Earl H. Richert · 1985
By Milton Britton
Earl H. Richert, onetime $15-a-week copy boy and now successor to Walker Stone as Editor-in-Chief of The Scripps-Howard Newspapers, had best be left out of Dale Carnegie-type books about how to get ahead. He’d confuse the socks off seekers after an easy-to-follow formula.
For the Richert “formula” would require of the innocent aspirant to success a bewildering blend of hard nose and soft heart; serious mind and blithe spirit; banker’s caution and gambler’s flair; fidelity to small town verities and avid enjoyment of chronicling big-time intrigue.
That he joined the concern at all was a happy accident of the sort that hardly lends itself to a how-to chapter dealing with the ambitious young man’s careful selection of a career ladder to climb on. It happened this way:
In 1936 Earl Richert (born September 20, 1914 in Deschuttes, Ore., and raised on a Blaine County, Okla., wheat farm) was about to be graduated from Oklahoma A.& M. at Stillwater — a catastrophe he already had deliberately postponed for a year so he could continue his campus courtship of a smashing brunette co-ed named Margaret Vincent.
Before graduation he had applied for a job to both the big Daily Oklahoman and the smaller Oklahoma News, a Scripps-Howard newspaper. The Oklahoman made him the better offer — a start as cub reporter Aug. 1. The News offered to put him on June 1 as copy boy. But Earl, who had his fill of farm life, decided: “Damned if I was going home to pitch wheat hay all summer; I took the News’ offer to sign on June 1.”
In college he had been sidetracked from a professional interest in history by having twice been popularly elected editor of the school paper. And the Oklahoma News that summer also hired as copy boy the just-graduated editor of the Oklahoma University paper with the understanding that only the more likely of the two $15-a-week tyros would still be on the payroll Sept. 1.
Those were the days before copy boys became “editorial assistants;” when paste was hand made from flour and shagging coffee for reporters was a high calling. At these and other tasks Earl outshone his rival.
As of Sept. 1 he was still on the payroll — $17.50 a week.
That’s how it all began. To work at 5 a.m. Long hours. More or less regular hocking of a $37.50 wristwatch (for $5.50) to finance weekend bus trips back to the campus in successful pursuit of Margaret, whom he married in 1937. Thereafter even more hustle, rewarded by promotions. When the News folded two-and-a-half years after he had won the paste-pot derby, he was covering the State House and making $35 a week.
By that time, too, his talents were so widely recognized by the Oklahoma news fraternity that the same Friday the News shut down he was offered — and took — a job on the Tulsa Tribune at no cut in pay if he started to work the following Monday. It was there that he first met Jim Lucas, later to become SHNA’s laurel-laden war correspondent. “Jim was covering the courthouse,” Earl recalls, “and I was on rewrite. And that character kept me humping. He’d phone enough copy every day to fill the whole paper.”
Earl’s stint on the Tribune was his only venture outside Scripps-Howard — and it lasted exactly five weeks, including two weeks notice. “I still feel awful about having left them so abruptly,” he says today. “But I missed the freedom of being on a Scripps-Howard paper. I’d got to like the idea a reporter was his own man and didn’t have to worry about front-office policy if he had his facts straight.”
So when the chance came to get “back home” to Scripps-Howard, Earl jumped at it, moving his bride 800 miles at his own expense from Tulsa to Indianapolis. Ralph Burkholder, then-editor of Scripps-Howard’s Indianapolis Times, had offered him a job and a $5-a-week raise on the advice of Lee Hills, editor of the News when it folded and now editorial head of the Knight Newspapers, that a good S-H man was loose in Tulsa.
Again lessons learned from his paste-pot apprenticeship paid off. Hard work, a nose for hard news and a ripening talent for political reporting delivered the predictable dividends. Again he became state house correspondent and, by his own reckoning, did some of the most satisfying work of his reportorial career.
During the Indianapolis years he first met two men with whom he’s later have an intimate professional association: Walker Stone and Jack Steele. Although Walker had attended the same college and even edited the same college paper a decade before Earl did, they didn’t meet until Walker, then editor of SHNA, stopped by the Indianapolis paper and Earl took him over to meet the governor.
Jack Steele, now SHNA managing editor, during that period was Chicago correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. During a reporting swing through Indiana, he dropped by for a brain-picking session with State House Reporter Richert. As Earl recalls it: “We went to lunch together. He was on expense account and I wasn’t. But he stuck me with the check.”
