A: Then, of course, the question of pay. It was
a matter of disgrace, almost, the fact that
the guys in the composing room got more than
anybody in the newsroom because they were
unionized. And, in connection with the
composing room, the weekly papers. I remember
Vern Vierth had the little paper up at
Sumner, Iowa. And he was the paper. What he
did the night before the paper was to come
out, he would sit down at a linotype machine,
the old Mergenthaler [a typesetting machine],
and set the whole thing. He never wrote
anything on a typewriter or anything else. He
just set the whole paper overnight. I have
seen a guy, Corwin O'Neal, over at Le Grand,
a little paper. He set by hand. He stuffed
the letters unto a stick, so to speak, so
that the whole paper was set that way. Not on
a linotype or a photograph or anything else.
Q: Was there ever a time when the Register
newsroom could have gone union? Were there
A: Yes, there were about three real pushes in
which the union got a pretty respectable
total, but not enough. In my particular case,
I never could see the justice of me going
that way when they had come to me to hire me
and offered me a good job. Why should I go
and kick them in the teeth? That was my
thought on the thing.
Q: Was the salutary behavior from the Cowles
family, we want this to be a great paper and
we will give you the tools to make it great
by paying you fair wages, was that, in part,
ever in your mind an attempt to dissuade
workers to unionize?
A: You mean, for me try to....
Q: You described how wonderful the family was
to work for and how the Register was the
greatest place for a good, aggressive, solid
A: That was my experience.
Q: Was management's arrangement of that
situation in part a way to dissuade people
from ever wanting to join a union?
A: What's in their minds? Who knows. But, on
the whole, I would say that definitely was a
factor. The climate is what you are talking
about. I think the climate was always
favorable from the standpoint of the product.
And that doesn't mean they were sissy about
it because, for instance, the old man, what
he would do frequently on Sunday, he would
come down and take Henry Wilcotts, the little
black guy who was the maintenance man, a very
nice guy, and the two of them would start up
on the thirteenth floor and the old man would
walk down, floor by floor, and leave notes on
everybody's desk if they left the water
running or they left things all shuffled and
so forth. So, the place was right up to snuff
all the time. Don't think it wasn't. In other
words, he saw to it that it was a clean, good
operation, but at the same time, he had that
intuitive ability to cause people to want to
be good and to take pride in what the product
And then there was another thing. They did a
lot of entertaining, if you want to call it
that, for no reason at all. They had a real
obvious reason. They would have a dinner for
everybody in the Fort Des Moines. Seven
hundred and fifty or a thousand people or
something like that. Every once in a while.
There was a light touch about some of it,
too. We had some guys there that, it is
hardly the type of thing to talk about, but
Mike Cowles always, after his father went
home from a banquet like that, Mike was down
on the floor with the printers shooting craps
all the time. It wasn't any part of any show
or anything. He just liked playing around
that kind of stuff.
Another thing that we all liked was that our
kids all had a chance to work as copy boys
and copy girls. And, also, they always had a
program by which...I remember Kate, for
instance, my youngest daughter, got a $2000
scholarship. Every once in a while, we would
get scholarships for our kids. It helped on
that type of thing. --
Q: How did word processors change journalism?
When you were typing on your typewriters
frantically and you made the switch to word
processors? How did that change things?
A: It made that inordinately easier. How
quickly you can make corrections. The speed
of the whole project. I can't even touch a
typewriter. Can you?
Q: You don't use a typewriter anymore?
A: I can't even touch it. One thing, that is
an interesting sidebar, if you want to call
it that. The magazine connections with the
Cowles operation. George Gallup was a
professor of journalism at Northwestern and
Drake and so forth. Mike hired him to make
some surveys. They were great on surveys to
see what the people wanted in the paper. Mike
hired him and that is where Gallup, working
for the Register, discovered that a sample
was just as good as a blanket survey. There
is where the American Institute of Public
Opinion was born. Right here. In that type of
thing, Gallup discovered that people like
pictures a lot and, at the time, loved
picture stories. Sequences of pictures
telling a story. So, Mike said, "Heck. How
about founding a national magazine based on
the philosophy. That approach." And, just
about the time that they decided to do that,
they found out that Life was going to do the
same thing. The Time company was. So the
Cowles had a conference with Luce and whoever
the other guys were and found out that Life
was going to have very elaborate, really
slick paper. A news magazine. Whereas the
Cowles were thinking of a feature-picture
proposition. So, they both went into it. And
both succeeded for about thirty years at a
Are you familiar with Life and Look in the
old days. Life was just a magnificent
operation. A lot of fun to work for,
incidentally. That was a different part of
the history. And then, Look, of course, got
up to seven and half million. Maybe more than
that at times. And Life was somewhat more.
But Look was all right until...what killed
Look more than anything else was the fact
that television grabbed so much of the
national advertising. It killed Life, too,
but then Life came back. But Mike kept on
trying to found different magazines. He
founded a whole bunch of different ones. And
they had their successes for a while. Some of
them were pretty far reaching.
I had chances to go to work for...I am pretty
sure I could have had the job of being the
Time-Life correspondent in LA [Los Angeles].
