In Memoriam: Western Hills Press 1924-2022

Remembering my first job working in the paper’s loud, disgusting, dangerous press room in Cheviot.

The Western Hills Press didn’t quite mark a century, shut down by its third (or fourth?) owner after languishing for a decade. Its final issue is scheduled to be May 25. The old rag deserved better, but don’t we all?

The four-unit web offset press as it appeared around 1970 in the basement of The Western Hills Press building at 3708 Davis Avenue in Cheviot.

Photograph provided by Greg Hand

The Press was founded by Will L. Finch, who certainly knew his way around a composing table. He came up as a reporter for the old Cincinnati Commercial Gazette when it was edited by the legendary Murat Halstead and later served as city editor of the successor Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. Finch married a Dent farm girl and moved to the West Side, where his civic enthusiasm led him to start a newspaper when he was 56 years old. The first issue rolled off the presses on November 17, 1924.

Finch died of pneumonia in 1933 just after being elected to the Ohio General Assembly. The previous year, as he launched his political campaign, he handed the reins to his young protégé, Al Huneke, who ran the paper for the next 40 years or so. Huneke eventually built a small chain of weekly papers running from Delhi to Sharonville.

Your proprietor entered this saga in 1968 at age 16. My family had just moved from Dent to Cheviot, and our new home was in easy walking distance to The Press at 3708 Davis Avenue. My uncle was foreman of the printing operation, so I was literally hired through nepotism. As it turns out, my uncle got a job in the print shop because his uncle had a job in the business office, so my career was launched as a case of double nepotism.

Greg Hand in the plate room of the Western Hills Publishing Company. Although employed more-or-less full-time for six years, Hand was never issued uniform shirts with his name embroidered on them.

Photograph provided by Greg Hand

Although hired because I was related to the boss, the job I landed was anything but cushy. Officially, I was a jogger. I grabbed newspapers as they came off the press, stacked them into bundles of 150 or 200, wrapped them with twine and loaded them onto wooden pallets. To the printers, I was the shitboy. I had to clean the press between runs, mop the pit in which the press sat (filled with a noxious slurry of water and ink), and haul all the scrap paper out to a baling machine in the parking lot.

My shift was 3 to 11:30 p.m. Pay was minimum wage. It was too loud to talk while the press was running and the work was essentially mindless, so I got a lot of time to think. I’d compose school papers in my head and write them out when I got home.

A big four-unit web press is an expensive monstrosity and cannot be amortized by printing just 15,000 weekly copies of The Western Hills Press. We printed the sister paper, The Price Hill Press, but also took in job work like The American Israelite, the UC student-run News Record, and lots of K-Mart shopping inserts. We printed the underground Independent Eye for a couple of months until a copy landed on Huneke’s desk. We even printed Larry Flynt’s Hustler, back when it was only a PG-rated, two-color tabloid filled with columns apparently written by the barflies at Flynt’s saloons.

When I started, the paper was set in “hot type,” or linotype cast from molten lead. The linotype machines were upstairs next to the job shop, where an ancient letterpress and a couple of offset machines churned out the jobs too small for the big web press in the basement. The community’s life passed through that job shop: church bulletins, business cards, wedding invitations, birth announcements, posters for festivals and dances, award certificates, and obituary cards.

The print crew was entertaining and educational. I worked with another shitboy, a toothless 55-year-old from the hills of Kentucky who was nicknamed Doc, in reference to his intelligence. It was the age of Polack jokes, and one day the second pressman asked if anyone had heard about the Polack who was stuck on an escalator for four hours when the power went out. Several hours later, Doc said, “I’ve been thinking about that boy on the escalator. If the power went out, all he’d have to do is jump over the side!”

Our delivery truck was pitted with what the crew called “whiskey divots.” The truck driver blamed the dings on telephone poles hadn’t been there the day before. The crew began sending him off with warnings to avoid the “pixie telephone poles.”

The second pressman didn’t want to be a printer; he wanted to be a fireman. He kept a scanner in the print shop and listened to fire and ambulance dispatchers during breaks. He used to take naps lying under the press while it was running. If anyone from management wandered through, they’d assume he was doing maintenance. The head pressman told us, “He’s going to jump up from a nightmare one day and that press will rip his head off.”

While the second pressman never lost his head (and did become a fireman), many of the crew lost fingers or gained stitches from the print shop’s abundant hazards. No one wore ear protection in those pre-OSHA days, and all the printers went more-or-less deaf from the thundering press. Baling wire was little more than a 400-foot roll of scalpels. Who knew what pigments went into the ink? Any job requiring red ink found the entire crew looking like clowns with bright red noses. Some crimson pigment caused our noses to itch, so we rubbed them with ink-stained hands.

The head pressman collected 1957 Chevies. Once the presses got rolling, he turned things over to the second pressman and scoured the want ads looking for garages to rent. Someone said he owned 40 of the prized autos; someone else said it was more like 50.

These men had an extensive vocabulary that’s yet to appear in any dictionary. Every shift plumbed further depths of vulgarity, obscenity, indecency, and scatology. Your basic expletives were as common as conjunctions, and every conversation somehow involved activities that were physically impossible, medically inadvisable, and morally reprehensible. The press crew was incapable of uttering the simplest instruction without larding it with malediction. Asked what he was planning for the weekend, the truck driver routinely replied, “I’m gonna fish, gonna fight, gonna [f-bomb], gonna drink some beer.” One of the pressmen regaled new hires with an extended riff involving cunnilingus and flatulence that would probably still get him arrested if he tried to tell it on stage.

I worked as a printer for six years—two years of high school and all the way through college. By the time I graduated, I had worked my way up to a pretty good salary and was running the plate room on second shift. That was considerably cleaner and somewhat quieter than working on the press itself. Soon after graduation, I was called upstairs and informed that my career plans had changed.

(To be continued next week.)

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