The subtitle of The Essential Ed Koterba is “A Most Outstanding Newspaperman.” The quote is from President John F. Kennedy’s eulogy on June 28, 1961 (play above link). Ed Koterba was one of the few White House Correspondents who had attended every single one of Kennedy’s live news conferences for the first five months of the Kennedy Administration. He also had covered Kennedy for a number of years prior to that, first as a junior senator from Massachusetts, then as presidential nominee, and then as president-elect. Prior to Kennedy’s inauguration, Ed Koterba was invited to the Kennedy mansion in Palm Beach, Florida for a reception hosted by Joe and Rose Kennedy to meet the entire Kennedy clan, including, of course, President-Elect Kennedy and his wife, first lady in waiting, Jacqueline. Incidentally, Ed Koterba worked with Jacqueline in 1953 before she began dating John. Ed was a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald, while Jacqueline had the job of “Inquiring Camera Girl” for the same paper.
So the Kennedys knew my father well, and despite some of my father’s columns critical of Kennedy’s spending plans, there was mutual respect for the president-press relationship, and the words contained in the eulogy were totally sincere. One of my intentions while researching my father’s life and studying his columns was to shed some light on why Kennedy referred to my father as “a most outstanding newspaperman.” But to understand the “outstanding newspaperman” of 1961, one must first appreciate the life-long path that brought him to that pinnacle of success, as his career as a journalist dates back to the early 1930s. Following is a short biography of my father, Ed Koterba.
Edward (Ed) Victor Koterba was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 17, 1919, the son of Frank and Agnes (Semrad) Koterba. His father, Frank, was a railroad inspector and musician who came to America with his wife, Agnes, in 1907 from the South Bohemian region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic or “Czechia”).
Ed Koterba received his early education at South Omaha High School, graduating in 1935. While a student there, he edited the school newspaper and organized his own jazz band. Following his high school graduation, he worked as a copy boy for the Omaha World-Herald. He also travelled with a number of different jazz bands as a saxophonist and clarinetist. He finally gave up traveling with bands to go back to school. He attended the University of Omaha in the spring and fall of 1939. He did not declare a major, as he was torn between music and journalism. His transcript of two semesters was equally divided between journalism and music classes. While at the university, he worked part-time at the Omaha World-Herald, doubling as a reporter and photographer.
Ed dropped out of school after his second semester to join the Union Pacific Railroad as secretary to a traveling engineer (1939–1940), and then briefly worked in Washington, D.C. as a Civil Service stenographer. In 1940 he became a secretary with the War Department in Washington and in 1941–1942 again served as secretary with the Union Pacific Railroad. Drafted as a private in the Army in 1942, he soon ended up in a military intelligence camp. He was commissioned as second lieutenant in 1943 following his graduation from Officer Candidate School in Camp Davis, North Carolina. After being sent to Indiana University in 1945 to study Russian, he served as an interpreter for Army Intelligence, as he spoke both Czech and Russian fluently. He edited a small Army camp magazine while serving at various posts in the United States. While stationed at Fort Richie, Pennsylvania, he met his bride-to-be, Dorothy (“Dotty”) Dell Chalfant.
A year after they were married, Ed completed his active duty with the rank of first lieutenant, but he continued to serve as a reserve officer until the mid-1950s. Upon completing his active duty in 1946, he joined the staff of his father-in-law’s paper in Waynesboro, PA, as reporter, editor, and columnist. His column, entitled “Life in Our County,” was written under the nom de plume Hank Hayseed. During his five-year tenure at the Record Herald, he won twelve awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers’ Association.
In January, 1952, Ed and Dotty gave birth to their one and only child (yours truly), Edward Victor Koterba, Jr. Eddie, Jr., as I was affectionately called, was the subject of many of Ed’s family-oriented articles, although sometimes I was referred to, not so affectionately, as “Little Scalawag,” “Little Monster,” or “Little Indian.” Later in that same year, Ed moved his credentials to Washington, D.C. to become a reporter and feature writer with the Washington (D.C.) Times-Herald. While employed with the Times-Herald, Ed began syndicating his own column to his readers at the Record Herald. He at first called his column “Jottings from D.C.,” but in 1953 changed it to “A Bit of Washington.”
