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The election's off the wall

Robert Ruhl, Mail Tribune editor, was stretched out on his couch a few days after the 1944 presidential election, reminiscing about how reporting of election results had changed so much over his 40-year newspaper career.

For him, it had begun when he and future President Franklin Roosevelt were classmates at Harvard, and both were staff members on the university’s newspaper.

“What a change the years bring,” Ruhl said. “The other night I sat by the home fireside and listened to the radio reporting the election returns from the entire nation. I couldn’t help but think of the old days, when it wasn’t so easy to find out how elections were going.”

Ruhl arrived at the Mail Tribune in 1911 and began working for editor and owner George Putnam.

“I remember, especially,” Ruhl said, “the 1912 election and how Putnam wanted to let the people know how things were going. Before that, the office had been kept open on election nights and usually was filled with anxious candidates and others. It used to be awfully hard for the editorial staff to even hear the phone for the confusion.”

1912 was the year incumbent President William Howard Taft faced off against the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, and the Bull Moose leader, former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Just the fact that Roosevelt was now challenging the man he had picked to succeed him, four years earlier, was enough to stimulate intense interest in the election’s outcome.

Putnam decided to post results so everyone could easily see them. He borrowed a large stereopticon, basically an early slide projector, and had Ruhl build a platform just inside the paper’s front window, high enough to be above the heads of people on the outside sidewalk. A large screen was put up on the building across the street.

“The idea was the office would be kept locked up,” Ruhl said, “and anyone wishing to get the returns could watch for them on the big screen.”

Glass slides were prepared that could be written on and erased, so up-to-date results received from the Associated Press telegraph wire could be shared.

It seemed like a good plan and everything was ready by election night.

As the first returns came in, they were flashed on the screen and the onlookers outside were amazed — at least for a while.

This was Southern Oregon, and you don’t have to live here forever to know that weather in November can be more than a bit iffy.

Down came the torrent. “And it rained and rained and rained all night,” Ruhl said. “Putnam took pity on the few brave ones who were standing out in the deluge and opened the doors. After that the folks just stood inside the office and looked out the window to read the figures as we flashed them on the big screen. And the usual confusion continued!”

Putnam sold the Mail Tribune to Ruhl in 1919, allowing Ruhl to become one of its most respected editors. In 1934, Ruhl was at the helm when the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor.

He retired in the mid-1950s, but kept the title of publisher and editor until 1964.

Robert Ruhl died in 1967. He was 87.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.