Ron Semple summarizes growing up in Jersey City in one word: paradise.
Semple grew up surrounded by family and in a close-knit working class, immigrant community in the Heights. Catholic parishes with enormous congregations were a consistent presence in everyday life. The streets were clean, there was one cop for every 300 people, and public transportation could get you anywhere you needed to go. “There was no sense of anybody being an outsider,” he said. “We considered the rest of the world, especially New Yorkers, to be creatures from a different galaxy.”
A career newspaperman who worked for the Hudson Dispatch and the Jersey Journal, Semple, now 85, will be speaking at the Jersey City Free Public Library on Tuesday, February 11. The discussion, “A Century Ago in Jersey City,” will focus on life in Jersey City during and after World War I. Semple’s two books, Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson and Her Morning Shadow, are both works of historical fiction set during the First World War. Black Tom retells the events of the 1916 Black Tom explosion, an act of German sabotage that left four dead and was a catalyst for the U.S. entrance into the war months later. Semple only learned about Black Tom from a plaque in Liberty State Park in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Her Morning Shadow follows a Ukranian immigrant who rebuilds his life in Jersey City after the war. In writing his books, Semple was able to explore his hometown’s lesser known history.
As Semple tells it, he grew up under the tutelage of legendary Jersey City mayor Frank Hague. “I didn’t meet a Republican until I was 12 or 13. They just didn’t exist,” he said. “Everybody was a Democrat. Mainly because every family had somebody on the payroll that they had to protect.”
Semple’s first exposure to the newspaper business came in the sixth grade. He’d go to work with his father, who owned a stringer news service, at the Spingarn Arcade Building near the Five Corners in Journal Square. There, his father would dictate stories to rewrite men in New York and “I’d be banging away with two fingers on the typewriter.”
The summer after his first year in college, Semple went to work with his stepfather as a rigger at Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Hoboken. After one day on the job, he said, “I understood that being a reporter was a hell of a lot better than being a rigger, even though it only paid half as much.”
He started at the Hudson Dispatch, which circulated in North Hudson and Bergen Counties, in 1957. “It was a good newspaper and a tremendous training ground. Practically everybody when I was on the Journal, who was a first-class reporter, had worked for the Dispatch first.” Within a week of joining the paper, Semple recalled being sent to the scene of a car crash and having to report the lead story of the paper “not because I was particularly good. It was typical.” (The Dispatch closed in 1991.)
Semple remembers covering events like the 1957 municipal election, when remnants of the Kenny machine vied for mayor and city commission seats and the sense of camaraderie that existed between political opponents behind the scenes. “These guys would say terrible things about each other for public consumption and then go drink together at night. There was this sense we’re all in this together.”
At the Journal, where he stayed until 1965, Semple started as a general assignment reporter, eventually becoming city editor. He managed ten general assignment reporters who would span across the city to report the day’s news. Political coverage was the Journal’s most important product at the time, and the city hall reporters were considered among the most knowledgeable and respected at the paper. More than anything, Semple said, “being a reporter in those days in Jersey City was an impossibly glamorous job.” (Ask him about a pinochle game that took place in the press room of the 7th Precinct Police Station on Montgomery St.)
Semple continued to work in daily newspapers across the country in a decades-long career that took him to Montana and across the Midwest. In his 50s, he became a firefighter, EMT, and later served in the Coast Guard Auxiliary in North Carolina, where he now lives with his wife, Jane.
Listening to Semple recount his life, interspersing colorful stories of his childhood, his service in the Marines during the Korean War, and his time as a Hudson County newspaperman with raucous laughter, it’s easy to see why Jersey City serves as a backdrop in his books. “I know it best,” he said.
“That’s still my hometown. Doesn’t matter where the hell I go.”
Join Ron Semple for “A Century Ago in Jersey City,” a discussion on life in Jersey City during and after World War I, at the Jersey City Free Public Library, Tuesday February 11, 6pm, in the New Jersey Room. The event is free and open to the public.