A discarded recipe box and the famous Zapruder film

A discarded recipe box and the famous Zapruder film

The June 16 death at 92 of distinguished journalist Richard “Dick” Stolley has me recalling two columns I wrote for Madison newspapers, the first in 2004, the second a decade later.

The stories they told could hardly be more different.

The first involved a recipe box rescued from the garbage in 1966, in the small city of Pekin, Illinois, and returned to its owner’s family nearly 40 years later.

The second concerned the most famous home movie ever made — the Zapruder film that captured the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy in November 1963.

Vastly different, yes — but Dick Stolley figured prominently in both. The first story provided me the opportunity to interview him about the second.

The Madison connection was my friend Barbara Slack, whom I met when she was a standout advertising representative for Madison Magazine in the 1980s. Today Barbara and her daughter, Kelly, run Slack Attack, a communications firm in Monona.

Slack grew up in Pekin, just south of Peoria. In 1966 her boyfriend was working a summer job on the city’s garbage trucks. He knew Slack loved cooking, so one day when he spotted a recipe box in the curbside trash, he grabbed it and presented it to her later that night.

The box had more than 100 recipes, and Slack added it to the sizable collection of cookbooks and other recipe-related items she’d assembled. It traveled with her over the years, and since the box also contained scribbled notes, and even a letter or two, in the back of her mind Slack thought one day she might try to decipher the box’s owner.

That day arrived, on a whim, in 2003. Slack was living in Monona. As snow fell out her window, she sat down with a cup of coffee and thumbed through the box. Slack recognized numerous Pekin family names on the recipe cards.

Clues to the box’s owner were found in a letter addressed “Dear Mom” from a “Mrs. Jim Stolley,” as well as another letter to “Stella.”

With the help of a Pekin high school friend, Slack learned a woman named Stella Stolley had lived in Pekin in the 1960s, and was the mother of twin boys, James and Richard.

Slack found addresses and wrote to both; James in Pennsylvania and Richard in New York City. She included Polaroid photos of the recipe box. To Richard, she noted she had a New York trip planned and would be glad to deliver the box in person.

Stolley later wrote of his reaction: “Astonished, I stared at the photos. I was looking at an object I had not seen in almost 40 years but which I recognized instantly from my childhood. Did I remember the box? Oh, yes. As vividly as I remembered its owner, my mother, Stella Sherman Stolley.”

Slack presented Stolley the box when they met at a Manhattan restaurant in June 2003, along with a bag of oatmeal cookies she’d baked from a card in the box.

“Bless Barbara’s heart,” Stolley wrote later. “The recipe still worked.”

That sentence was from an October 2004 article titled “Memory Box” that Stolley wrote for Real Simple magazine, shown in the image above.

Slack was both surprised and pleased to learn Stolley was a nationally prominent magazine journalist, a former reporter and editor at Life magazine, and the founding editor of People magazine in the 1970s, when it had a circulation exceeding two million.

It was when Stolley was Los Angeles bureau chief for Life, in 1963, that he scored one of history’s biggest journalistic coups: obtaining rights to the Zapruder film for the magazine.

I’d written about the recipe box and, a decade later — around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination — I reached out to Stolley to see if he would share his memories of that extraordinary time. He graciously agreed.

Stolley was then 85 and living in New Mexico. We spoke by phone, and he recalled being in Life’s Los Angeles office on Nov. 22, 1963, when Thomas Thompson, a star reporter from Texas and a future bestselling true crime author, yelled that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

Thompson and Stolley immediately flew to Dallas with two photographers. Thompson pursued the Lee Harvey Oswald angle, eventually securing interviews with his family members. Stolley, meanwhile, heard from a Life stringer named Patsy Swank that a Dallas businessman had shot film footage of the assassination. She didn’t have a spelling but did her best to pronounce the man’s name.

Stolley told me: “I got out the phone book and ran my finger down the Zs.”

He found a listing that sounded like Swank’s businessman: Zapruder, Abraham.

There was no answer when Stolley phoned. He kept trying. Finally, before midnight, a tired-sounding Zapruder answered. He’d been out having the film processed and copies made. Stolley, introducing himself, asked if he could come and watch the film. Zapruder said no, but added Stolley could come to his office — across from the Texas Book Depository — the next morning.

Stolley was there at 8 a.m. He watched the film with Zapruder and two Secret Service agents. Stolley then chatted with Zapruder’s assistant, a woman from Taylorsville, Illinois, and told her he’d covered high school football for the Pekin Daily Times and remembered Taylorsville winning a state title.

Did that Pekin connection help Stolley’s cause? It didn’t hurt. When other reporters showed up, Zapruder noted that Stolley had contacted him first — and acted like a gentleman — so he agreed to Stolley’s offer of $50,000 for the print rights to the film. Life ran numerous still images in its Nov. 29 issue, but did not print the frame showing the moment Kennedy was hit.

Stolley figured he’d eventually seen the 26-second film nearly 100 times and said it never lost its impact.

“He was humble, I had to draw the stories out of him,” Barbara Slack said recently, when we spoke after I’d sent her Stolley’s New York Times obit.

She recalled spending an entire day with Stolley in New York City in 2004 during a photo shoot for the Real Simple magazine recipe box story. That night Stolley and his wife took Slack and her friend and traveling companion, Barbara Wegner, out to dinner and then called them a cab from the lobby of the Dakota, where the Stolleys lived. Slack used the restroom and came out to find Stolley chatting with Yoko Ono.

“What an amazing life he had,” she said.
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