Book Reviews

Gerry Lanosga, former journalist, currently an assistant professor in journalism at Indiana University’s Media School

Posted on July 14, 2016 by edmorgret — No Comments ↓

At the height of his journalism career in the 1950s, Ed Koterba was a prominent syndicated columnist with a devoted national audience that included average readers in small towns and important ones in Washington D.C.’s corridors of power. His work included hard-hitting exposés and coverage of presidential politics, but mostly he wrote about everyday people and places in features that invited comparisons with the writings of Ernie Pyle. Koterba was killed in a plane crash at the age of 42, and today he’s not well-remembered, even among journalism historians. His life’s work – boxes filled with scrapbooks – languished in a succession of dusty attics for decades after his death.

Now, Koterba’s impressive body of work has been rescued for history thanks to a labor of love by his son, Ed Koterba Morgret. Morgret, who was nine when his father died in 1961, has pulled together an excellent collection of writings from Koterba’s too-brief but very productive career. The Essential Ed Koterba, published this month by MCP Books, includes 363 articles or excerpts from more than 3,500 pieces he wrote between 1950 and 1961.

It was only in the last decade that Morgret began to take a serious interest in his father’s articles. When he did, he writes in an introduction to the book, he was surprised to find that his friends and acquaintances were also interested: “You mean, I would ask myself, that these articles written some sixty years ago would still capture the interest of ordinary people living in the twenty-first century?”

In fact, Koterba’s writings hold up extraordinarily well, with insights into important political and public figures of the era as well as compelling snapshots of life in the United States in the 1950s. His work also offers a glimpse into the practice of journalism at the time. Although the book is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, read straight-through it provides a fascinating look at a journalist’s professional journey from a small-town newspaper columnist to a nationally-known Washington correspondent.

The book’s three thematic areas include Koterba’s personal and family life, his travels on assignment around the country and the world, and his time in Washington, D.C. It begins, aptly, with a selection from 1952 in which Koterba makes a case for the “nosey” journalist: “A newspaperman could go through life drawing a salary and putting in his eight hours a day, or whatever it is, and go along being nicey-nicey about everything and refuse to be ‘nosey’ about public affairs, about matters that need exposing, about questionable politics, etc. But a man like that would encourage corruption, dictatorship, social lawlessness, civic apathy, and so on.”

From there, Koterba wrote movingly about the birth of his son, his last day as a columnist on the Waynesboro (Pennsylvania) Record Herald, and the end of the Washington Times Herald, where he took a job in 1952. He spent much of the decade writing nationally-distributed columns for the Hall Syndicate, United Feature Syndicate, and Scripps-Howard newspapers. His assignments included various extended tours, including visits to U.S. military bases abroad. Koterba’s pieces about his travels and the people he encountered are delightfully Kuralt-esque, a blast to the past glory of the newspaper personal column. As he told Editor & Publisher in a 1955 interview: “I try to write as if I’m talking to my reader across the backyard fence.”

Koterba’s eye for the offbeat feature extended to Washington’s political circus. Amid a slew of weighty stories about the 1960 presidential race, for instance, he wrote a gem about a little-known contender, write-in-candidate Agnes Waters, who refused to concede even a week after the election. “Washington isn’t all politics,” he wrote in 1953. “It’s just as human as that little village out in Ohio.”

Although Koterba was known as a feature writer, he also wound up interviewing presidents, covering Congress, and following many of the major developments of the 1950s. After the Times Herald was absorbed by the Washington Post, he wrote an exposé of gambling dens in Maryland that prompted the Post to nominate him for a Pulitzer Prize. The book includes excerpts of the series. It also includes fascinating sections of Koterba’s reporting on the civil rights struggle, McCarthyism and the Cold War.

A native Czech who visited and wrote disturbing accounts about Communist Czechoslovakia, he was outspoken about the threat of Communism, particularly when it came to Cuba. In a 1961 column, presented as an open letter to the president, he proposed a “volunteer civilian Army to clean up Castro and his ilk – to save our democracy for the little men like my boy.”

But Koterba’s concerns didn’t mean he was in the tank for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting in the 1950s. While the press has been criticized for being overly-deferential to McCarthy, Koterba was bemoaning the malicious spread of mistrust as early as December 1950, four years before McCarthy was censured by the Senate. Koterba wrote: “And there’s one individual in Washington who is to blame in a great measure for starting it all. Maybe, at first, Joe McCarthy, who claims to be a rightful representative of American peoples, did have a few good points to hammer at. But now he has the fanatics willingly mowing down any human being he carelessly brands a Communist. It is indeed sad that a man elected to the honored post of senator should use this mob hysteria scheme as a tool against his personal enemies.”

Still, Koterba was drawn to the essential humanity of all of his subjects. After McCarthy died in 1957, he wrote a column called “Joe’s Human Side” and spoke of a soul in turmoil: “Joe McCarthy was acutely sensitive about himself. He was painfully shy. He hurt easily, although he tried to keep it to himself…. From the day of the historic Senate censure, you could see his physical frame wilting. The censure did away with the old McCarthy politically. And, because of his acute sensitiveness, it went a long way, too, to crush his will to live.”

