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Frank Brady started in news young - just like his subject

Frank Brady, the 66-year-old chairman of the Communications, Journalism, and Media Studies Department at St. John's University, is actually every bit as interesting as the complex and powerful personalities he has profiled in his biographies, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge Alfred E. Smith, and Jimmy Walker.

His latest biographical venture is "The Publisher" (University Press of America) about the "life of friendship, power, and politics" of Paul Block.

Block had emigrated with his family to America in the late 1800s from a shtetl in Eastern Europe and eventually became a publisher and businessman on a par with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

"This is the story," Brady writes in the prologue, "of how the child of impoverished, uneducated immigrants moved up the economic and social ladder to achieve not only wealth and distinction, but considerable influence over American politics, advertising and newspaper publishing, and indeed, over many of the American people."

The work by Brady, himself a descendent of immigrants (first generation from Ireland), is very much an immigrant story. As he does with all his biographies, Brady doesn't just give a chronology of Block's life; he puts it in the perspective of the social forces and historical currents of the time - in Block's case, late 19th century and early 20th century Eastern Europe and the United States.

Brady describes how Block, as a 10-year-old son of a rag seller in Elmira, N.Y. - which became a haven for Eastern European Jews escaping lives of poverty and fierce anti-Semitism - got a job as a copy boy at the Elmira Sunday Telegram.

"It is not particularly difficult to understand ... why a young boy such as Paul Block would become instantly interested in the workings of a newspaper office and printing plant," Brady writes. "The Telegram was an intriguing, often exciting, and usually a cerebral center of activity [with] a great deal of status compared to other pursuits in the city of Elmira."

Brady, born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, had ventured like his subject into what was the gritty, take-no-prisoners world of newspaper work as a boy. When Brady was 11, he was walking home one day in Woodhaven when he noticed an array of firefighters and equipment at a huge fire in the neighborhood.

"Something said to me, there should be newspaper people here," Brady recalled recently in his office in Brent Hall. "I got a nickel, and looked up the number of the Daily News."

He called in the information to the City Desk, and a story was run. Three months later the boy received an envelope in the mail - a check from the Daily News for $5. He knew then and there that he wanted to be a reporter. "I just had to continue to be observant," he said.

He started stringing for The New York Times. It didn't take long for him to combine his nascent passion for newspaper work with his other love - chess. He would regularly write into the Brooklyn Eagle and point out mistakes in the chess column.

When he was just 17, The Times sports editor asked him to cover major chess tournaments, and he soon became friendly with chess legend Bobby Fischer "I was really in the presence of genius," Brady said. (He played many informal matches with Fischer; when asked if he ever beat the master, Brady said "a few times.")

Brady soon started co-founding and editing chess magazines, as well as serving as an editor on several other magazines in his career.

Because the days of copy boys and pre-teen stringers have gone the way of manual typewriters and hot-lead type, do the kids studying in Brady's journalism department have any sense of the grit and street-wisdom of the newspaper business of the early and mid 20th century?

"I think the people going into print journalism still do," Brady said. But many of the young people pursuing broadcasting, he said, have visions of starting out as six-figure-salaried anchors without much foundation in the nuts and bolts of journalism, history, and politics.

"I tell them to go to acting school," Brady said.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at glenn@timesledger.com, or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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