Says "A man ain't nothin but a man,
Before I let this steam drill beat me down,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand,
Lawd, Lawd, I'll die with this hammer in my hand."
When I read this profile of 72-year old Frank Howell, a court reporter in Dallas and perhaps the last of the "pen writers" - i.e, hand stenographers - in an era when most court reporting has entered the digital age, I couldn't help but think of the ballad of John Henry, the 19th century steel-drivin' man who took on a steam drill in a railroad spike-driving contest, and "died with a hammer in his hand."
"Even when I first began to report, people would tell me that someday I would be replaced by a machine," Howell told Texas Lawyer ("Dinosaurs still roam the court," Jan. 8). But it hasn't happened, at least yet. He owns neither a cell phone nor a computer. Still working as a reporter in Dallas competency hearings, Howell transcribes pen-written short-hand onto transcripts using an IBM Selectric. Though some of his peers disbelieve the claim, Howell says his by-hand transcription meets the state's 225 word per minute minimum rate (at 96% accuracy).
In addition to his court reporting skills, Howell also serves another function, as part of the courthouse's long-term institutional memory: "If you wanted to know what was really going on in the courthouse, he has been one of the sources," declared Dallas solo Ron Goranson. "If there is a rumor going around, sooner or later, he would pick it up."
Though the steam drill beat John Henry, in an era when technology seems to transform the world around us at such a breathtaking pace, it's gratifying that the steno machine never defeated Frank Howell.