right, of course. If only we had a Linotype machine to set it.
And Mr. Stocker to man the keyboard.
Borrowed from New York Times