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Nations were at his beck and call

(ran NS, S editions of Tampa Bay and State)

In a small way, Russ Byrd helped form the United Nations 50 years ago today.

Byrd was then a 31-year-old Army sergeant who had put his career as an entertainer on hold to enlist. He was wounded on Guam, and he was transferred to the Presidio in San Francisco, where he worked as an Army cryptographer.

At the same time, representatives of 50 nations were gathered in San Francisco to sign the U.N. charter, the culmination of four years' work to form an international peace organization.

Byrd's show business experience (he had once been Frank Sinatra's roommate) and his top security clearance put him in the right place to witness the event and to participate.

During the formal signing ceremony on the stage of San Francisco's Veterans Building, each delegation was announced, and its members were ushered onto the stage to sign the charter and were given the chance to make a short speech.

It was Russ Byrd's booming voice that welcomed each to the stage.

Byrd, who has lived in Pinellas County more than 30 years, was positioned at a microphone behind a partition near the center of the stage. When he was given the signal, he called out each nation, taking care to use the same voice inflection each time so no one would be offended.

"Nobody got on there unless I announced them," Byrd says proudly.

He found out about his assignment just a day before he started it. There was no rehearsal, only a briefing the night before.

Byrd (who announced the nations) and his two fellow announcers (who introduced delegation members) were given a list of the participating countries and representatives and were helped with pronunciation.

The soldiers were told that all the people in these delegations were to be treated with the highest respect.

The men were told, Byrd said, "If they suggest something to you, they're of such a high echelon . . . consider it an order and do it."

The soldiers received another order, too: no seeking autographs.

Byrd didn't have to ask for the signatures, at least not overtly. Someone among the early U.N. Charter signers _ Byrd doesn't remember who _ asked if Byrd had a place for him to test his pen.

Byrd, thinking quickly, offered the back of a souvenir photo of the stage. For the rest of the day, Byrd offered his photo to each delegation as a place to test their pens.

When the day was done, he had collected dozens of autographs. He got South African prime minister Jan Christiaan Smuts, whom Byrd remembers for his frayed collar and neat goatee. He got Philippine Gen. Carlos Romulo. He got Czechoslovakian statesman Jan Masaryk. He got signatures from delegates of Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Canada and a score of other countries.

He almost got the autograph, too, of President Harry S. Truman.

Truman, who didn't sign the charter, showed up at mid-afternoon to give a speech. Byrd saw him in the staging area, where delegates were drinking champagne and relaxing.

Truman was laughing with some other people, apparently telling jokes, Byrd said. So he tried to get close.

He got within a few feet, nearly close enough to touch the president, he said, before the Secret Service whisked him away.

What would become perhaps the most famous signature Byrd got from the assignment arrived a few days later on his certificate of appreciation. It was signed by the conference's secretary general, Alger Hiss.

Hiss, who had been a close adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, was later accused before the House Committee on Un-American Activities of passing secrets to Soviet agents and was convicted of perjury.

Byrd now lives with his wife Marilyn in South Pasadena. For about 14 years in the 1960s and 1970s, Byrd was the host of a local TV program, The Russ Byrd Morning Show.

He is 81 and has had some serious health problems recently. It took all his strength on a recent afternoon to talk about that day, but Byrd said he wanted to share the story again.

"This is very vivid in my memory as I talk (about it) 50 years later," he said.

Byrd has met a lot of famous people during his life.

His home is filled with pictures of Byrd with celebrities, many of whom he counted as his friends. Sinatra, with whom he roomed briefly back in the 1930s, when they both appeared at a club in New Jersey (Sinatra sang, Byrd was the emcee). Danny Thomas. Nelson Eddy. George Burns and Gracie Allen.

But that day in San Francisco and the part he played in establishing the United Nations, he says, "That is my No. 1. . . . That is a moment in history."