Reporter’s article about 1918 pandemic on his Top 5 list of 2020 stories

The front page of the Oct. 22, 1957 Schenectady Gazette.

The front page of the Oct. 22, 1957 Schenectady Gazette.

I retired on June 24, concluding a full-time career in newspapers that started in 1978.

My byline has not been retired — I still write an occasional story for The Daily Gazette and choose the vintage photos published Mondays in our Capital Region Scrapbook.

As the year ends, I have chosen my personal top five stories from my half-year on the job.

Here they are:

5: Flu frenzy of 1957,  March 15

People around the Capital Region became acquainted with the words “pandemic” and “COVID-19” in mid-March.

One of the first virus-related stories I worked on was a look back at the 1957 virus outbreak, a disease scientists called the “Asian” flu, which eventually caused between 1 million and 2 million deaths across the world.

By late September of ’57, the state Health Department had confirmed 350 cases of Asian flu in New York. Back then, Dr. Ralph Isabella, president of the Schenectady County Medical Society, was looking ahead that autumn.

“While industry will no doubt experience increases in absenteeism this fall or winter if the expected … epidemic materializes, it should not get panicky and rush into a program of mass inoculation for its employees until essential priority groups in the community have been inoculated,” he said.

The priority group — recommended by the U.S. Health service — included doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, caregivers, police officers, firefighters, communications workers and transportation personnel.

Schools closed. High school football games were canceled.

This story had two benefits. For one, it gave readers a look back into our city’s history. And it may have given them hope, as the new coronavirus progressed. We had been through these dark woods before.

4: Dairy farmers cope, April 13

As the 2020 virus spread, readers sympathized with the hundreds of restaurants and breweries in the Capital Region. Gatherings were out, restaurants and bars closed, or reconfigured their business models for takeout.

My assignment was dairy farmers.

“Cows just don’t automatically decide to produce 10 percent less, just because we don’t need it,” said Jeff King, co-owner of King Brothers Dairy in Schuylerville. “They’re going to continue to produce the same amount today as they did yesterday. We’re dealing with animals, not a factory.”

Traditional customers such as schools and restaurants were no longer buying because their doors were closed. Federal help was on the way.

Charles Hanehan, of Hanehan Family Dairy in Saratoga Springs, said he generally did not believe in government handouts. “But this is a dire situation,” he said. “There’s milk dumping going on across the country because of the shutdown.”

Hanehan was in better shape than some. His farm made Cabot cheese, so he was using milk produced by his 700 cows. “We’re making cheese as fast as we can possibly make it,” he said. “All our lines are up and at capacity and cheese is flying off the shelves.”

3: Holocaust Memorial site plan approval, Feb. 11

As the newspaper’s Niskayuna beat reporter, I attended numerous meetings in 2018 and 2019 and listened to questions and conversations on the proposed Capital District Jewish Holocaust Memorial. A group led by Dr. Michael Lozman hoped to build the memorial on land adjacent to Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery at 2501 Troy Schenectady Road.

People spoke in favor and against during bunches of public hearings called by town planners and board members. In the end, a revised design that emphasized peace, beauty and remembrance was approved by the town.

On Feb. 10, the town Planning Board unanimously granted final site plan approval and in June 2019, the Town Board granted permission for the memorial.  Lozman and his team had needed the final site plan approval from planners in order to proceed.

Once the board had granted approval, Lozman thanked Planning Board members and the people with whom he has worked on the project. Lozman also thanked the board. “Your professionalism has been extraordinary,” he said. “It has been a privilege and an honor to work with you.”

2: Live at the Capitol, April 22

I have a strong voice and I’m not shy — so I am never nervous about Facebook Live reports.

But I was a little anxious about the April 22 assignment at the state Capitol. One hundred people had gathered to protest Gov. Cuomo’s statewide shutdown of businesses that had been deemed non-essential. The virus was still spreading, but we still didn’t know how contagious people could be. And bunches of agitated folks were without facial coverings as they shouted, carried and waved signs on this windy, spring day.

Homemade signs pronounced “Enough Already Back to Work,” “My Small Business is Essential,” “Stop Ruining My Senior Year,”  and “Dictator Cuomo Give Our Lives Back.”

There were reasons for safety concerns. Kentucky officials said the state had experienced its highest daily spike in coronavirus cases — 273 — on the previous Sunday, days after hundreds of protesters gathered outside the state Capitol building in Frankfort.

I took no chances. I wore a homemade face mask that had been mailed to me by Judy Patrick, The Gazette’s former editor, and covered that with a second “Baltimore Orioles” mask that came my way courtesy of Niskayuna Councilwoman Denise Murphy McGraw.

Interviews from the video — plus others conducted once the camera was off — were used to file a story for the April 23 Page 1. The video stands at 43,000 views — the newspaper’s second highest of all time.

1: The 1918 pandemic, July 5

Newspapers have always stepped up during troubled times. Reporters, editors, photographers have covered war-related stories, weather disasters and other major issues; our management, advertising, circulation and delivery crews also have answered the clarion call.

I wrote a “sequel” of sorts to the March 1957 flu story by reading hundreds of Gazette news pages from 1918 — and taking notes on the daily trials that came with the pandemic that became known as the “Spanish flu.”

The professions that have been front and center during the 2020 pandemic — doctors, nurses, volunteers, health experts — were on the scene in 1918.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 500 million people — or a third of the world’s population — came down with the 1918 virus. At least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States.

Advice given to prevent the virus in 2020 was first developed in 1918. “Wash your hands several times every day… do not put your fingers in your mouth, nose or eyes… keep at least 6 feet away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.”

Physicians were nearly overwhelmed. “One doctor remarked that he made 79 calls Sunday, and his telephone rings continuously during the day and late into the night, on an average of about once every five minutes,” read a Gazette story from the fall of 1918.

Schools closed. So did theaters, movie houses, churches, lodges, pool rooms, billiard parlors, bowling alleys and places of public gathering and entertainment. Streetcar drivers were told to roll down rear windows to ensure proper ventilation.

In general, people were asked to stay home. There were casket shortages. Doctors requested some pharmacies remain open all night, to better offer medications when needed.

Mrs. Arthur Krida, in charge of city nurses, shared stories of tragedy with The Gazette.

“A nurse went into a home in Front Street one day this week and found a mother dead in her bed from the plague,” Krida said. “Two little children played about in the dirt… it was the home of the poor. There were three other children in the bed with the body — no, do not shudder. Life is very real these days. Presently the father came reeling through the doorway, mumbling and cursing. He was drunk…”

It might have been the most tragic, disheartening paragraph ever printed in The Gazette.

Doctors pleaded with people to wear facial coverings, not to congregate in crowds and avoid overheated rooms.

The advice resonated with me. We’ve heard it all year, and people heard it 102 years ago. Yet, in 1918, large crowds assembled in November to celebrate the end of World War I in street celebrations, victory dinners and a Thanksgiving “sing.” The virus spiked.

In 2020, the coronavirus stories filed by reporters all over the nation will live on. They will become part of city and town histories, and resurrected in 2045 and 2070 and beyond, years when people recall the bleak time of the pandemic.

Contact Jeff Wilkin at [email protected]


Categories: News

Leave a Reply