Optic move stirs memories

Most of the boxes are packed, the furniture has been moved to our new offices, and the movers have finally gotten my hundred-pound dictionary out the door.

About all that remains is junking the unwanted equipment and finding the best place for my Pulitzer Prize. OK, so I don’t really have a hundred pound dictionary, much less a Pulitzer, sadly. The closest thing I have to that coveted award is what results when I try to make breakfast and come up with a Pullet Surprise.

As we turn the page on this chapter of the Optic’s history, I can’t help but think back to the many years I have spent at this decrepit old building, serving as everything from a paperboy to a columnist. I insult the building but I will grudgingly admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for the old place, which has housed the Optic since the dawn of time — OK so it just feels that way.

I can say definitively that we’ve been at our current location on Lincoln Avenue for more than 100 years. I respect the history that has played out here.

It’s difficult to identify too many local businesses that pre-date the Las Vegas Optic.

Founded in 1879 by Russell A. Kistler, the Optic turns 138 this year. And with its aging have come many changes.

The Optic started as a weekly paper, its first edition published on July 31, 1879. It had several competitors, including the Revista Catolica — a weekly published by the Jesuits at the College of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Democrat and the Daily Gazette. The Optic quickly gained traction and began publishing daily on Nov. 4, 1879. Records show that the original site for the Optic was at Douglas and Grand Avenues.

‘Omnibus’ short-lived

The Daily Optic was in reality a six-day-a-week publication, excluding Sundays. A number of New Mexico newspapers with the same schedule also considered themselves dailies. Some of these hex-a-weeklies have since become bi-weeklies; others, such as the Raton Daily Range, have disappeared.

In the 1950s, owners Larry Finch and Tom Wright experimented with a Sunday supplement called “Omnibus,” which came bundled as a tabloid. The compromise was the elimination of the Saturday AND the Monday editions — a change that upset many readers.

The Omnibus included a lot of “soft” news, features, the TV schedule, and usually a glamour photo of the latest celebrity. We were also able to squeeze in local weekend sports. The Optic eventually dropped its Omnibus tab and began publishing Monday through Friday.

Market conditions forced the Optic to become a tri-weekly publication on March 2, 2009. We tweaked our publication schedule in September 2015, dropping our Monday edition and launching a Sunday edition. Of the few extant copies of the Optic in the late-1800s, very little content was local. Virtually all illustrations on its pages came from places with the ability to make wood-cuts or metal cuts that resembled photographs. In the early days of the Optic, drawings of kings and presidents generally came from engravings.

A miracle machine

The Optic also received photos via Greyhound, which had three buses arriving each day. The photos were usually of newsmakers around the country. That service sufficed until the Optic bought a miracle machine called the Fairchild Scan-a-Graver, which made a plastic sheet that duplicated photos banded to a cylinder — and suddenly, the Optic had local photography.

But the technology for the printing of the paper still lagged. Buried somewhere beneath the floor in what used to be the backshop, is an old Goss Cox-o-Type press with a whopping capability of eight pages at the rate of about 30 a minute. Pete Garcia, Carlos Crespin and Ralph Martinez were the main pressman at the time, the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Once, Garcia went into the “pit” under the press to make adjustments and suddenly came scrambling out, yelling, “se comenzo solo,” his complaint that somehow the press had started running by itself. Three long-time line casters were Fritz Khronke, Bob Phillips and Bill Parmer, who operated the Linotype machines that — the manufacturers claimed — contained 100,000 moving parts. The equipment used molten lead poured into “slugs” representing the alphabetic characters.

The backshop included machines for casting larger headlines, some for making “pigs,” those 28-pound cylinders, made in the shop that fed the line casting machines.

The Optic later replaced its flat-bed press with a rotary press, which allowed for a much higher page capacity, greater speed and the ability to run full color photos and advertising.

A press breakdown in November 2012 forced us to start printing the Optic at our sister newspaper’s plant in Los Alamos. While we were able to repair the press, it became clear that costly upgrades would be necessary, so the decision was made to shutter the printing plant and to print the Optic in Los Alamos.

The Little Merchants

Before I became an Optic seller, at about age 11, I’d spent time at the Optic simply watching the machinery. Nowhere else in town was there a plant capable of actually producing a newspaper.

Watching the big, bulky rolls of newsprint traveling through the press provided eye-candy.