When Koterba died four years later, his column was being carried in about 100 newspapers. An appendix to the book includes 18 pages of eulogy excerpts, from President Kennedy and the Congressional Record to newspapers around the country to an ordinary reader in Columbus, Ohio. Reading this selection of columns, it is easy to see why Koterba inspired such an outpouring. The book is filled with good reads that can be plowed through in chunks or digested randomly, a few at a time. Journalism students in particular might benefit from the clinic in conversational writing. In sum, Ed Morgret has provided a beautiful tribute to his father and a fine time capsule of the nation’s and journalism’s story in the 1950s.

— Gerry Lanosga

Mary Stanik, communications consultant and author of Life Erupted, reviews The Essential Ed Koterba

Posted on May 26, 2016 by edmorgret — No Comments ↓

For many who still enjoy reading a daily newspaper in paper format, there is often a longing, as well as a mourning, for the sort of journalism that existed in days not all that very long past.

That journalism prospered in towns and cities with not just one daily paper, but usually at least two. And columnists who were syndicated in hundreds and even thousands of papers were often the only reason a great many people bought newspapers.

One of those superstar columnists was Ed Koterba, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated former Washington Times-Herald and Washington Post reporter. He had been a Washington, D.C. columnist for the Scripps-Howard chain for two years before his death at age 42 in a plane crash off the coast of La Push, Washington. On June 28, 1961 (the day after the crash), President John F. Kennedy opened his news conference with a touching tribute to Koterba, who had a then nine-year-old son now named Ed Koterba Morgret (Morgret had been adopted by his stepfather a few years after Koterba’s death). Morgret, a retired school psychologist, has compiled a large collection of the hordes and scads of columns his father wrote during a newspaper career spanning 15 years, a career in which the elder Koterba moved from a small paper in Pennsylvania to the peaks of the world’s mightiest power centers.

The collection, called The Essential Ed Koterba (MCP Books; 614 pages, $39.95) is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the overwhelming sense of loss one gathers from Morgret’s often tremendously poignant chapter introductions and transitions. The book also is to be commended for its rich array of the extraordinarily wide scope of subject matter. Koterba’s topics ranged from cross-continent trips he and his family took in an Airstream trailer to serious, reasoned denunciations of segregation. The articles he wrote that were highly critical of Joe McCarthy’s Communist chasing probably were not popular with all of his otherwise devoted readers. Koterba interviewed and/or wrote about just about anybody who was anybody or would be anybody, including (but by no means whatsoever limited to): Nikita Khruschev; Bob Hope; Dwight Eisenhower; Lyndon Johnson; Richard Nixon; Dick Clark; Billy Graham; Zsa Zsa Gabor; Shirley Temple Black; and, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who at age six already showed interest in environmental issues.

Koterba’s mastery of the sublime, the silly and the deadly serious is evident in almost every one of the columns included in the book. Those who remain mesmerized by the Kennedys (full disclosure: this reviewer is one such person) will be delighted to see so much Kennedy content in Koterba’s stories. In a December 30, 1960 column, Koterba described the mayhem that ensued when he and his wife were invited to a swank reception at the Palm Beach residence of then President-Elect Kennedy. Mrs. Koterba had sustained a thumb injury and, not wanting to display such injury to the fashion conscious First Lady-Elect Jacqueline Kennedy, she decided she would wear black gloves to the reception. But no black gloves were available, so the Koterbas dyed some white ones. “So, when most people were roasting turkeys, I was standing over a hot stove boiling gloves.” Koterba wrote. “The result was most commendable.”

A number of Koterba’s writings resonate over the vastness of the decades to our own time. A particularly powerful May 1961 column concerned Fidel Castro’s rule over the people of Cuba, yet references the war that would consume American politics and morals for the next 15 years. Koterba wrote that “isn’t it ironic that we are considering ‘invading’ South Vietnam, exactly halfway around the world, yet refuse to clean up a vicious new Hitler at our very doorstep? I never dreamed the day would come when the Kremlin would be shoving us around from an island 90 miles off our coast. And all we do is talk and talk and talk. We’ve got to do something courageous while there’s still a fighting chance. I’m ready enough to sacrifice my life. Aren’t you?”

One especially touching column concerned America’s thirst for knowledge of space and plans for a moon landing. It ran on July 6, 1959, less than two years before Koterba was killed and almost exactly ten years before Americans did land on the moon. “I just can’t stand to think of not being around when they send the first man to the moon,” he wrote. “That should be within ten years.” He ended the column by writing “if I do live that long, I will have but one final request – to have the opportunity to be among the first reporters to interview the man when he returns. Now, that isn’t too unreasonable, is it?” Sadly, it was unreasonable.

During Koterba’s ascent into the columnist stratosphere, he was often considered a successor to Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent known and lauded for his humorous yet respectfully “down home” ways of telling the war’s all too human stories. Current students of column writing and journalism history who read Koterba’s writings will probably see his influence in the work of writers such as the late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt, syndicated columnist and author Dave Barry, and the late Toronto Star columnist Gary Lautens. One person who was definitely influenced by Koterba’s style was his nephew, Jeffrey Koterba, who was born the year Ed Koterba died and is now the nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for the Omaha World Herald.

In his tribute to Koterba, President Kennedy called him a “most outstanding newspaperman.” Those who read this collection will undoubtedly think the same. And many of those readers will wish for a return to the sort of journalism a “most outstanding newspaperman” such as Ed Koterba was able to practice.

— Mary Stanik, communications consultant; author of the novel, Life Erupted; and regular opinions contributor to MinnPost and other publications