Selwyn Pepper, who died last week at 93, was one of those many journalists who spent much of his career in relative anonymity — even when he was turning out some of the best reporting in the country.
In his first year at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1936, he contributed mightily to a voter-fraud investigation by the paper that resulted in the first of the five Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service that the paper won between 1937 and 1952. I learned about his role in winning that prize — and in winning two others for the paper, in 1948 and 1952 — during interviews I did with Pepper in 2002. The interviews later became part of my book on the America’s greatest journalism award: Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.
Nearly all the articles that were part of that 1937 Pulitzer entry carried no byline, a fairly common practice at the time. In the case of the 1952 prize, for the work of the Post-Dispatch in disclosing abuses in the federal tax system, Pepper often served on “rewrite” for the reporter who got most of the credit for the reporting, Theodore C. Link.
Pepper’s memory of that award-winning work was vivid when I interviewed him, even though he was 88 at the time.
Selwyn Pepper went on to hold a number of senior editing positions at the Post-Dispatch. He was my city editor the first two summers I served as a summer-replacement reporter there in 1966 and 1967, during my breaks from journalism school.
The following excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold contains Pepper’s thoughts about the “middle prize” of those three public-service Pulitzers he helped the newspaper win. That one was in 1948, for the Post-Dispatch‘s coverage of a Centralia, Ill., coal mine disaster than killed 111. From day one, the story was dominated by the newspaper from just across the Mississippi River, even as reporters came from all over the country to record the drama of lost miners and grieving families. The St. Louis paper’s team — with the support of a concerned editor and publisher, Joseph Pulitzer II, the son of the benefactor of the prizes — stayed to finish the reporting job after the nation’s other papers had left.
Disaster in Centralia
Twenty reporters returned [to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch] from World War II still hankering for a fight. [And managing editor] Ben Reese soon gave them some domestic enemies to attack. Across the river, the Illinois administration of Republican Governor Dwight H. Green was rife with graft and cronyism. On a March 1947 day in a remote southern Illinois town, a catastrophe occurred that at first seemed unrelated to the governmental corruption.
Selwyn Pepper [had served] in the Pacific … on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff…. On the evening of March 25 both [he and a number of other reporters] got urgent calls at home from city editor Ray Crowley. [According to Pepper’s account:]
By late in the day, the tableau also contained a half-dozen Post-Dispatch staffers, with Harry Wilensky as leader. Six days earlier Wilensky had written a front-page story out of the state capital, Springfield, about a “shakedown” of Illinois coal mine operators for political contributions. The state department of mines and minerals was raising funds for the Chicago Republican mayoral campaign, and mine inspectors were threatening to enforce safety regulations — unless operators contributed.
The Post-Dispatch, then, saw in the wrenching disaster an additional element of graft — an element that other journalists hardly touched. On that first day, a Wilensky bylined story started this way:
Wrote Pepper in his sidebar:
It set the stage. The next day Wilensky dropped a bombshell, although his story inexplicably carried no byline:
Pepper remembers that Wilensky had found the save-our-lives memo in the dark, under glass on a bulletin board near the entrance to the mine. The day that the story ran, a Fitzpatrick cartoon starkly depicted a giant skeleton, with a mining helmet on his skull, somberly addressing a mine inspector and a coal-company official: “You Gambled But I Paid.”
This doubled-edged coverage — with compassion for the grieving and outrage over the corruption — captured the key elements of this tragedy….
…As the rescue workers finished their grim task — 111 miners in all eventually were confirmed dead — something strange happened. The Centralia disaster had been a major story for the U.S. press, even if it was not being covered with the insight that the Post-Dispatch reporters displayed. But suddenly, says Selwyn Pepper, reporters from around the country abandoned the story, leaving the “wrap-up” largely to the Post-Dispatch. He still does not understand why. But the paper began to deliver some of its best exclusives at that point. It located letters that dying miners had left in a corner of the pit:
Another said simply, “Dear Wife: Goodbye. Forgive me. Take care of all the children.”
Stories from the scene by Wilensky and Pepper [and other staffers] also took aim at the political conniving…. On April 30 the paper … distributed 60,000 copies [of a special section on the disaster] free through the Illinois coal country and to Illinois legislators and state and federal agencies….
There was little jury debate over its 1948 recommendation. Of sixty-two entries considered [for the public-service Pulitzer], it wrote, “the St. Louis Post-Dispatch handling of the Centralia, Illinois, mine disaster was so superior to any of the other entries as an illustration of the integrated use of spot news, features, editorials, photography and cartoons as to leave the others far behind.”