State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

The Old Pennsylvania Mirror: When a Morning Newspaper Went to Sleep

by on December 28, 2017 5:00 AM

Forty years ago this week, central Pennsylvania’s upstart daily newspaper, The Pennsylvania Mirror, was laid to rest when its final edition appeared on Dec. 31, 1977. The Mirror is dead, buried and forgotten.

But how could the unforgettable Mirror ever be forgotten? Sure, 40 years is a long time, yet I’m surprised that even four decades could erase this amazing newspaper from our region’s memory.     

From its birth on Dec. 11, 1968 as the sibling of the Altoona Mirror, the new publication introduced dramatic changes to local journalism. Printed on a state-of-the-art offset press, The Pennsylvania Mirror showcased color photography and other graphic innovations. And it also demonstrated the viability of morning circulation. The Mirror arrived in the wee hours of the morning — most of the time, at least.  Back then, the Centre Daily Times was an evening paper, and it did not wake up to smell the coffee until 1986.   

YOUTHFUL & AGGRESSIVE

Readers soon picked up another difference — a youthful, aggressive approach in the writing. “The Mirror was a child of the ‘60s,” says Chris Koll, a sportswriter for the publication. “It was flippant, it was irreverent.”

The initial staff of the Mirror felt a certain cockiness about the future. “We were gung-ho,” recalls Tom Berner, the paper’s assistant sports editor who later became its city editor. “I think we thought we were going to be better than the CDT.”

Before long, however, reality struck and Mirror writers realized that the well-established Centre Daily Times held sway in State College and surrounding areas.  

“I think we had the feeling that we were certainly the second place, lesser light newspaper in town,” says Dennis Gildea, a former sportswriter and columnist with the Mirror. “I think that was particularly true in sports where a lot of the things we did were meant to be good journalism, but they were also meant to stick it to the CDT or the administration at Penn State.”  

“The CDT was much more buttoned down,” says Koll, a former Penn State wrestler whose father, Bill Koll, was the Nittany Lions’ coach in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s. “As far as doing what a newspaper is supposed to do, maybe the CDT was actually fulfilling its role better than the Mirror. But if you wanted to be entertained, there wasn’t any comparison. When you wrote for the Mirror, you didn’t just want to write a story, you wanted to write a story that was fun to read.”

CUTTING LOOSE AFTER DEADLINES

And the emphasis on fun didn’t end when a writer submitted a story. A morning paper demanded evening work by its reporters, and sportswriters stayed especially late to write stories after nighttime contests. Gildea, Koll and other colleagues often found ways to cut loose after meeting their deadlines around 11:30 p.m.

“You’d cover a high school football game or some kind of event, and you’d slam the story out,” says Koll, now a high school wrestling coach and executive with a Syracuse-area construction company. “Then people would always bring in beers. So everyone would be sitting back with their feet up, drinking beer. And then Gildea would bring in some sort of play athletic equipment (Wiffle ball or Nerf football). So then as you were drinking beers, you’d be having these athletic contests over the top of the news desk.”

Gildea always seemed to serve as the life of the party. Not only did he spearhead office athletics, but he served as the anonymous author of the paper’s wackiest feature — a weekly column of sports prognostications by the fictitious character known as T. Wes Brillik.

WHO WAS T. WES BRILLIK?

In Gildea’s vivid imagination, Brillik lived with his wife, Mimsy, on Mount Nittany and enjoyed downing Utica Clubs (“UCs”) at Bellefonte’s now-defunct Big Trout Inn. Brillik spoke in a unique dialect where the Mirror became “the Mirrow,” wrestlers were “rasslers” and Penn State was “Nit U.” Occasionally, Brillik’s full name (Thaddeus Westmoreland Brillik) was shared with readers, but prior to the column you are now reading, no public admission of Gildea’s authorship was ever published.

The goal of Brillik’s utterances, says Gildea, was “striking a consistent tone with Joe Paterno who didn’t want football to be the most important thing in anyone’s life.” So, because he felt that Penn State players and State High players should avoid taking themselves too seriously, Gildea’s Brillik almost always predicted victories by the opposition.

“I remember one time,” says Gildea, “I think they were playing Temple, and I did pick Penn State to win — I mean, Brillik did. But the score was going to be 2-0.” As for State High predictions, Brillik must have needed to really rassle with his conscience to continue favoring Little Lion opponents during the early 1970s. Somehow, despite State High’s 36-game winning streak, Gildea got a chuckle from favoring their foes.

SERIOUS NEWS COVERAGE

Apart from their light-hearted pursuits, Mirror people also produced award-winning news stories and in-depth features. The staff compiled a 48-page tabloid to chronicle the devastating floods from 1972’s Hurricane Agnes, and some 100,000 copies were sold across Pennsylvania. Another special publication that celebrated the September 1970 opening of the “Keystone Shortway” (the original name for Pennsylvania’s part of Interstate 80) drew widespread appreciation. And a team of Mirror reporters delivered highly-professional coverage of the 1971 murder of a Bellefonte policeman, Ronald D. Seymore, and the manhunt by nearly 200 policemen that succeeded in capturing his killer, John June Tressler.

Perhaps the most memorable news coverage during the Mirror’s nine-year history pertained to Apollo 11. Not only was Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon a “giant leap for mankind,” but it provided the Mirror with a chance to publish some eye-popping color images. Only the front page headline writer overstepped his role that day (“Mankind approaches the universe”), but in the context of NASA’s thrilling achievement, he or she can be forgiven for such an astronomical exaggeration.

