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home : most recent : vermillion November 15, 2018

2/26/2018 10:15:00 AM
COMMENTARY: Ernie Pyle Day a reminder of the role and importance of journalism

Bob Zaltsberg, Herald-Times Editor

Late in 2017, the U.S. Senate designated Aug. 3, 2018, as National Ernie Pyle Day. Last week, the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation announced it will celebrate that designation in Bloomington with an event in President’s Hall at Indiana University’s Franklin Hall, which is also the home to the IU Media School.

Of course, the IU School of Journalism was housed in Ernie Pyle Hall before the Media School moved to Franklin Hall in 2016. Adjacent to the main outdoor stairway heading into Franklin Hall is a bronze sculpture of Pyle.

Pyle was a student journalist at IU in Bloomington in the 1920s before earning fame as a national reporter and war correspondent. You’d expect a journalist to say this recognition is well deserved and long overdue, which is what this column is saying. Here’s another point to be made: Perhaps spending some time thinking about Pyle’s contributions to the nation can serve as a reminder of the role and importance of journalists in writing about the lives of people and telling the unflinching truth.

Owen Johnson may well be the nation’s No. 1 expert on Pyle. The associate professor emeritus at the Media School has studied Pyle’s life and writings and in 2016 published “At Home with Ernie Pyle,” a collection of Pyle’s writings about his home state of Indiana.

Johnson told me in an email last week why he thinks Pyle is still so revered that his 2018 birthday deserves to be recognized around the nation.

“Ernie Pyle is a symbol of excellence for journalists,” Johnson wrote. “Even though he was usually writing six columns a week, he could so often paint excellent word pictures that readers loved. Just remember his column about Captain Waskow, selected as the best column of the 20th century.”

That column began:

“AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, January 10, 1944 — In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.

“Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him. ...”

Pyle went on to describe in detail that put you right there as the captain’s body was one of five carried down a hillside by mule, and soldiers one-by-one went to their leader to say goodbye.

Johnson continued in his email: “But also remember his columns from the beaches at Normandy. Or his column of the wind that blew over the Midwest. Every journalist wants to be the next Ernie Pyle. He remains an inspiration to all journalists, whether they’re writing about life in the United States or covering wars overseas. I think the reason for his success is that he came from the heartland so that he knew how to reach out to ordinary Americans.

“Bloomington and Indiana University contributed enormously to the journalist Ernie Pyle became. We need to remember that. Maybe the city should remember that the next time it has a street to name.”

Sens. Todd Young and Joe Donnelly sponsored the resolution proclaiming National Ernie Pyle Day.

The resolution begins, “Whereas Ernest ‘Ernie’ Pyle was born on August 3, 1900, in Dana, Indiana;

“Whereas Pyle studied journalism at Indiana University Bloomington before becoming a reporter for The Daily Herald in La Porte, Indiana;

“Whereas Pyle eventually became a roving correspondent for Scripps-Howard newspapers, writing a column carried in approximately 200 newspapers; ...”

It continues with “whereases” about Pyle’s life and death as a reporter. He was killed by enemy gunfire on the Japanese island of le Shima during the Okinawa campaign in World War II.

The Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation was formed in 2013 for the purpose of continuing recognition of the contributions to journalism made by Ernie Pyle. Other organizations involved with the foundation are the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum, Indiana University, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

A strong force in connecting that last group with Pyle’s legacy is Mike Leonard, former H-T columnist and adjunct media school faculty member at IU. The highest honor presented by the national columnists’ group is named for Pyle. The organization also established April 18 as National Columnists Day to commemorate the day Pyle was killed during World War II.

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