ERNA: Burly, Tattooed Men – And Young Reporter


Burly, Tattooed Men

– And Young Reporter

The old Dominion Post building in Wellington, New Zealand, about the time Erna joined the staff.


When I walked into that newsroom at The Dominion in Wellington, New Zealand I still had some hope that I might become a superstar journalist. I had landed a job at THE morning paper in the capital of New Zealand.

I had never been in a big city newsroom. Reporters pounding their stories on manual typewriters made it noisy. The air was blue with cigarette smoke and language to make a sailor blush.

Erna Morgan McReynolds, raised in Gilbertsville, is retired managing director/financial adviser at Morgan Stanley’s Oneonta Office, and an inductee in the Barron’s magazine National Adviser Hall of Fame.  She lives in Franklin.

To meet my editor and start my job, I had to make my way past hard-bitten smirking, leering men. Except for the prim women’s page editor wearing a tidy sweater set with a string of pearls decent girls didn’t work at places like this in the ’70s.

The editor was kindly yet he gave me an assignment appropriate for a young girl — writing features for a special advertising edition. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to hold my own in that tough newsroom. I wanted to be a real reporter.

I learned right away that these superstar men planned their day around the pub. And they had to be fast. Pubs opened for just one hour at 6 p.m. People called it the 6 o’clock swill. Barkeeps lined up pitchers of beer and filled them with hoses. Drinkers stood at round tables and downed all they could between drags on cigarettes in one hour.

I figured if I had a shot at making my mark in the newsroom I had better prove myself at the pub.

We didn’t drink alcohol growing up. I hated beer. So to show I could hold my alcohol, I had to down gins and tonics as fast as I could. After an hour, we all walked back across the street to the newsroom — for reporters to write their stories, since we were a morning paper.

I hung around every night until the chief reporter gave me an assignment.

One night he needed a quote from the ministry of energy — I ended up with an “anonymous source” from the ministry. Made my story a front-page lead.

Who was the anonymous source? The minister of energy.

After 5 p.m. his secretary went home and he answered his own phone. While I was terrified of looking foolish in front of all of the hot-shot reporters, I wasn’t afraid of interviewing a government minister.

I didn’t think he was like a cabinet secretary in The States. If I had — I would have been terrified. I thought he was like the highway superintendent in our little town.

Maybe he was charmed by a naive young American woman who listened to him. And did exactly what she said she would do. Named him “an anonymous source.” But terror led me to winning his trust. I was so afraid I could make a mistake in my story that I called him back and double checked that I got it right.

Those hot shot, cocky, big time journalists knew too much to call anyone back. They decided what the story was before they even did the interview.

Then there was me. I trembled with anxiety every time I banged out a story on my Underwood with five carbon copies.

There were a lot of “Be Afraid But Do It Anyway” moments but also not a few “Don’t Do It — Be Afraid”.

One weekend when only someone trying to prove themselves would be in the newsroom, the chief reporter sent me to the docks to find out what was going on. There had been reports that there might be a dock workers strike.

Shipping was a big deal in in a country way out in the Pacific that relied on ships to bring in things like cars, shoes, tractors, pretty much anything that required mass production. The country was simply too small to manufacture them.

Ships also took away the meat and cheese and timber that brought in the foreign currency that allowed importing.

Not often did I have an assignment that meant I could drive a company car — but this one did.

Within minutes I was on the docks walking between mammoth ships surrounded by burly, tough, tattooed men.

Dressed in the standard frock and nylons that women wore to work in New Zealand in the ’70s, I walked around chatting, trying to get one of these tough guys to tell me what was going on. No one was going to do that for sure. Eventually someone told me that the purser on one of the ships would know.

But who among those dockworkers who would break ranks and let me through?

I watched for my opportunity. Snuck up the gangway and wandered around the corridors looking for the pursers office. The offices had brass plates on them. Eventually I found the right door. The purser took one look at me — “you are crazy.” How did you get here? Did you know these are tough guys? They smash people’s heads for less than this.

But I got my story — afraid that I could make a mistake. Fail to get the “real” story. Fail to become one of those real reporters.

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