His chance to break onto the Washington news scene came in 1944. Earl credits his Washington break in large part to a S-H figure he hadn’t yet even met — Ludwell Denny, who left the editor’s chair in Indianapolis several months before Earl arrived at the Times. Denny, now retired, had returned to Washington to be foreign correspondent, but he still read the Indianapolis Times like a hawk. He liked the product that kept turning up under a Richert byline and enlisted a willing Walker Stone in a campaign to get Earl into the bureau.
When an opening appeared for No. 2 man on the Ohio bureau’s Washington desk, they convinced Louis Seltzer, then editor of the Cleveland Press, that Earl was his man. Two years later Earl again moved up, this time to the SHNA where his talent for finding and reporting “meat-and-potatoes” news made him a star on two fronts — one of them quite literally meat and potatoes.
He built much of his reputation by interpreting in plain, easy-to-read fashion the Government’s increasing involvement in agricultural and economic affairs. But he also capitalized on his long statehouse expertise to become the kind of down-to-earth national political reporter that down-to-earth President Harry Truman liked and called by his first name.
Earl, recalling highlights of those years, says: “I was covering the White House the day they announced the atomic bomb had been dropped. Nobody then, of course, knew anything about atomic energy, but Dick Thornburg, then SHNA managing editor, decided somebody should and that I was it. I wasn’t even on a speaking acquaintance with physics during college, but I rassled with it for a while. It was the only assignment I ever asked to be taken off of….
“In the big break and high irony department: Charley Lucey was the No. 1 SHNA political reporter in 1948 and I was No. 2. So when time came to assign reporters to the presidential candidates Charley naturally was given ‘the winner” — Tom Dewey. I got ‘loser’ Harry Truman.”
When Earl left SHNA for the Evansville Press in 1951 to become, at age 37, Scripps-Howard’s then youngest editor, he was appropriately mourned by his Washington colleagues at a farewell bash. Intoned Marshall McNeil: “What this business needs is good reporters. You were — alas, we knew you well — you were a good reporter.”
But Earl proved being a good reporter and a good editor weren’t mutually exclusive. Reporter Richert’s knack of making warm and lasting friends of new sources — even those he criticized — was an even greater asset to Editor Richert. His hard-nosed, hard-news talents were passed on to his staff.
Summarizing Earl’s Evansville years, Press Columnist Bish Thompson says: “Earl was much beloved both for his professional skills as an executive and newsman and his whole-hearted ‘involvement’ with all of us, our wives and kids, our mothers-in-law. Within a month he was concerned over a janitor’s wife’s bad heart and the courthouse reporter’s wife’s pregnancy. He hired a young Korean War widow who was raising four red-headed boys, made her librarian ‘because she reads the paper’ and ordered and extension phone put on her desk so the boys could call if they needed her.
“He had a gift for extracting the best out of everyone without breathing over his shoulder. Never before have so few produced so much copy around here. He still has the plaque we gave him — ‘To the Damndest Editor from the Damndest Staff.'”
Declaring Evansville his “home town” and future retirement residence, Earl left in 1959 at Walker’s request that he become editor of SHNA — a post to which he brought a vigor undiminished since his paste-pot days and an executive dimension broadened by the Evansville years.
Never far beneath the editorial surface lay the reporter’s love of enterprising a good story. Thus it was that Earl in 1966 masterminded the entry into Cuba on a visitor’s visa of Mohammed Rauf, Jr., an Indiana native then writing for SHNA. It produced a five-part series. And thus it was in 1966 that Editor Richert on a reporting trip to the Far East buckety-bucketed over Vietnam in a B-57 on a bombing mission.
His idea of what’s fun is as broad-ranging as his interest in what’s news. He enjoys in-depth reading of financial reports — a frequent source of office news tips; golf and tennis; giving and going to parties; collecting friends old and new — and keeping them. Weekend house guests at the Richerts frequently are the friends from the Oklahoma or Indiana days. The Richerts have two daughters: Carol, a college freshman, and Bonnie, wife of New York stock broker Jack Remley.
Looking ahead to the challenge of his new job, Editor-in-Chief Richert says of Scripps-Howard newspapering: “The scope of our newspapers’ job has broadened from the days when it used to be enough just to zero in on government activities. Today the practices of science and industry and private businesses whose activities affect great numbers of people also must come under public scrutiny. To do this will require increasingly talented and better educated reporters.
“But basically our job is what it always has been. Finding out what’s going on and telling our readers about it. That always has been a tall order. It still is.”