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Prairie Messenger staff had lasting impact on student

By Russ Weber


Russ is seen using the addressograph, at front, while John Stewart wraps Prairie Messengers and Brother Dominic is seen further back. (Prairie Messenger archives)

The hours were brutal: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. At the age of 14, I got a summer job at St. Peter’s Press. It was 1967, when summer jobs for students were rare — no fast food restaurants, no service stations, no hotels in Muenster. It was great to have the opportunity to make some money during the week, some of it squandered later on a Volkswagen Beetle, but I didn’t appreciate having no free time on the weekends. On gorgeous sunny Saturday afternoons I would walk more than a mile to St. Peter’s Cathedral to study the Baltimore Catechism in preparation for confirmation. At least the walk was nice.

Notwithstanding the hours, working at the press was a pleasant experience, and I worked there during summers and after school until I finished high school at St. Peter’s College.

In these closing weeks you have heard about brilliant editors and writers, and what each brought to the Prairie Messenger. I want to tell you something of three people who printed and mailed the PM.

My job involved working for Brother Conrad Abs in the mailing department. He was born in Germany in 1906 and came to Canada to work as a farm labourer in the Lake Lenore area at age 24. Ten years later he joined the Benedictines.

When I began work, Conrad was 51, a short, thin man, slightly stooped. He spoke rarely, mostly in what seemed like grunts, and was quite hard of hearing. I think Conrad spent most of his life in the press building. He was CBC’s greatest fan. Sometimes I would walk past the press on a summer evening to hear Barbara Frum’s voice waft through the open doors and out into the warm evening air with her “As It Happens” interviews.

Conrad was devoted and worked hard. The tips of his fingers were flat from getting them caught in the various machines and rollers at the press. But he always had an interesting sense of humour. When he dropped a wrench he would say, “Good thing it doesn’t fall up.”

Conrad was in charge of mailing, using a system called Addressograph. A subscriber’s name and address were embossed by machine on an approximately two-inch by four-inch metal plate. The plates were lined up in two-foot-long trays, which were loaded one after another into the Addressograph. A foot pedal started the plates to move, one by one, over the surface, just under an inked ribbon. The operator would place a Prairie Messenger onto the surface and a roller put pressure on the paper, resulting in the address being inked onto the paper. It sounds slow, but the whole process took place at great speed.

A clever and inventive man, Conrad constructed a pulley device with a ceiling trolley when it was time to replace the old massive printing press. Parts could be unhooked and winched up, one at a time, and slid along the ceiling trolley to the door and lowered onto a truck.

Outside of work and prayer, Conrad’s hobby was visiting and photographing historic sites in Saskatchewan and then making elaborate scrap books he took pride in sharing. On one occasion I joined Conrad and then-Brother Bede Hubbard to Batoche. Bede drove a Honda Civic with standard transmission. It was in the early days of Japanese cars in Canada and the Honda was newly acquired by the abbey. Bede thought the red line on the tachometer was the indicator as to when to shift to the next gear. I was sure the motor would fly apart.

Bede taught at St. Peter’s College and was editor of the PM from 1976 - 1981. You know those password verification questions? A standard one is, “Who was your favourite high school teacher?” Now that you know my answer is Bede, I need to change it — to Andrew Britz, a close second.

The other Benedictine I worked with at the press was Brother Dominic Distel. Dominic also came to Canada from Germany as a farm labourer, at age 16. He joined the Benedictines at age 22. Dominic was 52 when I began work at the press. Like Conrad, he was also short and a bit stooped, but not as thin as Conrad and much more gregarious.

Dominic also had a sense of humour. On my first day he showed me the sign he had placed above the small door leading to the dungeon where lead print slugs were melted in a Harry Potter-looking cauldron and poured into forms to be reused in the Linotype, a hot metal typesetting system. The sign read, “Ve gedt too soon oldt und too late schmardt.”

One of Dominic’s jobs was working with Conrad on mailing days. After the papers had passed quickly through the Addressograph, Dominic wrapped them in bundles labelled to go to the town or city of the subscribers. On mailing day, Dominic made glue from water and flour. The PMs going to each destination were wrapped in paper sealed with Dominic’s glue, applied with a paintbrush. Sometimes Dominic had to wait with the wrapping while Conrad, head lowered, dozed off for few moments.

Dominic took great pleasure in bringing cookies from the abbey kitchen for coffee break. His gait was very brisk, almost running, his steps short. I can see him coming over from the abbey with a container in his hands and a grin on his face. Sister Isabelle made outstanding pancake-sized cookies, not bite-sized tasters.

Dominic was a friend of the boys in Muenster. Before the indoor rink was built at the college, there was an outdoor rink. My friends and I walked over from Muenster in the evenings after study hall began. When Dominic thought we might be coming, he started some wood in the pot-bellied stove in the “shack” beside the rink. More fun than the hockey was lounging in the shack, smelling the smoke, feeling the radiant heat and looking around at the wood walls where members of the “squad” had earned the privilege of burning their names onto the walls. I saw the names of my father and my uncles, including the late abbot, Jerome Weber, OSB.

As I gained experience at the press my job expanded to operating one of the two Linotypes. The Linotype melted lead to produce slugs with one line of a column. It came out of the Linotype upside down and backward, so that when it was inked and the newsprint pressed over it, it would print right side up. The keyboard was entirely different from that of a typewriter and, later, the computer.

Dominic patiently taught me to operate the Linotype. Once, inexplicably, the machine spewed out a small splash of the molten lead, which landed on my wrist. It takes a long time for molten lead to cool on warm flesh, and I keenly remember shaking it out of my skin. A small pizza-shaped scar is a reminder of my days at the press.

The third member of the PM production and mailing trio was a layperson, John Stewart, who was a wonderful, humble and unassuming man. John operated the other Linotype. I doubt the wages were stellar, but John and his wife were resourceful people and raised a large family, including twin daughters and twin sons.

Each of the trio was unique, but the same in their dedication, their humility, their calm and their ability to live in the moment. Always they imparted a sense of peace and harmony.

Notwithstanding the long hours for a teenager, I enjoyed my time working at the press and helping in the production of the Prairie Messenger. Though I may no longer have use for the skills needed to run a Linotype (when computers came along I relied on Mavis Beacon to practice learning a traditional keyboard), the life lessons these men taught I carry with me to this day. You could say they’ve been imprinted.

Russ Weber was born and raised in Muenster, Sask. He lives in Humboldt with his editor (and wife), Maureen.