Jim Houck, the oldest son of executive editor Paul Houck, was then just 11 years old, but he remembers his father’s excitement over the Mirror’s lunar landing issue. “He was really proud of that,” says the editor’s son, now a Penn State Law professor who retired from the Navy with the rank of Vice Admiral. “It was less than a year after the paper had come into existence. He gave it away, he was so proud of it. And I delivered that edition up and down College Avenue, up and down Beaver Avenue.”

(I wrote about Jim and Paul Houck last year, and you can read it here.)

Vice Admiral James Houck holds a copy of the lunar landing issue of the Pennsylvania Mirror, which he delivered as an 11-year-old. Photo by Bill Horlacher

AN UPHILL BATTLE

Although Paul Houck enjoyed other editorial triumphs with the Mirror, everyone knew he was fighting an uphill battle. State College and Bellefonte merchants did not provide sufficient advertising dollars for two daily newspapers, and the Centre Daily Times controlled the lion’s share. Meanwhile, the Mirror’s owners sought to strengthen their position by reaching out to surrounding communities like Philipsburg, Tyrone and even Altoona.

“Paul never had the wherewithal to really compete,” says Don Black, the Mirror’s chief photographer during the early 1970s. “Trying to cover Tyrone, Altoona and that area while still trying to be the local newspaper for Bellefonte and State College — it was too much of a split. And you’re doing it with a limited staff. We didn’t have the horses to do some of the basic, everyday things that build continuity and regularity in a newspaper.”

After leaving the Mirror in 1972, Black’s newspaper career took him to New York State (he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while serving in Binghamton), California, Oregon, Indiana, Idaho and Wyoming. Having served as a photographer, editor and publisher, Black can now imagine Houck’s predicament.

“I don’t think any of us appreciated what Paul Houck did during the time we were there.  He had a very rough job and was trying to do the best he could with very limited resources.   

“After I had been at the Mirror for a year, Paul called me into his office. I had started at $95 a week. He said, ‘You’ve been here a year.  You’re going to get a raise and go to $100 a week. Now, of course there are other options. Would you be interested in becoming the assistant city editor for graphics and photography which would help you on your resume?’ And I said, ‘Paul, that sounds pretty good. What does that pay?’ And he said, ‘That would be instead of the $5.’

“He was doing what he had to do. Every dollar he could save, he would put toward doing something else for the paper. What a good man.”

A LEADER’S LEGACY

Houck left the Mirror in mid-1976, roughly a year and a half before its demise. I suspect that until the day of his death in 2001, he felt disappointment over the Mirror’s apparent failure. But I say “apparent” because our area’s first morning paper did achieve success in one key endeavor — developing young journalists.

Houck set the tone for this developmental process by giving creative freedom to his young writers, and I observed his approach while working part-time in the sports department from 1969-1971. Houck called me into his office one day to see if I felt confident enough to cover the Bellefonte team at the Pennsylvania Teener League Baseball championships in Schuylkill County.

I was only 17 years old, and I would be driving a company car, using a company camera and producing stories and photos with no help. Houck was the executive editor, but his questions seemed more dad-like than boss-like. He wasn’t going to micro-manage my work; he just wanted to make sure that I and the company car would both return to the office intact.  

As for those who apprenticed at the Mirror and then achieved success in other locations, Black ended his career as publisher of the Laramie Boomerang. Berner was recruited to join the Centre Daily Times as an editor in 1971 and then taught journalism at Penn State from 1975 to 2003. Terry Nau (his name rhymes with “now” but Brillik called him “Nay-you”) served as sports editor for the Pawtucket Times. Dave Fay covered hockey for the Washington Times for several decades and won a lifetime achievement award from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Dave Bloss served as sports editor for The Providence Journal and now helps to train journalists in developing nations.

And then there’s Dennis Gildea, yes, the one-of-a-kind Dennis Gildea. He holds a Ph.D. in mass communications and serves as a full professor at Springfield College. Not bad for a guy who still lapses into Brillik-ese in summarizing his current work: “I’m learnin’ to write good.”

THE END OF THE ROAD

Inevitably, the tragic word came down from the newspaper’s Blair County owners. They could no longer sustain the Mirror’s financial losses, and they would shut it down at the end of 1977.  

Berner, for one, was “not surprised,” adding that “the writing was on the wall for a long time.” As for Gildea, he says, “It was genuinely tragic, a shame that it didn’t survive. We didn’t realize we were as talented as we were. We should have flourished more than we did, but from a professional journalistic approach, we never took ourselves seriously enough.”

Dead, buried, forgotten, The Pennsylvania Mirror. But the bard of the Mirror, T. Wes Brillik, is still with us. At my request, Gildea turned Brillik loose for this final word:

A Scribe's Interview with T. Wes Brillik

Squintin his beady eyes at the mist offa the fen,

T. Wes Brillik his own self heard the voice again.

"Thaddy, Thaddy, youns gotta get on the hook,"

Mimsy was howlin, so's that's all it took.

Rapped in his Purple Behemoth rasslin robe,

T. Wes his own self slammed the hook to his lobe.

"Wot the dooce do youns want?" Brillik demanded.

"An interview bout the Mirrow," the lad all but commanded.

"The Mirrow," Brillik mused, "is dead and I'm pretty old,

But I'll tells youns this here, the UCs are still cold,

And for this here tale, that's all's needs be told."

Former Mirrow scribe T. Wes Brillik is now a practicing psychotherapist living on the banks of the Great Dismal Swamp. Although he's out of the prognosticating business, he says he is pretty sure that next season the Nit gridders'll lose every game.



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
Next Article
Penn State Football: Years Later Kennedy Still Connected
December 27, 2017 8:59 PM
by Ben Jones
Penn State Football: Years Later Kennedy Still Connected
Comments
Disclaimer: The views and opinions of the authors expressed therein do not necessarily state or reflect those of StateCollege.com.

order food online