Wednesday, September 02, 2020
David W. Workman:
The Editor Who Became A Cop
David W. Workman was a small-town newspaperman with a large involvement in the community he covered for three decades. After he retired from newspapering, he turned to protecting the village, even packing a pistol as he patrolled village streets.
Workman spent 33 years at The Ridgefield Press, many of them as an editor, changing the newspaper’s focus to solely local news. He also was unafraid to criticize powerful people, as a 1922 racial incident demonstrated.
“He was a staunch and loyal supporter of our town and lent his influence to its growth and progress through critical periods,” The Press said the day after his funeral.
David Whitney Workman was born in Norwalk in 1876, attended private and public schools there, and graduated from Brown Business College in Norwalk. He got his start in newspapers, working for the South Norwalk Sentinel, a weekly founded in 1870.
In 1900, he joined the staff of The Press, then housed in the Masonic building just south of the Town Hall. He was in charge of what was called the mechanical department — the printing presses and typesetting. Back then the Press also did “job printing” and had both small and large presses to produce a variety of printed documents.
It was also at a time when most of the type — the backward letters made of metal — were put together by hand, one letter at a time. Under Workman’s subsequent management, a Linotype machine, the company’s first “modern” piece of printing equipment, was installed. The giant, keyboard-controlled machine considerably speeded up the process of producing type.
Workman soon began taking on reporting and writing assignments and became assistant editor in 1904 under S. Claude O’Connor. He wound up doing most of the writing. When O’Connor left in 1923, Workman took over full control. He ran the paper until it was sold in 1932, staying on for a while to help the new editor and publisher, John A. Thayer.
Under Workman’s reign, The Press became an entirely local newspaper. Before he took control, half of each issue was printed in New York City, filled with national stories, columns, pictures, and ads. The outside pages were written and printed in Ridgefield, then collated with the “boilerplate” pages. By the time he retired, the entire Press was printed in Ridgefield, and all its pages contained local news locally written.
Workman knew the town like few others. Besides covering Ridgefield for the newspaper he was for many years the clerk of the Board of Finance, clerk of the Board of Education, and a registrar of voters for the Republican Party. His wife, Edna Innes Workman, was secretary, treasurer at St. Stephen’s Church and superintendent of its Sunday school.
His special interest was Ridgefield’s woodlands and for 17 years, he was the district forest fire warden for the State Department of Forestry, issuing state-mandated burning permits and overseeing fire prevention measures. Back when Ridgefield was much more rural, it was considered an important office.
“He devoted a great deal of time to the preservation of the beauty of the out-of-doors so often threatened by an expanding urban civilization,” The Press said in its tribute to Workman. “The blanket of pine and hemlock which covered his casket gave testimony that his efforts had not been in vain.”
After leaving the Press in 1932, he became a town cop. Back in the 1930s, long before the town had its own “real” police department, Ridgefield’s policing was done by the Connecticut State Police, supplemented by town constables, local people who were chosen for that office at town elections — and had been since the early 1700s. Some of those constables were hired as paid employees of the town — one for daytime and one for night — to patrol the village, handle traffic, and deal with other minor offenses. The evening constable was often called the “night watchman.”
However, after the state enacted a new civil service law, the policing job conflicted with his fire prevention post. The state paid fire wardens a stipend of a mere $10 a year, but because it was a payment for an official position, he was considered a state employee; as such he fell under the newly enacted civil service laws. Those laws forbade state employees from “political activities.” That meant Workman could not hold elective office — even constable.
So in 1937 he retired as forest fire warden (his son, Kenneth, took over) so he could continue as a “night watchman.”
It turned out to matter little. Workman died the next year, 1938, after a lengthy illness. He was only 62 years old.
The large crowd that attended his funeral at St. Stephen’s Church included “a squad of state policemen...in uniform,” The Press reported.
That might have been a little surprising to people 16 years earlier. Back in October 1922, The Press ran a fiery, front-page editorial criticizing the state police’s handling of the brutal beating of a black man on Bailey Avenue.
The incident occurred in September when the inebriated brother of the commander of the Ridgefield state police barracks accosted the black man who was eating at Coleman’s Lunch behind town hall. After entering the diner, Thomas Kelly declared that he didn’t want to eat at the same counter with “a nigger” and ordered Robert Cooper to leave. When Cooper refused, Kelly punched him in the face. He then chased Cooper up Bailey Avenue, hit him, knocked him down, and kicked him before several people finally rescued Cooper and called a doctor.
Several days later Kelly was arrested for assault and breach of the peace, but after a quick trial, was given a $15 fine.
The Press minced no words in expressing its outrage. “A brutal bully makes a most atrocious attack on an inoffensive peaceful man of good reputation, simply because he is a colored man, and he goes unpunished in this town,” an editorial said. “The state police take charge of the arrest and punishment of the bully and do not call Mr. Coleman [the lunch counter owner] or the doctor or any of the witnesses to testify to the assault or the seriousness of the crime so that the justice may know what punishment to inflict.”
Then, it pointed out that “Thomas Kelly is a brother of John C. Kelly, head of the State Police in this town. Are relatives of the State Police exempt from punishment for crimes? Apparently an investigation should be made by those who appoint and control the State Police.”
Several wealthy townspeople wound up hiring a major New York City lawyer to demand that the Connecticut State Police headquarters in Hartford investigate the incident and its handling. The commissioner of state police said he’d look into it, but the outcome was handled quietly.
Apparently Lt. John Kelly, the Troop A commander, was not found at fault, for he eventually rose to the position of commander of the entire Connecticut State Police.
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