"....A 15 YEAR-OLD AT WASHINGTON PRESS CONFERENCES!
Dennis Wilen is the founder and editor of Pocho.com in Los Angeles, an online news and satirical publication. He is a reformed journalist and veteran radio and records executive, music producer, webmaster and web editor with credits that include Rolling Stone, LACMA, the L.A. Jewish Journal, the Milken Family Foundation, Brentwood Patch, Yahoo! Geocities, Harry Shearer and Spinal Tap. He is a native Philadelphian, and wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and served a stint as music director and concert director of WMMR. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. His sister is member Amy Wilen-Buckman. We asked him to tell us about his experience of going to Washington to cover national press conferences as a high-school journalist.
How do I tell this story? I could start out by saying “I’ve always been a troublemaker,” or, perhaps, “It’s better to apologize later than ask permission first.”
Either way, my White House adventure began in the spring of 1963, when I was a 15-year-old junior at Haverford High and News Director at WHHS, our school’s 10-watt FM station. I did a quarter-hour “News of the Week in Review” show every Monday, in the optimistic belief that a 15-year-old could talk meaningfully about world events.
I was also what we would call now a “JFK fan boy.” I loved President John F. Kennedy and remember his campaign appearance in Upper Darby near 69th Street, how his hair seemed extra red in person and the way he smiled.
I followed the news diligently - “The Evening Bulletin” at home every day (my family disliked “The Inquirer,” aka the “Republican Bible of Pennsylvania”), CBS’ Walter Cronkite every night and the talk shows and “The New York Times” every Sunday.
One day I sat down at the WHHS typewriter and tapped out a letter to Pierre Salinger, the president’s press secretary, on the official WHHS letterhead. I asked if were possible for me to get on the press release mailing list, and, by the way, to attend one of Kennedy’s regularly-scheduled morning press conferences at the State Department and the afternoon briefing in the White House. I got my answer soon after.
I was in class when the PA system summoned me to the principal’s office. “You’ve got mail,” they said, and handed me an envelope with a return address that read “The White House.”
My new pal Pierre had said, “OK!” I found out when the next press conference was, and got permission from my parents and the school to make the trip. My budget allowed for the train down to D.C., a cab ride to the State Department from Union Station (I remember being informed that cabs in Washington stopped to pick up passengers), a ride to go get lunch (“Tell the driver to take you to the nearest Peoples’ Drug Store where they have a lunch counter,” my mom said), and a ride to and from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On the train down I read the day’s “N.Y. Times” and wrote down some questions in case the president called on me when I raised my hand (as if). I got to D.C., took a cab to the State Department, presented my year-old Social Security Card as ID and was ushered into the State Department auditorium for the press conference.
It’s lucky JFK didn’t call on me! I can now reveal - for the first time - I totally botched the name of someone in the news - a guy named Huntington Richardson or Wentworth Harrington or some indeterminate WASP-y combination like that and wrote his name down backwards. Whew! Thank you, Fate!
After an uneventful cab ride (no extra passengers) and a cheeseburger at the lunch counter of People’s Drug, I hailed a cab and directed the driver to the White House. As skeptical as the cab driver was when I told him my destination, the gate guard at the White House, thankfully, was even more skeptical. He double checked my Social Security Card, phoned back inside, and, after what seemed like an eternity, opened the gate and told me how to get the the press room.
A Marine Guard let me in, and there I sat, a kid among the wire service and syndicate and newspaper and broadcast White House correspondents, waiting to be ushered into the press secretary’s office. I don’t remember which reporters were there, but I do remember recognizing some of them. Pierre Salinger, sadly, was on vacation, so we got the briefing from Andrew Hatcher, his assistant, who was the first African American to serve in the White House Press Office. Hatcher, unsurprisingly, didn’t call on me either.
Back in Ardmore I was a celebrity of sorts, enough to get “The Bulletin” interested in writing up the episode as a human interest story.The story reached WPEN radio talk show host Red Benson who asked me to do a guest spot on his show, which was broadcast live from a coffee shop on Walnut Street downtown.
I told my story, read a commercial, took phone calls, and had a blast. Back at the White House, things were not so copacetic. My BFF Pierre - or one of his minions - sent a second letter to me, care of HHS, and scolded me for not noting I was a student broadcaster in my initial inquiry.
It’s better to apologize later than ask permission first...."