In March 1954, the Times-Herald was sold to the Washington Post, and the paper was renamed the Washington Post and Times-Herald. While many staffers from the Times-Herald lost their jobs, Ed was one of the few who were absorbed by the Washington Post. Ed quickly advanced from feature writer to front-page story writer. From August to November of 1954, he began investigating slot machines in Charles County, MD. The front-page articles exposed gambling and election irregularities in Southern Maryland. The series won him first prize in the Washington Post Front Page Awards, as well as the Washington Newspaper Guild’s General News Award. He was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Ed left the Washington Post and Times-Herald in the fall of 1955 to devote full-time attention to the syndication of his column “A Bit of Washington,” which by this time was being distributed to close to one hundred papers nationally. Ed found his niche in writing a non-political column about the common, human lives of major political D.C. personalities. As a Washington correspondent, he devoted the bulk of his writing to the goings-on around Capitol Hill and the White House. From 1955 to 1959, he was also a frequent contributor to Roll Call—the Newspaper of Capitol Hill.
When not covering the Washington scene, Ed went on cross-country trailering excursions. In 1956, he made a trailer tour of the Midwest, collecting material for his syndicated columns. He signed with Hall Syndicate in 1958 and ventured on a much longer trailer trip across the U.S. with his family.
Hall Syndicate promoted Ed as the “new Ernie Pyle,” and had plans to send him on a number of “On Tour” adventures. Following the 1958 trailer trip, Hall sent him around the world to report on “lonely GI’s in lonely places.” The column was hugely successful, but also emotionally draining.
Ed’s big break came at the beginning of 1959 when he was offered to take over as Scripps-Howard’s Washington columnist following the death of Frederick Othman. His new column, “Assignment Washington,” was distributed by United Feature Syndicate. He quickly re-discovered his niche as a non-political writer in a political arena. He knew his way about in the complicated maze of political, governmental, diplomatic, bureaucratic, military, and ordinary civilian circles that constitute the beehive of the nation’s capital. During Premier Khrushchev’s stay in Washington in 1959, he interviewed the Russian leader without the hampering go-between of an interpreter. He traveled with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960 presidential campaign and served as a White House correspondent during both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
Although Ed was considered primarily a Washington D.C. reporter, he still managed to satisfy his itch for travelling. With United Features’ blessings, he found time to escape the nation’s capital to continue his world traveling. Among his jaunts were an undersea trip on a nuclear submarine, an inaugural jet flight to India, a trip to Antarctica, and trips to both the North and South Poles. In 1959, he visited his parents’ homeland of Czechoslovakia (Communist at the time). Being fluent in the language, he was able to communicate freely with ordinary Czech workers and peasants, frequently holding impromptu interviews in the back of cobbler shops or on dark street corners. His Czech articles earned him the T-Hirty Club Award. The T-Hirty Club was established by former Times-Herald staffers after the paper was sold to the Washington Post.
It was one of my father’s traveling assignments that tragically ended his life and career. It was to be a four-day stint to the Pacific Northwest. The purpose of the trip, according to newspaper accounts, was to enjoy a scenic tour of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The trip was paid for by the El Paso Natural Gas Company. My father was invited to join the tour to report on the beauties of the Northwest where most of the company’s clients were located. The plane carrying my father and four others never made it to its final destination of Portland, Oregon. On June 27, 1961, the small twin-engine plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, hit a cable and crashed into the Pacific Ocean near La Push, Washington. The following day, President Kennedy opened his scheduled news conference by eulogizing Ed Koterba.
I began this blog by referring to an excerpt of Kennedy’s eulogy which I have used as the subtitle of this book: “A Most Outstanding Newspaperman.” The biographical information I have provided here, while shedding some light on how his career developed, still does not adequately explain how he came to be an “outstanding newspaperman.” The answer, I believe, lies in his choice of subject matter—he was constantly seeking the unusual angle or perspective—and his unique, often humorous writing style. I will attempt to address the content and style of his writing in my next blog.