Columnist: New technology recalls Western Union

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 8, 2015

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Technology’s fascination is unyielding.

The world has become glued to iPhones to the extent that this gripping gadget causes car wrecks, makes people bump into one another as they are moving about — walking into utility poles and park benches. Has there ever been anything more addictive in our society?

Recently, I was sitting at a restaurant and saw two pretty teenaged girls talking to an older lady, who must have been their mother. They were constantly monitoring their phones.

The mother was chatting away and the girls were nodding and smiling. They were hearing their mother, but the focus was their phones.

After observing that scene, there came the question. What modern advancement will overwhelm the next generation? The telephone and the radio — in their day — were powerfully influential. Then came television. Each had its hold on society and still does, but these inventions pale in comparison to the tools that fuel today’s social media craze.

There are many reasons to be offended by technology. It is destroying our language, first of all. College admissions officers are constantly saying that the bright students who show up today couldn’t write a simple essay if their life depended on it.

Worst of all, social media is destroying our privacy. It also brings about a deluge of junk and nonsensical chatter, which contributes nothing to our society.

As I observed the restaurant scene in a small town in South Carolina, I thought about Western Union. Not sure why, but it amused me knowing that the mother in the restaurant scene probably never received a telegram.

My recollection is that Western Union telegrams seemed to have faded away in the ’60s.

My introduction to Western Union was through Georgia football. I saw the sportswriters handing over their typewritten copy to Western Union ladies who then, with the greatest of skill and alacrity, retyped those stories and transmitted them to the newsrooms of the newspapers represented. Those stories were sent collect.

There is recall of a story about a baseball player from some little town in northern New Jersey getting the notice that he was to report to one of the big league teams in New York. After a sensational debut, an enterprising writer wrote a column by making his story a letter to the kid’s mother, using her home address.

Her doorbell rang and caused her to faint when she was told she had a collect letter from Western Union. The service had sent the writer’s story, intended for the newspaper, to the address of the mother of the player.

Western Union had an office in downtown Athens on College Street when I was a Georgia student. Delmus, nicknamed Del (his last name is lost with the elapsing of time), was a genial operator.

I had learned that the baseball immortal Ty Cobb had settled in Cornelia to live out his last days. I concocted a plan to go meet him and told Del my plan.

Del immediately sent a message to his counterpart in Cornelia, which brought this message: “Ty Cobb lives at Probes Apartments.” I still have that Western Union letter.

Western Union is remembered for the saddest of scenes during World War II. Families were devastated by the Western Union “boy on his bicycle.”

They dreaded seeing him come to their door. He would be delivering a telegram from the Secretary of War (airmen and soldiers) or the Secretary of the Navy (sailors), which would inform them that their son was killed or missing in action.

While Western Union was one of the biggest monopolies in business, it was always seeking creative innovations to broaden its appeal. You can still send a box of candy (Candygram) to a special friend or loved one.

There were “Kissograms,” a messaged delivered with a kiss. And the ultimate surprise, I suppose, the “Stripogram.” The doorbell rings, you open your door and you are greeted by a messenger who performs a striptease while delivering the message.

Western Union introduced singing telegrams in 1933, which prompts recall of this story. A Western Union messenger rang a lady’s door. When she saw him, she immediately asked if he had a singing telegram for her.

“No ma’am,” he replied. She insisted, begging for a singing telegram.

Finally the young Western Union boy gave in and said, “Okay, lady you asked for it. ‘Tee, dee, dum, your sister R-o-o-o-o-s-e is dead.’”

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.