September 7, 2008

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.

It wasn’t.

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:]

…[H]e said there’d been an explosion in a coal mine in Centralia, Illinois. Get over there as quickly as possible. At the time I wasn’t feeling very well. I was coming down with a cold or something. But a word from the city editor was a word from God, and you didn’t dare say, “I don’t feel well, I don’t think I ought to go.” You went. It was [first] a matter of finding out where Centralia was…. And finding the mine. But once I got there, there was the whole tableau sitting right in front of me: All the wives of miners under the lights, trying to find out what was happening. And it quickly became apparent that the miners were trapped down below, and might not get out alive.

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:

CENTRALIA, Ill., March 26 — The Centralia Coal Co., operators of the mine in which 104 miners are trapped 540 feet below the surface near here … had been warned repeatedly by the Illinois State Mine Inspector to improve conditions which constituted an “explosion hazard.” Warnings of the danger due to an excessive amount of dust in the mine were posted in inconspicuous corners of the mine washrooms.

Wrote Pepper in his sidebar:

A closely grouped, strangely silent crowd stood in the sunshine near the mine entrance today. They were first-aid workers, mine officials, and relatives of the trapped miners, waiting for the appearance of any possible survivors of the disaster, and of the bodies known to be below ground. Wives of some of the miners standing behind the first row of men, were weeping after an earlier showing of restraint.

It set the stage. The next day Wilensky dropped a bombshell, although his story inexplicably carried no byline:

CENTRALIA, Ill., March 27 — Workers in the Centralia Coal Co. mine from which bodies are now being removed begged Gov. Dwight H. Green of Illinois more than a year ago to “please save our lives” by making the State Department of Mines and Minerals enforce safety regulations in the mine…. The four signers of [the letter to the governor] all were in the mine when the explosion occurred [One’ was brought out alive a few minutes after the blast. [Another] was killed, his body having been brought out last night. The other two signers … are unaccounted for.

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:

Dear Wife and Sons: Well, hon, it looks like this is the end. Please tell mom and dad I still love them. Please get the baby baptized and send [the name was withheld] to the Catholic school…. Love to all of you.

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.”

Excerpted from Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism by Roy J. Harris Jr., published by the University of Missouri Press in January 2008.
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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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