Stafford: News-Sun morgue alive at Heritage Center

Jan 21, 2017
The Clark County Heritage Center shows its beauty on a sunny July morning. Jeff Guerini/Staff

The morgue is alive again.

It’s not alive in quite the same way it was when I habitually slipped in and out of it on the third floor of the News-Sun Building.

Still, in the roughly 100 boxes shelved in the Clark County Heritage Center library, the largest body of its material is available to the public.

Those who aren’t arthritic journalists likely don’t know “morgue” is the term newspapers used to refer to their clippings libraries. To me, it just stands to reason. Where else should the body of the newspaper be taken and dissected for storage after the moment called deadline?

The News-Sun was the first paper I worked at large enough to have a morgue and call it that, and in my earlier days, I used it as most reporters did: As a place to find recent stories published on the assignment I was working on and to fetch photos for the editors to run with those stories.

Even for a reporter focused on deadline, though, many of the files I flipped past in my searches were tantalizing. Among them were folders on the Dingledine gangster-style shoot-out in Crystal Lakes; pool legend Willie Mosconi’s record 526-ball run at High Street Billiards in Springfield; and the catalog of inmate-made goods the Ohio Penitentiary produced in the 1930s. Those folders became stories during the years I wrote a weekly feature on local history for the News-Sun.

As history began to transform the news business and operations consolidated all over the country, ours followed suit, and ultimately a question arose: What was to become of all these written artifacts of Springfield and Clark County history when it was time to move to smaller quarters?

Ben McLaughlin, then editor of the News-Sun, and Virginia Weygandt, director of collections at the Heritage Center, discussed the matter and agreed the files should stay in the community, and the morgue’s migration began, a thought that conjures up images from The Walking Dead.

“We started going over to get it in there in June of 2013,” said Natalie Fritz, the curator of library and archives, who has largely been charged with carrying out the work.

That summer, interns from the public history program at Wright State University “just started emptying the cabinets, drawer by drawer,” Fritz recalled. “There were altogether more than 150 boxes, closer to 175, 200.”

Most of the contents ran from the late 19th century into the first decade of our 21st century, by which time electronic filing had taken over.

A final, more urgent trip to the News-Sun building for a last look at the material came when the newspaper announced the sale of the building and our offices moved to the 10th floor of what then was 1 S. Limestone St., now the E.F. Hutton Tower.

In the fall of 2015, Fritz started putting volunteers to work processing the morgue’s contents, the condition of which I always thought would stand up as evidence of group hoarding.

Heritage Center volunteers began discovering that, in the fall of 2015, the process of bringing order to borderline chaos began. As Fritz politely put it, “What we found is that you must have had multiple systems over the years.”

That meant that within standard size folder there were two other sizes of folders included, smaller and smallest – and that processing it involved a lot of unfoldering and unfolding.

Fritz’s pet peeve about past filing practices: The place morgue librarians long ago chose to ink-stamp the date on the articles.

“It was like, right over the face, right over the picture!” Fritz said.

That means many of the faces in the collection are, quite literally, defaced.

Although I wasn’t responsible for that, there were things I did to bring disorder to the morgue files, mostly in stuffing thin columns of aging clippings back into small folders without folding them properly.

Lucky for me, the man who straightened up after what I did is a laid-back 86-year-old who bears me no ill will.

Jim Hearlihy worked 36 years for Ohio Bell and AT&T and started volunteering at the Heritage Center in November of 2015, after he completed 24 years volunteering for the same company repairing cassette players for the National Library Service.

That came to an end when “they brought out a digital machine, which didn’t take much work,” he said.

Looking for something to do — and with an interest in local history — he arrived in time for the morgue project and personally has logged 160 hours, just about one-third of the 486 volunteer hours spent on the project to date. (Wittenberg students behind on their community service hours contributed as many as 15-30 hours apiece, measurably advancing the cause.)

The work involves “mostly unfolding all the articles, which I didn’t do at first, and Natalie straightened me out,” Hearlihy said.

Although he said his late wife was the one who raised the kids, being the provider of six children plus an adopted niece and nephew may have helped Hearlihy develop the patience needed for the work. So did his favorite part of his job with what was then called Ma Bell: going into people’s house to install equipment.

What interested him about the morgue files?

“The subject matter mostly.”

An initial culling divided the remains of the morgue into 36 boxes of subject files of schools, city government, businesses, topics like pollution and even annual Earth Day Celebrations, the last of which included the striking illustrations the artist David Catrow did for Earth Day T-Shirts.

The collection also includes 36 boxes of files on local people, and 37 on national figures, the last of which will not be included in the local files, the only exception being material on United States presidents.

(Two tidbits from the people section: The first file entry for President Donald Trump involves a relationship with Marla Maples, the first for John Legend involves spelling bee winner John Stephens.)

Of course, reviving the morgue has cost money, over and above the estimated $11,450.16 of volunteer time, which is calculated at $23.56 an hour as a local contribution when it comes to grant time.

The need for a grant became apparent in the fall of 2015 after the Heritage Center had processed just 20 boxes and found “we were blowing through our own supplies too fast,” Fritz said.

Fortunately, the Ohio Historic Records Advisory Board approved the Heritage Center’s application for a grant of $800 in National Endowment for the Humanities funds, which bought 3,000 acid free folders – folders that help to slow the natural deterioration of newsprint and other paper in storage.

To date, all the subject files are in order and indexed, with a finding guide available online at the Heritage Center website. Four of the 36 boxes of local people material also have been processed and put in folders.

For the time being, the 32 remaining files with people material will have to wait while the Heritage Center catches and volunteers catch up with other pressing work.

Well, there’s no rush. Like most morgues, nothing in it is likely to stand up and walk out any time soon.

Those interested in a peek into the morgue’s subject file index can search online for Heritage Center News-Sun Subject Files or log on to: