Larry Hayes · 2018
For Larry Hayes, opinion journalism was more than a job. It was a calling.
Hayes didn’t just write to persuade. He wrote to change things. Remarkably often, he succeeded.
He spent 26 years writing and editing editorials for The Journal Gazette, a social liberal in the deeply conservative town of Fort Wayne. Firm in his beliefs but never harsh, he sought common ground with those he disagreed with, and often earned their respect, friendship and cooperation.
Most notably, his editorials and personal advocacy helped goad the local school system to desegregate. He was also crucial in efforts to ban corporal punishment in that same school system; to ban smoking in city restaurants; and to persuade the city police department to create crisis intervention teams.
A native of Ohio who planned to become a minister and began his career as a high school English teacher, Hayes did not have traditional journalism training, nor did he come up through the traditional newsroom ranks.
In his autobiography, Monday, I’ll Save the World, Hayes wrote that he enjoyed public school teaching but sensed his anti-Vietnam War views were antagonizing Fort Wayne school administrators, who transferred him twice to different schools. He began looking for a new way to support his young family.
“I passed a test to become a mailman. I pumped gas. I ran a lathe in a machine shop. Casting about for something that intrigued me, I went to The Journal Gazette’s editor, Larry Allen, to see if he had a writing job for me.”
Allen remembers being impressed with Hayes’ educational background — he had two degrees in theology and one in English — and with his wide interests and knowledge. I asked him if he had ever thought about writing editorials,” Allen recalled.
For a young man whose strong opinions hadn’t always been welcomed, it was a match made in heaven. After a few months of freelancing, Hayes was hired as a fulltime editorial writer in late 1973. Four years later, he was named editorial page editor — the job he held there until his retirement in 2000. “We worked really well together,” Allen said. “I can’t remember an instance where we didn’t basically agree on an issue. I think we were pretty much in sync on this stuff.”
Hayes quickly made up for his lack of journalistic experience.
“He became really engaged with what he was writing about,” Allen said. And somehow, he instinctively knew how to deal with those who disagreed with him. “He dealt with his sources very frankly and openly,” Allen recalled. “That created a lot of respect for him.”
Craig Klugman, who succeeded Allen as Journal Gazette editor, saw those same qualities in Hayes during the 19 years they worked together.
Hayes didn’t shy away from views and proposals he and Klugman knew would be hard sells in Fort Wayne. “He made it work because he was accessible,” Klugman said. “He was concerned about our readers and he seemed to enjoy dealing with them. He never met a reader he didn’t want to talk to.”
Evan Davis, who was an editorial writer for Hayes for more than 13 years, recalled Hayes’ “feeling for underdogs, his focus on clear writing” and “his journalistic persistence. Larry spent hours on the phone in an average day, calling both local sources and experts around the country to inform his writing. He also read prodigiously at home; it seemed as though he was always current on the leading research in the subjects he addressed.”
Those Hayes allied with on causes say his determination often helped make the difference.
John Crawford, a longtime Fort Wayne city councilman, said Hayes’ editorial support of the effort to pass what may still be the state’s strongest anti-smoking ordinance was “invaluable … He was a passionate advocate for the causes he believed in.”
When Hayes became convinced there were better ways for police to deal with people with mental illness, he asked Fort Wayne’s police chief, Russell York, to consider implementing the kind of specially trained units called Crisis Intervention Teams already being used in a few other cities.
Now retired, York counts starting the CITs as the top achievement of his 14 years as chief. Almost a third of Fort Wayne’s police have received the training, it’s now a part of the core curriculum for new recruits and the department has become a regional training center for Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
“More importantly,” York wrote, “of the approximately 1,000 CIT runs that the FWPD experiences each year, on average, only six persons are being arrested. Almost all the mentally ill citizens that we encounter are now receiving appropriate mental health care (many for the first time) instead of being arrested.”
York credits Hayes not only for the idea but for helping to make the system a reality. Hayes even took a leadership role in selling the plan to local mental health providers, some of whom were initially skeptical.
“He was persistent, passionate, and determined to make a difference in the lives of our mentally ill citizens — and he succeeded.”
Hayes was proudest of his role in the two-decade effort to desegregate Fort Wayne Community Schools elementary schools. Two successive superintendents and a bloc of board members opposed the move, arguing that neighborhood schools were preferable to busing. After years of editorials and conversations with school officials where he laid out the evidence that segregation was holding schoolchildren back, Hayes decided to try to stress a broader point to a broader audience.
“I turned to other civil leaders,” Hayes wrote. “I didn’t so much invoke the educational or legal case for desegregation. I appealed to their sense of pride about the city.”
“I saw a powerful connection between our neglect of black children and the city’s well-being. The refusal to desegregate the elementary schools, I argued in one editorial, was a stain on the city’s reputation.”
That editorial caught the attention of Ian Rolland, CEO of the Lincoln National Corp. and an immensely powerful local leader, who put his money and influence behind the desegregation effort.
In February 1989, FWCS, settling a suit brought by a group of local parents, agreed to implement a desegregation plan.
As the settlement loomed, Klugman remembers that a lawyer for the school system was overheard saying “we’re getting a lot of pressure from the morning newspaper.”
“Larry was like a junkyard dog,” Klugman recalled. “He just wore them down.”
In 1986, Hayes and his writing team were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their desegregation editorials. Today, Fort Wayne Community Schools is the largest district in the state and has the highest urban school system graduation rate. Its success can be traced to the battle Hayes helped lead in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I watched as he tackled very difficult and unpopular issues with his words,” recalled Julie Inskeep, who was publisher during much of Hayes’ career at The Journal Gazette. “His work flowed easily, was compassionate and, when necessary, angry … graceful writing with compelling arguments.”
Hayes, who has two adult children, Robyn and John, will be 80 in August, and still lives in Fort Wayne. And despite some memory problems in recent years, he still follows public issues, said his wife, Toni Kring. “He continues to care deeply about people who are underrepresented. I think he always tried to speak for the people whose voices weren’t heard.”
“This is always going to be his first love,” Kring said. “The first thing he’ll ask me when he gets up is, ‘is The New York Times in the driveway?’”
By Tim Harmon