Twenty-one years ago, I had lunch with Leonard Lipic. He was then 86 and a gentleman of the old school. He wore a monogrammed shirt, and his cuff links were solid gold nibs. Nibs are the tips of a fountain pen.

Lipic was the grandson of George Berg, who opened a one-room pen-making shop down by the river in 1863. Berg was 18 years old when he started his business.

Those must have been heady times for pen makers. No computers, no typewriters, no mimeograph machines. The commerce of the world was recorded in ink. St. Louis was then a commercial center. Berg’s business did well.

It was taken over by his son-in-law, Joseph Lipic. He grew the business and soon the Joseph Lipic Pen Company was famous for the quality of its pens. Fountain pens, of course.

That is the world Leonard Lipic grew up in. The company’s store downtown was the most successful retail pen store in the country.

“We had nine girls doing nothing but selling pens all day. Sometimes there were lines to get in,” he told me.

The world changed. Ballpoint pens came along. To Lipic’s practiced eye, they were too inferior to be considered as competition. You couldn’t “shade” your signature — make this stroke thin, that stroke wide — with a ballpoint pen. Shading could only be done with a fountain pen. And that meant something. You could tell a gentleman by his signature.

But, of course, ballpoint pens were successful, and then, as the world continued to deteriorate, ballpoint pens were replaced by disposable pens.

We had lunch at the Missouri Athletic Club. Lipic was a member, which meant he could sign for lunch. He did so with a fountain pen. He shaded his letters.

The Lipics had much in common with the Levines. Their heydays in St. Louis overlapped. Ben Levine came to this country from Russia early in the last century. He made hats. His talents translated well to his new country. Before long, the Levine Hat Company took up an entire block in downtown.

Men wore hats. They knew the difference between a fedora and a homburg. (Different crown shapes and brims.)

Social modes changed. A lot of hat people blamed John F. Kennedy. He seemed uncommonly proud of his hair. Soon, hats were not considered essential. Before long, they seemed outdated.

Edward Levine was Ben’s grandson. He came of age when men wore hats. He was still occasionally coming into the store when I met him a little more than 10 years ago. I had gone to Levine’s to see if somebody could restore my father’s old fedora. (The answer was yes.) The company no longer manufactured hats, only sold them, but Levine still loved them.

“I wouldn’t take the garbage out without a hat on,” he said.

Listening to these men, I was nostalgic for the days of fountain pens and fedoras, even though I didn’t really remember them.

In fact, I got a ballpoint pen when I graduated from grade school.

But even as I wrote about both men and their emotional connections to their livelihoods, it never dawned on me that the same wave that had washed over them was rushing toward newspapers. And me.

I am writing this column from the new offices of the Post-Dispatch. We are a scaled-down operation and don’t need the room we used to need. Technology has done much of the damage. It’s been going on for years. Whole departments have disappeared. Printers and typesetters seemingly vanished overnight. Hardly anybody remembers the rotogravure department.

Composing room of the Post-Dispatch

The composing room of the Post-Dispatch in the early 1960s, before improvements in technology made newspaper production more efficient.

(Post-Dispatch file photo). 

Also gone are the days when wealthy families, rather than corporations, owned newspapers. The number crunchers are after us. Plus, there are smartphones, cable news, Facebook, blah, blah, blah.

At any rate, here we are. In a new place.

I’d like to turn the clock back. Go back to my lunch with Leonard Lipic. I think I’d gush a little more about those cuff links, be a little more effusive about his signature. I’d visit with Edward Levine again. He told me some stories about the company that made my dad’s fedora. Some were made with beaver and some were made with rabbit. (My dad’s was rabbit.) I’d ask Levine about the hats that his father and his grandfather made. What was his favorite hat?

Meanwhile, I take solace in knowing that some men still wear hats, a few still shade their signatures and a good many people still enjoy and appreciate newspapers.

From office to office, and from Pulitzer to Lee, the Post-Dispatch has served St. Louis