Joe Aaron · 2013

joe aaron

Joe Aaron won plenty of awards during his years in the newspaper business, but he wasn’t impressed by many of them.

There was the National Headliner Award as the nation’s best columnist in 1962, when he knew he had plenty of words still to write, and a Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1977.

There was his designation as a Kentucky Colonel and, later, as a Sagamore of the Wabash, which the New Mexico native appreciated because it solidified his standing in his adopted and beloved state of Indiana.

But this one, the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, would have been special to Joe – not for the personal glory, but because it places him in the area code of hall of fame honoree Ernie Pyle. In 1985, Aaron wrote about how, 40 years before, he had learned of Pyle’s death:

“I remember how at first I didn’t believe it; how I wouldn’t believe it, because I didn’t want to; and how I then climbed to the top of our windmill tower, which was my hiding place from the world, and how I cried until I simply could cry no more.

“It was on that day, when I climbed off the school bus and walked into the house, that my parents told me that Ernie Pyle had been killed, by a Japanese sniper on a pinprick of a miserable island in the Pacific. Thus died, as he had a premonition that he would, the greatest hero I have ever had, to this day. I think it was he, more than anybody else, who made me want to be a newspaper columnist, too, and to keep me satisfied at the modest calling for almost a third of a century. I was going to be just like him, I decided, and while that has never come true, I have given it my best shot.”

In November 2012, on Veterans Day, 36 years after Aaron’s own death, the Evansville Courier & Press reprinted that column as an A1 centerpiece tied with Pyle’s famous story of U.S. Army Capt. Henry T. Waskow’s death. But running a Joe Aaron piece was not unusual: To this day, his past columns are staples in the Sunday paper, testimony to how much Aaron was loved by readers who stood up in revolt when it was suggested the practice might end – and who still can recount columns that “Joe” wrote, years ago, about an aunt, uncle or grandparent.

He was, in many ways, like Ernie Pyle. He worked to find the right word, every time. One hall of fame nominator noted that “most of all, I learned that writing well is awfully hard work, no matter how effortlessly it appears. Joe sweated and cursed and wrestled into submission every column he ever wrote.”

Aaron cared about the language, but even more he cared about the people he introduced to readers. His columns ran six days a week, 750 words at a time, for nearly 30 years. Before that, he was a reporter, and a good one. His coverage of mass murderer Leslie “Mad Dog” Irvin, complete with jailhouse interviews, was cited, in fact, by the U.S. Supreme Court when, for the first time, it overturned a conviction due to pretrial publicity.

Aaron published five books, compilations of his columns. Before becoming a war correspondent, Pyle traveled the country with his wife, Jerry, filling the Scripps Howard wire. Aaron followed a similar path for The Evansville Courier, sharing stories from such far-flung locales as the beaches of Normandy to the sandy shore of Scales Lake in Boonville, Ind. He wrote about his and his wife Bernice’s struggles as small farmers, along with telling the stories of everyday folks who achieved or fell short, all with good humor and compassion and standing the test of time.

And, like his hero, he served as inspiration for hundreds of young writers and older editors who passed through his newsroom, as evidenced by nomination letters from the likes of Tom Kunkel, who started in Evansville but worked at the New York Times, Miami Herald and San Jose Mercury News, was publisher of the American Journalism Review, a journalism school dean and now is president of St. Norbert College.

Supporting letters also came from Bill Burleigh, the former chairman of E.W. Scripps and himself a hall of fame member whose Evansville paper competed with Aaron’s each day; Evansville editors such as Tom Tuley, Bill Jackson, Bob Gustin, David Rutter and Tim Ethridge; and reporter-editors such as Rod Spaw, Alan Julian, Linda Negro, Larry Thomas, Rich Davis and Cathy Speegle.

Spaw described Aaron to reporters at a workshop as “the best daily newspaper columnist you’ve never heard of.” Kunkel said Aaron “was unfailingly funny, empathetic without being saccharine … he was honest, authentic.” Rutter declared “his writing affirmed our right to be part of the human tribe.” Speegle noted that “Joe wrote for Everyman, every day: simply, succinctly, on deadline, and in 20 column inches or less.” Julian believes that “he wrote about us in much the same way Garrison Keillor chronicles the lives of people in Lake Wobegon. But in Joe’s case, the people, places and events were real.” Davis, who wrote the front-page obituary for Aaron when the columnist died of a heart attack in October 1986 in the newsroom, described him as “the heart and soul of Evansville’s morning paper. …. His death left a giant hole in the paper’s personality.”

Here’s how Joe completed the column about Pyle, who he read as a child in the Portales (N.M.) Daily News for “the incomparable accounts he wrote of the ‘little guy,’ the dog-faced infantryman of a savage war, bringing the dirt and grime and the fear and the occasional humor of the battlefield into a focus that nobody else could capture.”

Wrote Joe, wrapping up his tribute: “And throughout all the years since, I have been proud that Ernie Pyle was a Hoosier, because so am I, and that he was a farm boy, because I am, too.”

Now, very deservedly, they’re both in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, which indeed would have made Joe proud.

By Tim Ethridge, Editor of the Evansville Courier and Press

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