A whole new generation of young journalists is hitting the streets and searching for jobs as San Francisco State University and other schools stage graduation ceremonies. I hope that the graduates find jobs in spite of the dismal economy and the tattered business of news. More than jobs, I hope they discover the thrill of journalism.
I’m thinking of this because a recent headline in The New York Times has rekindled memories of one incredible news story: the disappearance of 26 school children and their bus driver in the farm town of Chowchilla.
It was 1976, and I was 25 years old and just four years out of journalism school. My boss at the San Diego Union told me to high-tail it out to the San Joaquin Valley to cover the story. I got there by plane and a rented car to join more than 100 other journalists from around the world who had descended upon a town of panicked families and police officers. The city had to turn the fire station into a makeshift newsroom, trucking in tables, chairs and telephones.
At first, all we knew was that the students, ranging in age from 5 to 14, and the bus driver, Frank Edward Ray, were missing. Their empty yellow bus had been abandoned in a dry creek bed. Eventually, we would learn that three masked men had hijacked the bus, transferred their captives into vans and drove them 100 miles away to a rock quarry in Livermore. There, in the dead of night, they locked Ray and the screaming children into an old moving van that was partially buried under dirt. The kidnappers went into hiding with plans to demand a $5 million ransom.
With this kind of a story, your heart pounds with every press conference, tip and scrap of information. Deadlines zip by.
The big break in the story came after Ray and the older boys figured out how to break through a dirt-covered steel plate blocking the entrance of their metal tomb. Freed, they went for help. I was at the fire station when jubilant police brought Ray to meet reporters for an impromptu press conference. “I thought I was going to die,” said Ray, his coveralls covered in dirt as he spun out what happened, from start to finish. His eyes welled up with tears as he concluded with, “Well, that’s my story.” The reporters broke out with spontaneous applause. Outside, the sun was rising over the San Joaquin Valley. No one had gotten any sleep during the previous night.
In the kitchen of the fire station, I found an old typewriter and pecked out my story on sheets of brown paper towel. Then I phoned my newspaper and dictated a Page 1 story, word by word, to a colleague. Later in the day, I covered the equally dramatic reunions of boys and girls with their parents. Several weeks later, I was chasing the story again as police arrested three suspects. All three were in their 20s and had come from affluent families in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually, each was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison.
The New York Times article that revived these memories reported that the plain-spoken Ray, who became the subject of a made-for-TV movie, died on Thursday, May 17 in a Chowchilla nursing home. He was 91. Some of the kidnap victims, now grown, had visited him in the days before he passed.
When I was in college, the journalism professors kept telling us that nothing could beat the excitement that you feel with a big, breaking news story. They were right, and I hope that this year’s journalism graduates get the chance to experience that thrill.