This is the time of year that I make my annual pilgrimage to Mt. Oread in Lawrence, Kan., to celebrate the birthday of the patron saint of community journalism, William Allen White.
The leadership of the William Allen White Foundation will gather at the Kansas Union on the University of Kansas campus to honor an outstanding journalist. This year the annual citation will go to Frank DeFord, a sports writer who contributes to Sports Illustrated and National Public Radio among other enterprises. Past honorees have included Walter Cronkite, Cokie Roberts and George Will.
In preparation for this event, I am rereading White’s autobiography. There are certain parts of the book that I almost know by heart—including his famous editorials “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” “To an Anxious Friend” and “Mary White.” But this time, I am reading the book very carefully from cover to cover.
White has a Kansas City, Kan., connection. His wife, Sallie Moss Lindsay White, was a schoolteacher. He met her in 1892 when working as an editorial writer for The Big Daily Over Town.
White married Sallie Lindsay at the home of her parents at 330 Waverly Ave. on Thursday, April 27, 1893. The best man was Vernon Kellogg who had arranged for his step-uncle, the Rev. Charles B. Mitchell, to perform the ceremony; he was described as a “fashionable Methodist preacher” from over town. Kellogg was a boyhood friend from Emporia; they also were Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers at KU. Kellogg later became an internationally known entomologist.
White left The Big Daily in 1895 and bought the struggling Emporia (Kan.) Gazette for $3,000; he was 27 years old. He writes of the early day struggles in the newspaper business, noting that he had the newspaper’s bad checks that bounced on Monday covered by Wednesday.
White was a small town editor that had a national reputation. He became the conscience of Middle America—a person sought out by many for his sage, common sense advice. For nearly half a century, those running for office—particularly presidential candidates—sought White’s counsel.
White wrote several national magazine articles, often with very insightful political commentary. He also wrote several novels including “In Our Town,” “A Certain Rich Man” and “In the Heart of a Fool.”
White, a progressive Republican, was always concerned about the integrity of government; he was a great admirer of President Theodore Roosevelt.
White set the tone for quality government in his “What’s the Matter with Kansas” editorial when he denounced the populist political leadership of Kansas whom he described as little more than “clodhoppers.” The populists of that day remind me of the tea party crowd of today. White’s advice has transcended many generations.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is a trustee of the William Allen White Foundation.