Remembering a real journalist

It’s the prize
season for journalists, that time of the year when deadlines are
approaching for nominations for excellence in reporting in more
categories than the Academy Awards. Tens of thousands of dollars are at
stake and, of course, the right to have “prize winning reporter”
attached to your name forever, including after taxidermy.

Like the Academy Awards, the recognition is all very glitzy, somewhat
crass, often political and frequently short lived. The newspaper
cemetery is studded with enterprises that have “Pulitzer Prize winner”
chiseled on their gravestones. So much for the value of that tribute to
great work. Move over Luise Rainier and dozens of other Oscar winners.

But now and then longtime journalistic achievement is rewarded in a
manner that is both tasteful and touching in its simple elegance and
genuine affection, a memorial that eloquently captures the nature of a
man and his career. Its worth is enhanced by the fact it is presented
for no other purpose than to thank another and to make certain those
following will understand that no matter how humble their beginnings or
small their venues, the world is out there for them to conquer.

Forty-five years ago Vance Trimble, an old school reporter and editor
in the Washington headquarters of the Scripps Howard Newspaper
Alliance, wrote a series of dramatic exposes about the abuses of
nepotism on Capitol Hill that ultimately changed the way Congress
operates. The result was legislation outlawing the practice of putting
relatives on the public payroll. The series also won a spectacular
array of prizes for Trimble, including a Pulitzer. His accomplishment
was particularly impressive because at the time his main assignment was
as a night editor. He devoted days to the investigative project, before
working another full shift at night.

The main support for
Trimble’s effort came from an already legendary editor-in-chief of
Scripps Howard Newspapers, Walker Stone, whose roots, like Trimble’s,
were deep in small-town Oklahoma from where a number of great
journalists have sprung. When the inevitable pressures came to curtail
Trimble’s efforts, Stone stood solidly with his reporter, a position
that was not uncharacteristic of him.

About the same time, Stone
had refused to capitulate to direct demands from both President Kennedy
and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to retract a sensational revelation
by another Scripps Howard reporter that the Russians were over flying
U.S. territory with White House knowledge. His stubbornness, born of an
independence that came from a boyhood on the wind-swept prairie,
brought about one of the last major antitrust actions against a
newspaper company as the Kennedy’s followed through on their favorite
theme: “Don’t get mad; get even.”

Stone died in 1973. Only two
years previously he had retired without fanfare and with quiet
determination, eschewing any farewell recognition. It was the way he
did everything in a fabulous life. His influence in Washington over
four decades had been extraordinary. Historians, including the late
William Manchester, credit an editorial he wrote in 1952 with
jump-starting Dwight D. Eisenhower’s flagging presidential campaign.

In typical folksy bluntness echoing his early environs, he wrote that
Eisenhower in his bid for the presidency was “running like a dry
creek.” The line, repeated widely, shook up the campaign.

and his rise to the top of what was at the time the largest of the
nation’s newspaper groups had all but been forgotten by his hometown of
Okemah. But certainly not by Trimble, whose respect and affection for
his mentor never diminished during his own distinguished career as
editor of The Kentucky Post and biographer of E. W. Scripps and
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. So not long ago, at 92, and still looking
for projects, he decided the community should recognize Stone’s legacy
and that Okemah youngsters would benefit from a better understanding of
what is possible for them achieve.

He raised the money _ some of
his own and some from the Scripps Howard Foundation and others _ to
establish a memorial to Stone, a musical clock, that will stand nobly
in the center of town. The memorial was dedicated the other day in a
ceremony that was pure Stone in its unassuming simplicity, dignity and
reticence. Afterwards, town leaders, Stone family members, foundation
executives, the editor of the Okemah News Leader and, of course,
Trimble all went off to lunch at a local cafe.

Walker Stone
would have loved it for it comes from the heart in the place he loved.
This is one journalism tribute that will stand the test of time.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)