We especially enjoyed watching Dan Gonzales working in the Optic’s job shop, where he operated several presses that printed books, magazines, programs and wedding invitations.

Many who worked for the Optic back then have passed on. Dan Gonzales is one of the few who is still alive. He resides with his wife, Ruby, in Las Vegas.

Toward the alley between Lincoln and Douglas was a room that must have accommodated 40 boys, most of them older, waiting to buy their dozen or so copies of the Optic to sell on the street. It was a rowdy bunch of boys — many of them in tattered clothing — jostling to be at the head of the line.

The first boy in line generally sold more papers than the others, so in that regard, one’s place in line was crucial.

I joined the paper as a seller. We paid three cents per copy and sold them for a nickel. My first day earned me 24 cents, and I thought I was Trump himself. Later, my older brother Severino outgrew his paper route and his bicycle and passed them on to me.

Having an established paper route saved us deliverers from turf wars, common among street sellers. But the many dogs along Grand, Railroad, Pecos and Commerce made some of us regret our assignments.

Perhaps envying that I had a new bike, a group of three boys once jumped me, emptied my pockets and stole my papers. Then one of them made the magnanimous offer: “We’ll help you pick up your money!” That was my first and only day of a forced vacation.

Manuel “Milky” Maese was the ever-tolerant circulation manager. Once he held a promotion in which the team of boys who sold the most subscriptions would get a special treat. Milky divided us into two teams and promised to treat us all to a dinner at the Hillcrest.

A jellybean dessert

Accordingly, after the month-long circulation drive, we all met at the restaurant. Milky urged us all to dress up for the “banquet.” It was surprising how well behaved a group of young men can become when dining at a place like the Hillcrest and dressed up.

The winning team received a chicken dinner with all the trimmings.

The rest of us got a bowl of pinto beans. But that wasn’t all, as the side dish was green beans, and jellybeans became our dessert.

During the Korean Conflict, many troop trains stopped in Las Vegas. Hungry for news, soldiers provided a healthy profit for paperboys who hung around the train station. To no one’s surprise, only the bigger, tougher boys profited from the trains’ arrivals.

I wanted a piece of that pie, but as an 11-year-old, couldn’t muscle my way through the older Optic sellers. However, as I was heading home one evening, just three blocks north of the depot, I walked an extra block to spend some of my earnings at Poncho’s Grocery on Grand and Washington. As I was leaving, I noticed a motel at the top of the hill, and as I walked north, several more came into view.

I thought, “Soldiers aren’t the only ones who read papers; tourists do too.”

And from that day, I exploited a new area that apparently no other paperboy had seen. That discovery, knocking on every door to every motel, proved profitable. And it seemed as if I had been the only person to discover Motel Row.

I just knew I could make a killing, so even before selling out my current supply of Optics, I ran back to the Optic, bought 25 more copies and sold them all.

My experience of course goes way beyond the years I spent selling or delivering papers. Later, I served as sports editor and photographer, but left the newspaper to attend college.

Fortunately, my experience with newspapers — in Las Vegas, Gallup and in Illinois — helped during my 28-year-tenure as a journalism, English and speech professor at Highlands.

Just push a button

Since retiring from teaching, I’ve put in 17 years at the Optic. These days, all the pagination of the Optic takes place on computer keyboards; the dinosaur-behemoth Linotypes of yesteryear have been relegated to museums or scrap heaps.

The pressing of a button conveys all the newspaper’s contents to Los Alamos, and in the time it takes our driver, Gerald Roybal, to reach Los Alamos, the entire press run is ready for pickup — at least it should be.

Suffice to say, I have a lot of memories of the Optic, and nearly all of them are tied to 614 Lincoln Ave.

I’ve resisted the orders to pack up my stuff as long as I could — so much so that my boss, Martin Salazar, the paper’s editor and publisher, is about to give me my walking papers.

It’s hard to say good-bye to a place that I’ve known so well, not only as a pre-teen, but also now as a senior. And somehow, one of the closing scenes of “Fiddler on the Roof” comes back to mind.

Toward the end of the movie, residents of the Jewish community are forced to leave their modest village, Anatevka. Even though the family matriarch, Golda, knows the villagers can’t go home again, she keeps going back to the house to make sure she’s swept up the place well.

I guess it’s time to pack. See you at our new location at 720 University Ave.

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