thriving in the greatest generation of journalists
By Ed Kelley, 2003 Inductee
He had a bearing, did Allan Cromley, of a man made for Washington, D.C. in an era made for men who came to town at the top of their game and stayed long enough to have witnessed the great shifts in American journalism—and thrived all the while in it.
He and his wife Marian, nine months pregnant with their first child, arrived by car in steamy Washington from Oklahoma City in June 1953, not sure how long the stay would be but determined to make the most of it there.
Turned out “there,” in terms of Al Cromley’s career in Washington for The Oklahoman, lasted another 43 years.
Along the way he covered what seemed like a jillion stories for The Oklahoman and its sister paper, The Oklahoma City Times. Some of them were as big as they get: a presidential assassination, the space program (his publisher, Hall of Famer Edward King Gaylord, loved science and thus orbiting in the heavens), political conventions (19 of them), a presidential summit in the Soviet Union. And the bread and butter of smaller, more mundane stories: Oklahoma’s congressional delegation particularly, but also the machinations of official Washington and how they affected the folks back home.
At the time he arrived in Washington, his peers were men like him, top-shelf reporters who first made their mark at their home papers. They were members of the Greatest Generation who had postponed college to go to war for Uncle Sam, in his case in the Battle of the Bulge.
He was ambitious, in ways not unlike the other ambitious people in government and politics who helped turn post-war Washington from a sleepy southern town into the news capital of the world. It helped too that Al Cromley looked the part—tall and handsome, with a head full of preternatural gray-then-white hair. He was mistaken from time to time as a member of the fraternity he covered—specifically, the Senate. Colleagues in the home office called him “the senior senator from OPUBCO.”
As proof: A national magazine years ago wanted to portray what the Senate would look like if its gender breakdown at the time—98 men and two women—were reversed. So, it found 98 women for the photo it wanted and needed two men who could pass for senators to play the part. “What about Al Cromley?” someone asked. And in the photo he appeared.
He could have passed for a senator, but he wasn’t one of them. His reporting often chafed the high and mighty. Early on, it was Robert S. Kerr, “the uncrowned king of the Senate.” Then there was an occasional spat with Senator Henry Bellmon or on the House side, Carl Albert, who later was Speaker of the House. As it was he outlasted all of them.
Working with him, as I did for four years at the end of his career, was illuminating. He could write any kind of story. But he wanted the verbiage, particularly for his Sunday column, to be just right. And even after four decades in the business Al Cromley would literally pace the floor of his small office in the National Press Building, mentally searching for exactly the right word or phrase to make his point.
He came to work in coat and tie, not just because he was of that generation but because he knew he represented more than just himself. His example to me, without saying so: as The Oklahoman’s person in Washington, you represent the paper and its owners. And to many people encountered on a daily basis, you might be the only person they’ve ever met from Oklahoma City or Oklahoma. First impressions never meant more than in Washington.
And he impressed many.
Cromley remains one of the few to ever have served as president of both the National Press Club and the prestigious Gridiron Club. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
He began working part-time upon turning 65 and worked another nine years, until 1996.
He had experienced it all.
He started on a manual typewriter at a time when newspapers— morning and afternoon—were king and television news just a blip. Desktop computers eventually came along, then rudimentary laptops. News via the Internet was birthed as he called it quits.
It was quite the ride for a man who was made for the role he played—and played well for so long.