Kent Demaret, aged 72, the retired Houston correspondent for Life and People magazines, died in Houston on March 16, 2007.
The old Houston Press — Houston’s third daily newspaper until 1964 — hired me as a cub reporter in the spring of 1962 and assigned me to the police beat. The city editor was Jack Mohler (who became city editor of The Chronicle in 1964 after The Press folded). But my real boss was Kent Demaret, the assistant city editor.
The Press published from a two-story building, now demolished, south of downtown Houston at Rusk and Chartres. The building sat across U. S. 59 from what is now the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston’s original Chinatown. (Neither the elevated freeway nor the convention center existed in 1962.)
The Press’s city room, built early in the 20th century, resembled a set from the movie “His Girl Friday” with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell – the first movie version of the Broadway comedy “The Front Page”.
But this was no set. On the second floor, after climbing a wide staircase, a door opened onto the city room. A horseshoe-shaped desk with pneumatic tubes to the Linotype operators dominated the landscape. This was the copy desk. The news editor sat in the middle of the desk – “the slot” – and the copy editors around the rim. Some of them wore the traditional green eye-shades.
In the northwest corner was a spacious office for the editor, George Carmack, a tall, booming-voiced Tennessean. Outside his office on a tall slanted bookstand was a large edition of the King James Bible. It was known in the office as the King George Bible.
Other desks and small offices ranged around the walls, and in the center sat the city desk. This consisted of several wooden desks shoved together for the editors. Desks for reporters were scattered around the city desk seemingly at random.
The equipment was ancient: many of the reporters’ stations were still equipped with 1928 L. C. Smith typewriters. Most reporters typed on them with two fingers.
Mohler and Demaret presided over this kingdom. Murder trials and government scandals were the meat of choice. Reporters with ties yanked out of open collars and cigarettes dangling from their mouths talked on phones or pecked on yellow copy paper. Copy editors used wooden sticks and paste pots to assemble stories for the pneumatic tube.
`I did not visit the city room often because I worked in the third-floor press room of the old Police Headquarters at 61 Riesner Street, known to all as The Cop Shop. There the City of Houston furnished the three Houston dailies (Post, Chronicle, and Press) with three desks, a vinyl couch, and police and fire radios.
By ancient prescription, Jack Weeks of The Chronicle occupied the middle desk, which had something of a window. Jack was the senior police reporter. I was just a relief man, filling in for the Press’s beat reporter, so my status was barely above that of the radio reporters, who had no desks at all.
My shift started at 5:00 a.m. and ran till 1:30 p.m. The last edition of The Press went to type at 2:00 p.m. for the afternoon commuters. Our competition was The Chronicle, and it was an article of faith that we could not let The Chronicle beat us with a story.
The police radios blared in the press room. People wandered in and out. Dedicated telephone lines connected each newspaper’s desk direct to its own city desk.
Many times a day the Press’s phone rang. It was usually Kent Demaret. He had a rich baritone voice and spoke like Al Gore. He talked in a low but intense tone. He addressed me somewhat the way sergeants later addressed me in the Marine Corps.
“I want you to get right on this story,” he would say, after directing me to some new tale. He seemed grizzled and wise, although I now realize he was only five years older than I was.
Although Kent was a mile or two away from the police station, he seemed to know what was happening better than I did. He sent me to check out leads all over the building. When a shooting or an explosion took place on my shift, I was to get on the telephone and call around to find bystanders or homeowners who could tell us what was going on.
This sent me to the Criss-Cross Directory, a huge book that listed houses by street number and then gave the telephone number. It did not give the name of the homeowner, for some reason.
About 1:00 one afternoon of a slow news day, the Press’s phone rang. It was Kent. He had a late-breaking story.
“A truck filled with goats has just overturned in the 8000 block of the Hempstead Highway. I want you to Criss-Cross it right away, and get me names and addresses of the houses where the goats are so I can send out a photographer. Get right on it because we’re on deadline.”
I was the only reporter in the press room. I spread the Criss-Cross directory out on the table and began phoning.
“Hello, sir, this is The Houston Press. We have a report that a truck filled with goats has tumped over on the Hempstead Highway. Do you see any goats on the road?” No goats in view.
“Hello, ma’am. I’m calling from The Houston Press. Are there any goats in your front yard? No goats in the yard.
I made about a dozen calls in five minutes. There were no goats to report. I thought perhaps I had the wrong block.
I phoned Kent at the city desk to report no goat-sightings in the 8000 block and could hear sounds of laughter behind him in the city room.
Kent confessed that he had sent me on a wild-goat chase. It was the traditional hoax the city desk played on all new police reporters.
I realized I was the goat, and it was time to quit for the day.
Good night, Kent.