Donna Mikels Shea · 2007
By Nelson Price
As a teenager covering the cops beat in her hometown of Marion, Ind., Donna Mikels Shea didn’t have a driver’s license. Her sources, the police officers, had to shuttle her home in a squad car if her newsroom duties kept her out after the town’s curfew for high school students.
From those inauspicious beginnings during the early days of World War II, Donna Mikels Shea went on to become one of the best-known women journalists in the state during the 1940s and ’50s, winning national awards as well as interviewing the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower (she was tossed out of his hotel when she posed as a maid for an exclusive story), Adlai Stevenson, and the notorious Ku Klux Klan leader D.C. Stephenson.
Reporting for The Indianapolis Times – where she eventually became one of the few women assistant city editors in the Scipps-Howard chain – Donna won wide acclaim for her in-depth reporting about social issues that spurred changes in state institutions.
Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing for decades afterward, Donna pursued a career devoted to helping Hoosier journalists who were following in her footsteps. She created an enormously popular media handbook as well as helped create – and personally direct – the CASPERs, a media awards program that honored journalists when their pieces resulted in community improvements in Central Indiana. For generations of print and broadcast reporters, Donna also became and invaluable news source and tipster thanks to her deep knowledge of the state’s powerbrokers and of modern Hoosier history.
“Donna was intensely curious about things the public ought to be informed about, and she had the imagination to see the most effective way to get at them,” recalled former U.S. Congressman Andy Jacobs Jr. (D-Indianapolis). “She is a towering and enduring monument.”
Groundwork for the “monument” was laid in Marion, where Donna was born in 1924. As the sharp-witted editor of her high school newspaper, she so impressed the pros in town that she was hired by the Marion Leader-Tribune (now the Chronicle-Tribune). Starting out as an obituary writer, she quickly moved up to major news and features beats, covering the police, courthouse and city hall. Her shift began after school in the afternoon and stretched at least until 9 p.m. for a final check of the police blotter. That meant the cops often gave her a lift home so their brethren in blue wouldn’t pick her up for violating curfew. At home around midnight, Donna would complete her homework while sitting in the bathtub so she wouldn’t wake up other family members.
This was in the early 1940s when – as the Leader-Tribune’s managing editor Gayle Warnock put it – World War II was draining “all the manpower from our mostly male-only cityroom.” Even so, as Warnock emphasized, Donna rose to prominence and later, at the Indianapolis Times, remained in the newsroom when former servicemen returned (rather than being reassigned to society pages or church news, the fates of other women journalists) because of her undeniable gifts as a writer and interviewer as well as her enterprising spirit.
In 1944, while still doing double duty as a pioneering “girl reporter” and high school student in Marion, Donna began stringing for United Press (not yet United Press International).
Her talents resulted in simultaneous job offers from UP’s office in Indianapolis and from the Times. Donna chose the latter, then pulled off an extraordinary scoop – and a front-page byline- during her second full day on the job with a health care story about breakthroughs in the use of plasma. Donna Mikels was on her way, eventually winning many national awards from the Scipps-Howard chain (which owned the Times) as well as regional, state and local honors. Her byline during the 1940s and ’50s became identified with stories about human needs; her series about the mentally handicapped led to the creation of Noble Centers, a much-needed training facility in Indianapolis.
No assignment seemed to intimidate her. Donna wrote investigative reports about corruption in township trustees’ offices as well as joyous stories about the V-J celebrations on Monument Circle. (She was the only woman reporter or editor – at various times, she served as both – kept on city-side at the Times when other print equivalents of “Rosie the Riveter” were reassigned.) The Indianapolis police even credited her with unearthing evidence that led to an arrest in a murder case.
Multi-million dollar libel suits were filed against Donna for her incisive reports, but, as she has noted, “The Times never lost one penny or had to settle out of court.” In compelling prose, Donna wrote about unwed, pregnant women who were homeless; she covered (and witnessed) the execution of serial killers.
During Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign in 1952, he secluded himself with a phalanx of aides in the Claypool Hotel and declined interviews. Donning a maid’s uniform, Donna showed up to deliver towels at his room at the Indianapolis hotel; although she was unmasked and ejected, she also landed an exclusive story. Her other stories included a profile of a troubled youth who grew up to become serial killer Charles Manson.
Eventually, Donna moved up to assistant city editor at the Times, becoming the only woman at the city’s three newspapers in the 1950s to hold that post. She left daily newspapering in 1956 to start a family with her husband Cortland Shea. Even while raising her children Kevin and Kelly, she never left journalism.
New generations of reporter contacted the former “girl reporter” when they wanted background about news events insights about Hoosier history. In 1954, she helped create the CASPER Awards as a way of honoring the news media for exemplary stories about human needs; she oversaw the awards process for about 45 years.
“She believed it was necessary that the media be constantly encouraged to tackle issues that were often difficult to cover or interpret so as to help improve the lives of citizens, many of whom were the less fortunate,” said Indiana civic leader Ken Beckley, a former broadcaster and CASPER committee chairman.
Donna puts it this way: “What I saw as a reporter made me want to change what was going on.” In recognition of her efforts, the United Way of Central Indiana created the Donna Mikels Shea Award. From the 1960s and into the 21st century. Donna has lobbied print and broadcast media to cover more effectively racial segregation, health and special needs issues, public housing and social justice concerns. “She brought issues into the public eye that (few others) had considered ‘newsworthy’,” said Carol Faenzi, an Indianaplis author and business woman. Faenzi is among the clients Donna has guided in public relations; she particularly has focused on helping non-profit organizations in their dealings with the media.
Started on shoestring, Donna Mikels Shea’s News Media Handbook eventually attained more than 3,000 subscribers. It’s become a model for media handbooks in other cities, bringing more attention to the pioneer woman journalist whom Jacobs has called “a hunk of Hoosier history.”