It would have been a hell of a job. But I am
glad I didn't.
A: Do you remember Bruce Matthews of Time. He
lived way over by Princeton. An hour and a
half ride. And who wants that, you know. I
think I have worn you out. [laughs] --
Q: Anything else?
A: I am just looking. We used to have Ike,
incidentally, when he was president, we used
to have him in Iowa quite a bit because his
wife's uncle lived up at Boone.
Q: Will you be at the INA dinner tomorrow
A: I am not going to the convention. One of
the things about the old times that was a lot
of fun from a reporting standpoint was the
liquor law enforcement. The cops up at
Marshalltown... midnight, the phone would
ring. "Hey, George, we are going on a liquor
raid. Do you want to come along?" I would get
up and go. There would be a chase or
something like that. I remember one time we
broke into a woman's house and, of course,
there was always a dash for the sink because
the bootleggers would have the alcohol in a
container in the sink and they would spill it
into the drain and that would destroy the
evidence. So, frequently there was a
wrestling match between the bootlegger and
maybe the bootlegger's wife and the cops over
rescuing all the evidence they could. It
injected a lot of life into day-by-day
coverage, that bootleg stuff.
Vern Marshall, you guys ought to look into
Vern Marshall sometime. He was a Pulitzer
prize editor of the Gazette and just about as
wild a newspaperman as I have ever seen in my
life. I did a lot of extra work for him.
Another thing that was a lot of excitement,
the farmers were in a state of revolt, you
know. Fifteen hundred of them came into the
legislature one day. Marched in and just took
over and dissolved the place, so to speak,
because they weren't happy with the amount of
legislation that was being passed, or not
being passed. There was a guy from Le Mars,
Mike Fisch, Senator Mike Fisch, had sponsored
some legislation that they wanted no part of
and they were trying to find him because they
were going to hang him over the banister in
the statehouse. And I personally think they
would have if they had found him. That is how
vicious the whole business was. You know they
grabbed a judge off the bench, don't you, and
started to hang him up at Le Mars.
The we had the Cow War. I covered that in
1931. The Cow War was a revolution of
southeast Iowa farmers in the Iowa City area,
centering more around Tipton, against
enforcement of the bovine tuberculosis law.
And they beat the daylights out of a lot of
veterinarians trying to test cattle, to a
point that the governor called out eighteen
hundred troops. And the troops went with the
veterinarian to test the cattle. I was the
first reporter on that scene. That was
something that is interesting to contemplate
in the past. --
Q: I want to ask you one question about
abortion. Did you ever do any stories about
A: Yeah, I suppose.
Q: Was abortion an open secret, where you
could go in Des Moines?
A: There is no question about it. No question
Q: Was it tolerated? Indiscretions were taken
care of quietly?
A: Let me tell you about a perfect example of
that. I had a call from a guy in Washington,
Iowa. It is the type of call I get all the
time. They want to know about something that
happened a long time ago. This guy is
forty-five years old and he wanted to know if
there was a certain home, secret sort of home
for women who were pregnant, where they could
come and quietly have their babies and then
go off in the wild blue yonder. I checked
around and did get some verification of it.
Then I said, "What's your interest in it?"
Afterwards, he told me about this. He was a
product of such a pregnancy a long time ago.
What had happened was that his mother was a
respected single lady up in Minneapolis and
she had gotten pregnant. She had come from
Minneapolis down to Des Moines to this home,
had the baby, put it out for adoption, and
went home. Wiped the slate clean. What
happened was that he wanted to know who his
mother was. And he found out. I said, "Why
did you want to know who your mother was?"
He said, "I wanted to thank her. She gave me
life." He did find her and he goes up there
once a year to see her. She never was married
and had no other children. She was a
businesswoman of some sort. That always
touched me as being a particularly tender
observation on this guy who is selling
insurance over in Washington, Iowa and is
But, so far as abortions are concerned, how
can you avoid it? It comes up in the
legislation all the time. But what you are
talking about are the pre-days when...I have
a suspicion that the volume or the proportion
of pregnancies was probably not all that much
different than now. I think it probably was
always the same, don't you? Do you report
them? You never used the word syphilis. That
was a no-no word. Or gonorrhea. You never
said that. Or rape. All you said was, "He was
prosecuted on a statutory charge." That is
what we used to say.
We had a cartoonist who was a world-famous
cartoonist. He was a tremendous cartoonist.
His name was Ding [Jay N.] Darling. Ding
drew a cartoon, one time, of Roosevelt,
Franklin Roosevelt, stealing an outhouse on
Halloween. And, in the outhouse looking out
was little John Q. Public. The label on the
outhouse was "civil rights" or "human
rights," something like that. Gardner Cowles
wouldn't allow the cartoon to appear. "That
is not for a family newspaper to have such
things as outhouses in the paper." That shows
the sensitivity. How different it was.
Q: Thank you very much.
A: This state is full of a lot of stuff. This
Keosauqua. You guys ever been down to
Keosauqua? Phil Stong wrote "State Fair"
down there. You want the flavor of old Iowa,
there is the place to go.
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