Tim Timmons | Crawfordsville, IN

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May 7, 2021

Seven decades later, Ernie still reaching people

Back in April, the 18th was pretty much like any other Friday. Probably not many people stopped and thought about the fact that it was the 69th anniversary of the day WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle was shot and killed by a Japanese machine gunner.
Some guys grew up gym rats, I grew up a newspaper one. My parents believed strongly in reading, so it's no great shock that my life's work tilted toward the written word. Trips to the library started when I was too young to remember. It was a bigger treat when my dad would let me look at some of his books from the Army. I became a huge fan of two authors in particular, Bill Mauldin and Ernie. For those who are too young, Bill drew a wonderful cartoon about two GIs named Willie and Joe. Ernie tended to write about the same kind of guys. I also found out that Mauldin was from out west and that Ernie and I had something in common - we were both Hoosiers. From that moment forward, Ernie was my favorite. His writings made an impression on me and I don't know that the ink in my veins today came from there, but surely the transfusion had begun.
As April 18 approached this year, it made some sense to see if Ernie's work might have the same impact with today's younger generation of journalists. Each month at your favorite Montgomery County daily we try to do some training. It's grown beyond just here in Crawfordsville and now includes all of our folks who work on our other products, the Noblesville Times, the Sheridan News and the Hamilton County Sports Daily. So far this year they've learned about open door law from the executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association, hospital and patient privacy laws from the good folks at Franciscan Alliance, publishing on the World Wide Web, shooting better photos and more. Heck, we even had a guest from North Carolina who used to live in Crawfordsville that some of you may know, John Pea. Before retiring, John was the editor of one of North Carolina's larger newspapers and gave us a great lesson about always keeping you, dear reader, first and foremost in mind.
So a few months ago, a couple of days before the 18th, I contacted one of the Hoosier newspaper world's good guys, Terre Haute Tribune-Star Editor Max Jones (who's also on the board of the group that runs the Ernie Pyle Museum) and asked if we could arrange a visit. Max was wonderfully accommodating and we set a date in July. Truth to tell, I didn't know how this would go over. We have interns who aren't even legal age yet all the way up to guys like Frank Phillips and me (Frank and I prefer to call ourselves newspaper veterans). What would the young people think? Ernie was a war correspondent but he was so big that when he was killed the president of the United States announced it. Would they get that? Would it matter?
Well, the trip was last week and I'm pleased to report it was great. If you have never been to the museum, it's less than an hour from Montgomery County in Dana (go to Rockville and turn right). If the reaction from our younger staff members is any indication, you should put it on your calendar soon.
Tiffany Watt, a 20-year-old intern here in Crawfordsville, said she "thought the museum was great."
Editor Frank agreed. "Wow. Much more impressive than I expected. And to use a Quonset hut - that was nothing short of genius."
But our particular goal wasn't just to see a museum. Ernie has a lot to share with those in the business.
"I really enjoy the way Ernie wrote," Tiffany said. "It gave the emotions of how the GIs lived and what war was like from a soldier's view."
Crawfordsville's Rick Holtz agreed. "He had a way with words. He didn't sugarcoat what he saw. He painted a picture for the reader."
So did 25-year-old sports editor Neil Burk. "He put you on the battlefield in a way that readers could understand."
Betsy Reason, our editor in Noblesville and a retiree from the Indianapolis Star, said it well. "(Ernie) wrote what he saw. He was colorful, interested and interesting. He wrote very simple and basic for readers of all levels. He made you feel like you were there."
Ernie's daily column was carried by some 300 newspapers and he won the Pulitzer Prize a year before he was killed. Perhaps one of his best-known columns was headlined The Death of Capt. Waskow. At the museum, there is a small theater in which you can sit while the column is read aloud by an actor who portrayed Ernie. Stirring and passionate do not begin to describe it.
"It's very emotional," Tiffany said. "(It) is one of my favorites by Ernie and was the first column I read by Ernie in high school."
"Very vivid," Betsy said.
"I think that was by far the most moving column for Ernie," 22-year-old copy editor and page designer Jackie Gutknecht said.
"It brought readers deep into the reality of war," Neil observed. "It could have been their friend or relative that day and even though it wasn't, the column triggered empathy for the men that lost a friend that day. And I think empathy is a very hard emotion to trigger in print."
For our little company and our newsroom folks, it was a good day. Frank summed it up pretty well.
"I like his warmth and his powers of observation and description. It's too easy to go over the top when you try to write in a moving way. But he did not do that. Not only did he write about the common man, he wrote for common men and women."
Jackie agreed.
"If it hadn't been for this the museum, and the trip we took, I would have never heard of Mr. Pyle and I think that would have just been unfortunate," Jackie said. "With the journalism field changing so much nowadays it is important for young journalists to hear the stories of the people who came before them in the industry."
And to think I was worried about the young people.
Thanks to Max and the Friends of Ernie Pyle for their hospitality and for allowing our little crew to spend some time there. And a special thanks to Ernie. Almost seven decades after his death, he's still pumping a little ink into some veins.

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