Jim Tucker on the killing of a school principal
It was probably the most shocking murder I ever reported. The most bizarre, for sure. But it made a single paragraph on the front page of the Taranaki Herald.
That same day in 1968, some people on a ferry boat were drowned in Wellington Harbour. Yes, you remember the Wahine disaster. It dominated the front page of the paper.
At the age of 21, I was still so lacking in maturity, common decency, whatever, that I felt little for the families of the 53 people who lost their lives when the Wahine turned turtle in a big storm.
I was aggrieved at their timing, which meant almost no space on page one for “my” first murder. On an average news day, it would have been the front-page lead, that meth hit we journos crave every day of our lives.
Career progress was judged on how often your story was singled out for lead treatment – in those days, a gigantic, 72-point Bodoni Black headline and a longer-than-usual article that we figured would be the first thing people read when they pulled our paper out of their letterbox.
On April 10, 1968, nearly all the front page went to the Wahine. The shooting of Inglewood High School principal Alexander Stuart Black got a couple of sentences in a single column brief at the bottom.
That was even though the poor man was killed by one of his own pupils – 15-year-old Roger John Bennett – who used a home-modified .22 rifle brought to school to avenge some grievance or other. I don’t recall what.
At his trial in the Supreme Court in New Plymouth, Bennett was found guilty of murder by the jury in spite of evidence from a psychiatrist the teenager suffered temporal lobe epilepsy that confused his judgment between fantasy and reality.
Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to that sort of senseless incident these days, given the appalling murders that happen around the world. But in those days it was an unusual crime. In 1968, it was all the more extraordinary for me, a young reporter who’d started at the paper in the middle of 1965 after a brief, failed attempt at getting a degree from Massey University.
I’d got to know Mr Black. One of my early duties was to drive out to Inglewood on Tuesday afternoons to visit businesses, borough and county councils, and schools to see if they had any news. In a whole year of making the calls, nobody ever had a news story for me, possibly because, as instructed, I asked each person if they had any news.
“No news today,” they’d say cheerily. Thank god, I’d think to myself, and head off to the next call. It was all futile because, like my interview subjects, I had only a vague idea there was more than one kind of news. Like them, I knew about bank robberies and car accidents…and murders. But community news was a mystery.
The principal was one of the friendliest on the list. He’d offer a cup of tea if I timed it right. We’d chat about education, which I figured I knew a bit about, having only just left high school and a short stint at university.
He would traverse the issues facing high schools and educators, and hint at the incompetence of education department bureaucrats in Wellington and how their lack of concern for small rural high schools stymied some of his efforts to provide students with what they needed.
I listened with interest but never took notes. I was keen to empathise with him, look him in the eye rather than down at my notebook, share my own anecdotes about school. There was no realisation on my part that I should explore the news relevance of the issues we discussed.
The principal probably saw my incompetence, but he was too decent to mention it or offer suggestions on how I should do my job. We just enjoyed one another’s company, and then after a while some teacher or kid would knock on his door and I would be politely sent on my way back to the Herald office in New Plymouth.
There, each week without fail, chief reporter Dick Long would inquire how it went, and I would shrug and say nothing was happening in Inglewood. He’d been brought up there, so must have had his suspicions. But he didn’t mention them. If he talked to the editor, Rash Avery, about my shortcomings, Avery never said anything either.
You can imagine my excitement when, new to the police round and keen to demonstrate my supposed skills, I rushed the 13km to Inglewood after we heard something serious was up. There was a lot of chat on our police radio, urgent exchanges between cops and their stations in New Plymouth and the town, only some of it in their strange code words and numbers.
Lance Girling-Butcher, my counterpart on rival morning paper The Daily News (later its editor) was just as keen as I was to get the story. Even though I had first crack because the Herald was next to publish, he knew I’d be lucky to get much information in the first hours, given the usually friendly cops clammed up when there was anything big happening.
With a deadline as late as 1am next day, he would have more time to get the police to relent, while they would have more time to investigate and carry out one particular duty they always cited as a barrier to the early release of information, the informing of close relatives.
My report was edited down to two sentences, one paragraph. Unfortunately for Girling-Butcher, his wasn’t much bigger next morning for the same reason. Our yearnings for prominence were equally thwarted.
His story read, “The principal of the Inglewood High School, Mr Alexander Stuart Black (43), was shot dead in the foyer of the school about 2:20pm yesterday. A youth was later arrested after the New Plymouth police armed defenders squad surrounded a farm house in Inglewood. It is believed Mr Black was shot at close range by a small calibre weapon. He died almost immediately. The armed defenders squad surrounded the farmhouse at 4pm and called to the youth through a loud hailer. They met no resistance.”
There was a sidebar, headlined BOY IN COURT. It read, “Roger John Bennett (15) , a high school student, appeared in the New Plymouth Magistrate’s Court today charged with the murder of Alexander Stuart Black yesterday. No plea was given. Bennett was remanded in custody at the New Plymouth Prison.”
We both went on to long careers in the business and to edit newspapers, but nothing that happened to either of us after that day quite made up for missing out on our first big moment.
If that appalls you, join the club. I look back and wonder what caused us – me, anyway – to act so heartlessly. Why would anyone ever want to be a journalist? I can’t answer that question properly even today.
The Inglewood yarn is taken from the e-book Flair and Loathing on the Front Page, Jim Tucker’s memoir of his years in journalism, and is available through jimtuckermedia.com. Those applying will receive a free preview and be asked to decide if they want to order the full 283 pages (111,000 words, 378 images), which they will receive by email to read on their tablet, iPad, phone, laptop or desktop on payment of $25.
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: David Hill reviews the two most popular novels of 2022, Harbouring by Jenny Pattrick and The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor.