Skip Hess · 2012
Skip Hess worked as a teen-ager at a Southern Illinois gas station owned by a man who refused to allow blacks to buy gasoline. Skip would direct them to the nearest station — and feel bad about not being able to do more.
Seeing this type of mistreatment of people made Skip determined to do something about wrongdoers.
Howard K. “Skip” Hess became a journalist.
For 50 years, Skip championed the rights of the wronged as an award-winning investigative, government and general assignment reporter.
Skip worked as a reporter and editor for the Fort Hood (Texas) Sentinel, Kokomo Morning Times, Wabash Plain Dealer and The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star.
His reports covered the mistreatment of the mentally ill, corrupt cops and scandalous bail bondsmen. He investigated corruption by public officials and misuse of public funds in the state’s Department of Education and in the Secretary of State’s office.
It is this body of work for which Hess was selected for induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
“Skip Hess got results that clearly exemplify the public good that results when the press fulfills its watchdog role,” said Frank Caperton, retired executive editor of The Indianapolis Star.
As Skip reported for newspapers, always in the back of his mind was the mistreatment he witnessed at the gasoline station. More than once, Skip helped innocent, marginalized people convicted of crimes go free.
“He grew up in the oilfields of Southern Illinois – a rough place, if you‘ve ever been there – and he never forgot the little guy,” said Joe Hallinan, a Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist and one of Skip’s friends.
Nancy Comiskey, who worked with Skip at the News and the Star as a reporter, desk editor and managing editor, said he was a “consummate journalist who never lost his zest for a story and always put the reader first.”
Skip graduated from Mt. Carmel (Ill.) High School, but he wasn’t college material, he said. He was drafted into the Army and enrolled in the Defense Information School in New York. He finished last in his class, but that didn’t stop him from being hired as a reporter and editor at the Army’s Fort Hood Sentinel.
After military duty, Skip was hired as a sports reporter for the Kokomo Morning Times in 1965 and became sports editor a year later. The next year, he was hired as a sports editor for the Wabash Plain Dealer and left there in 1967 to accept a general assignment position with the News.
That’s where Skip spent the next 31 years. It was an era when journalists could spend months reporting and developing leads about wrongdoing. Sometimes leads fizzled after the investing of hundreds of hours. But many leads panned out, culminating in Skip correcting a wrong.
Skip also reported on several major events of the ’60s and ’70s: the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado in Howard County; the 1969 mid-air plane crash over Shelby County that killed 83 people; 30 consecutive years of the Indianapolis 500 Race; the 1979 killing of a mother and her three children by Steven Judy, who was electrocuted for his crimes; the Tony Kiritsis case involving a man who kidnapped mortgage executive Richard Hall and held him at shotgun-point in downtown Indianapolis in the 1980s.
Once Skip was assigned to report on what it was like to be homeless and broke in Indianapolis. So without money or identification, he lived on the streets for a week and wrote stories that would help readers better understand the plight of the homeless.
Skip also wrote dozens of stories as a features and outdoors reporter. One story was a compassionate tale about a wounded crow lying on the ground at the side of I-65 near Raymond Street.
On his way to and from the office, Skip watched daily as other crows cared for the injured crow until it was strong enough to fly away. It was a slice of life story about prevailing sometimes against all odds.
Skip estimates he wrote more than 4,000 stories during his career.
He has won more than 40 writing awards. He was a six-time winner of a CASPER (Community Appreciation for Service in Public Enlightenment and Relations) Award for community service and four times was named Indianapolis Magazine’s “Best of Indianapolis” investigative reporter.
Skip credits former Indianapolis Star publisher Eugene S. Pulliam with helping him become successful as a journalist. Pulliam trusted him, Skip said. But despite his allegiance and appreciation, Skip supported fellow journalist Betty Cadou when she filed a lawsuit in federal court against the newspaper for what she believed was its discriminatory policy of not hiring female reporters. Skip voluntarily wrote a letter to the federal court.
Skip was known for having good sources. They led to the 1985 conviction of four-term state school superintendent Harold Negley on felony charges of ghost employment and official misconduct.
In nominating him for the IJHF, Skip’s wife, Gloria, wrote about one of his stories: “Secretary of State Larry Conrad had to repay the state thousands of taxpayer dollars that he used on political campaigns and for his personal use.”
In reporting about the mentally ill at Central State Hospital in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Skip was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Then-Gov. Otis Bowen credited Skip with widespread improvements in the state’s mental health system, including construction of new facilities at Central State.
Skip’s last major project resulted in a second Pulitzer nomination. He was on a team of reporters in 1987 that uncovered widespread corruption in the state’s Department of Corrections. The agency’s chief executive, Gordon Faulkner, was convicted on criminal charges.
In another investigation, Skip chased a tip that a Marion County sheriff’s deputy had falsely accused a man of beating and robbing him. The suspect was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but Skip uncovered the truth. He found that the deputy had lied, so the man was released.
In 1995, the News and the Star merged and Skip got the job of outdoor reporter. “This meant that instead of examining deficiencies in state institutions…he turned his watchful eye on Indiana’s rich resources – our wildlife, nature trails, campsites, parks, trees, wildflowers, waterways and everything under the sun and moon,’’ said Ruth Holladay, who was his editor the last four years he worked full time.
“If there’s one word that comes to mind with Skip during the four years I worked with him, it is ‘trusted.’ I trusted him with any story, and I trusted him to make the coffee … and keep us all on an even keel. He did it all.”
The last edition of The Indianapolis News was published on Oct. 1, 1999. It was the year Skip decided to stop working full-time.
“Newspapers trusted you and turned you lose,” Skip recalled. “Now it’s quantity instead of quality. I think watchdog journalism is gone. Then, they’d trust me to work on a story three or four months and sometimes I wouldn’t write a story. They trusted me for a year on a project and I would just go and go and go. Can you imagine newspapers turning you loose for a year today?”
Now he spends lots of time volunteering at Rocklane Christian Church, of which he is a member. He’s also volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House and played Santa for Riley Hospital kids. He also volunteers as a coach for girls’ softball at the Indianapolis Edgewood Athletic Association, and he rides his motorcycle for the Indiana Patriot Guard to escort the bodies of deceased soldiers to funeral homes.
Now 73, Skip has six children: Vicki, Tammy, Shane, Erin, Michelle and Matt. A stepson, Ronnie, is deceased. He also has 10 grandchildren.
Every other week, he writes his outdoors column for the Star. “The column kind of keeps me in journalism. For me, it was hard to get out,” Skip said.
He has no regrets about his career. He hopes only that he made a difference.
“I never remember a time when I didn’t want to go to work. It was something I loved.”
By Eunice Trotter, Communications Specialist, American Senior Communities