People today are largely unaware that Greene County produced a half-dozen or more of Iowa’s best known journalists over the years, and a couple went on to prominence nationally. Their stories will be shared and celebrated Sunday, Oct. 18, at 2:30 p.m. in a free program presented by the Greene County Historical Society museum at 219 E. Lincoln Way in Jefferson.
The primary presenters will be Chuck Offenburger of rural Cooper and Alan Robinson of Grand Junction, both of them former professional journalists and both members of the historical society’s board of directors.
“The idea to do this program came out of my realization that most Greene Countians today have no idea who Kenneth MacDonald was,” said Offenburger, whose “Iowa Boy” feature columns ran for many years in the Des Moines Register.
Offenberger reflected on the genesis of the program on the county’s legendary journalists.
“When I went to work at the Register in 1972,” he said, “MacDonald was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, and he’d also held the title of publisher. He was one of the smartest and most powerful people in Iowa, and he was also as nice a guy as you could ever hope to meet. I learned early on that he had grown up in Greene County and graduated from Jefferson High School, and that frankly shaped some of my admiration for this place.”
Offenburger said that admiration was enhanced later in the ’70s when another Jefferson native, David Yepsen, joined the Register news staff. Yepsen eventually became one of the most influential political columnists in America.
“After I moved here 11 years ago and started to learn more about Greene County, I realized that there were several other legendary journalists who came from here,” Offenburger said. “And so Alan Robinson and I have been doing some research to re-introduce some of these notable reporters and editors to the people of today.”
One thing that Offenburger learned from the late James H. Andrew, who was recognized as Greene County’s “Mr. History,” was that MacDonald and several other journalists who who came out of the county in the early 1900s were probably all inspired by the work of Victor Hugo Lovejoy.
The colorful, opinionated and sharp-penned Lovejoy served as editor of the Jefferson Bee from 1909-1942. He was an ardent Republican, which was evident in his page-one opinion columns, which were titled, “Seasonal Sermons,” with a subtitle of, “Some Thoughts Upon Topics Which Are Very Much Alive in America at Present.”
Lovejoy also served as mayor of Jefferson from 1915-’17. He was a named a “master editor” by the Iowa State Press Association, and he served as president of that organization for two years.
Among those whose lives and careers Lovejoy may have helped shape include many notable writers and editors:
• MacDonald graduated from Jefferson High School in 1922 and then earned a journalism degree from the University of Iowa. He had a 50-year career leading the news operations at the Des Moines Register, including serving as editor-in-chief from 1953 to 1976 and for part of that time was also publisher of the paper.
Current-day Register columnist Kyle Munson has called MacDonald “the most influential Register and Tribune figure of the past century.” MacDonald died at the age of 98 in 2004.
• George H. Gallup Jr. was a 1919 graduate of Jefferson High, where he founded the student newspaper. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the U of I in 1923, ’25 and ’28.
He then headed the journalism schools at both Drake University and Northwestern University, and in 1935 founded the Gallup Poll that made him most famous. He also headed his own advertising and consulting business, Gallup and Robinson, which still operates in Princeton, N.J. Gallup died in 1984.
• Frank Luther Mott, who from 1914 to 1917 was the young editor and publisher of the Grand Junction Globe, was born in southeast Iowa. He grew up on his family’s small-town newspapers and went to Simpson College and the University of Chicago. After his three years in Grand Junction, he went back to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City.
From 1921 Mott he served as a University of Iowa professor and director of the school of journalism. In 1939, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “History of American Magazines.” He went to the University of Missouri in 1942 as dean of the acclaimed journalism school there. He was an advisor to journalists in Japan after World War II and continued teaching at Missouri until 1956. Mott died in 1964.
• W. Earl Hall, a 1914 JHS graduate, received his degree from the U of I in 1918. He went on to become editor-in-chief of the Mason City Globe-Gazette for 43 years. He was a close friend of the noted composer Meredith Willson, the Mason City native who wrote “Music Man.” And in 1956, Hall went on a ’round-the-world flying trip in 80 days, sharing columns with his readers from stops in 24 nations. He died in 1969.
Many other journalists developed in Greene County later.
Yepsen, the former Register political columnist, graduated in 1968 from JHS and in 1972 from the U of I. He worked briefly in Iowa politics, then started his journalism career at the Quad City Times. He joined the Register in 1974 and stayed for 34 years, becoming nationally-known as the paper’s chief political reporter and then the political columnist.
Yepsen also was a regular panelist on the “Iowa Press” show on Iowa Public Television and a frequent commentator on politics in the national media. Besides newspapering, Yepsen did graduate studies at Iowa State University and Drake, and taught as a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Since 2009, he has been director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Another notable political reporter from here is Mary Rae Davis Bragg, a 1960 graduate of JHS who earned her journalism degree from Drake. She worked 20 years in the Detroit area, returning to Iowa in 1991 to join the Iowa Newspaper Association. Then in 1996, she joined the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, where she was the paper’s chief political reporter until her retirement in 2009.
One Greene County native went from journalism to politics in Missouri. Mike Schilling, a 1962 graduate of Paton High School and then Iowa State University, worked 15 years as a newspaper reporter at the Springfield News-Leader and also for a time as assignment editor at KYTV, the NBC affiliate in Springfield.
In the 1990s, Schilling served four terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. Subsequently, he has taught journalism and political science at Missouri State University. He currently serves on the Springfield City Council.
In fact, in the era of the 1950s and ’60s, Greene County produced more than a dozen professional journalists, and one of them was Denise O’Brien Van. She is a 1961 JHS graduate who has written feature stories for the Des Moines Register and many other publications. After years living away, she has now retired to Jefferson. She will briefly join the program this coming Sunday to reflect on those journalists from the ’50s and ’60s.
Of course, no discussion of notable journalists from Greene County would be complete without recognizing the amazing service for more than 70 years of the Morain family, who owned the Jefferson Bee and Herald for much of that time. Their experience and legacy will be fully covered. When the Bee and Herald were sold in 2012 to Herald Publishing, owners of the Carroll Daily Times Herald, that brought the Carroll-based Wilson and Burns families into Greene County, and they too have deep journalism roots in Iowa newspapering.
In addition, a few radio and TV journalists who’ve had personal or professional roots in Greene County will also be recognized at Sunday’s event.