Seasoned Reporter Pens Novel on 100-Year Old Sabotage
Frank “Boss” Hague at Center of Controversy, Again!
By Sally Deering
Some reporters seem to have ink in their veins; just the hint of a good tale propels them to find the facts, pinpoint the characters and put it in print.
That seems to be the case with Ron Semple, a 5th Generation Jersey Cityite who walked the Jersey City beat for the Hudson Dispatch and Jersey Journal in the 1950s and 60s, Semple wrote news and features and at 27 became the Jersey Journal’s City Editor with a crew of 50 reporters he could send out on a moment’s notice to get a story. More than 50 years later, Semple finds himself once again writing copy about his hometown.
In BLACK TOM, Terror on the Hudson (Top-Hat Books, 516 pgs.; $27.95) Semple turns back the calendar to 1916 when German saboteurs destroyed a large railroad munitions depot (Black Tom) on the Jersey City waterfront. The explosion killed and injured several night watchmen and caused extensive property damage costing millions of dollars.
“What was perplexing about “Black Tom” was that everyone maintained it was an ‘accident’ until the railroad sued Germany in 1924 for damages and years later collected $50 million dollars,” Semple says. “How could that have happened in a big city that was just a grouping of ethnic villages where no secrets were possible?”
That’s just a tip of the proverbial iceberg.
When the Black Tom explosion occurred, Semple wasn’t even around. Born in 1935, Semple’s dad left Semple and his mother when he was a year-old; his mother went to work in a dime store in Hoboken and Semple’s grandparents took care of him. Semple’s dad had been a reporter at the Jersey Journal and he would come back to visit his son and take him along to the paper’s newsroom in Journal Square.
“I would sit there banging away at a typewriter with two fingers,” Semple says
Although his dad introduced him to a city newsroom, Semple says the real influence on his decision to be a journalist came from Fr. Raymond York at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City. Semple was trying out for the football team because “that’s how you got dates with girls” and he was lousy at punting the pigskin so Fr. York recruited him to write for the school newspaper. Semple penned a humor column and other stories for the high school reader and after graduation set off to Loyola University in New Orleans to study journalism.
He left Loyola to serve in the U.S. Marines – at the tail end of the Korean War – and after his discharge he returned to Jersey City, attended Saint Peter’s College and took a job as a reporter for the Hudson Dispatch, a morning newspaper headquartered in Union City and distributed throughout Hudson. He left there to be a reporter for the Jersey Journal where, at 27, he was promoted to City Editor.
“That’s the job I really loved,” Semple says. “I had all these reporters and I could cover everything I wanted. I had a list of assignments and it would run five pages long. I enjoyed the control; you could tailor what the newspaper was going to be like. In those days, as City Editor you not only did that, you put out the front page. I learned how to read type upside down and backwards.”
Semple’s career path takes more twists and turns than the streets of Jersey City. He sailed to West Africa as a crewman on a freighter, traveled extensively in Scotland, Ireland and Sweden, worked as a truck driver, construction laborer, and the mate on a charter fishing boat. Semple also worked as legislative secretary to a state senator and sold nuts and bolts in a hardware store.
These days, Semple lives in Advance, North Carolina with his wife Jane. He was with FEMA for ten years working on hurricane rescues from Katrina to Superstorm Sandy. It was on a visit back to Jersey City to see former colleagues that Semple felt inspired to write about the Black Tom incident.
“I came up to Jersey City to visit friends, Bob Gallagher and Bob Waldron (former Jersey Journal reporters) and we went down to Liberty State Park where we could see the gap in the Skyline where the Twin Towers had been,” Semple says. “I saw a historical plaque on the Black Tom Explosion of 1916. I’m a 5th generation Jersey Cityite and City Editor for many years, and I never heard of Black Tom. I started reading about it and finally in 2013, I went to Warren Murphy’s 80th birthday party, and he said why don’t you stop talking about that damn book and write it.”
Murphy, a highly-successful author and screenwriter wrote this on Semple’s BLACK TOM book jacket: “… Mr. Semple has managed to combine fact and fiction along with a family saga of a time in our history when it really was all different, so the book is history and epic and exciting and sometimes laugh-aloud funny, as it tells the down-home stories of the overlapping ethnic groups who peopled those cities that long century ago…”
Being a book author is another exciting chapter in Semple’s life, he says, and he’s already working on his next book.
“I quit newspapers at 52 and spent the next 30 years in emergency services,” Semple says. I’ve had a great life.”
BLACK TOM, Terror on the Hudson, can be purchased at Barnes & Noble; and online at amazon.com, and Books-a-million.com.
On Wed, Nov. 5th, at 7:30 pm
Ron Semple will be appearing at
WORD book store
123 Newark Ave, JC