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It's impossible to discuss the history of the Arkansas Gazette without talking about John Netherland Heiskell, who led the newspaper for almost 70 years. Outside of Gazette founder William E. Woodruff, Heiskell was the most influential figure in the history of a newspaper that published its first issue on Nov. 20, 1819, at Arkansas Post and its final issue on Oct. 18, 1991, at Little Rock.

During the next seven months, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will celebrate the Gazette's 200th anniversary with articles and events. The newspaper is reprinting a historic page each day for 200 days. The celebration will culminate with a dinner on Nov. 21 in the Wally Allen Ballroom of Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center.

Heiskell was born in November 1872 in Rogersville, Tenn. His father was a former Confederate officer, lawyer and judge.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Nathania Sawyer and John Thompson describe Heiskell as "a bookish youth who preferred reading the encyclopedia to novels. He entered the University of Tennessee before his 18th birthday and graduated in three years at the head of his class on June 7, 1893. At the university, Heiskell studied languages, mathematics and physics. But his true interest was in journalism, an area in which the university had no formal curriculum. His early journalism career included jobs with newspapers in Knoxville and Memphis and with the Associated Press in Louisville and Chicago. On June 17, 1902, Heiskell's family bought controlling interest in the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell became the editor, and his brother Fred became managing editor."

The newspaper remained under family control until its sale to the Gannett Co. in 1986.

In a 1955 essay about the Gazette, novelist and former Gazette employee James Street wrote: "The Heiskell brothers, editor Ned and managing editor Fred, seemed to have little in common except the Gazette, and yet Mr. Ned really idolized his younger brother, a gregarious man who loved a laugh and a neat tipple of good whiskey. Mr. Ned did not smoke or drink, but sat in his office behind stacks of newspapers and wrote editorials. He seldom ventured into the newsroom except to scold some delinquent copyreader who had dared let the Gazette commit the heinous crime of hanging a preposition.

"Mr. Fred ran the staff, a collection of young journeymen right out of The Front Page, hats crushed into slouchiness, cigarettes dangling and a thirst for fame, excitement and moonshine likker. Loyalty was a religion and we had more sentiment than wisdom, and no money. Mr. Fred was our Gunga Din, a better man than we were, and Mr. Ned was Buddha. . . . Not only was a split infinitive a capital offense, but the Gazette shunned a something or other called a split verb. 'A fool and his money are soon parted' was all right for the sage who first said it, but he split the verb 'are parted.' Therefore for the Gazette it was written, 'A fool and his money soon are parted.' "

Ernie Dumas worked at the Gazette from soon after his graduation from the University of Missouri in 1960 until the newspaper closed in 1991. He remembers that an aging Heiskell would sometimes come out of his office to complain about things he considered to be grammatical offenses. Nikita Khrushchev was described in a headline one day as the "Soviet chief." Heiskell emerged from his office and said: "I don't ever want to see the word 'chief' in a headline unless we're talking about an Indian chief."

Bob Douglas, one of the editors at work that morning, said to Heiskell: "But what if it's a police chief or a fire chief?"

Dumas remembers Heiskell's response: "He looked at Douglas for a few seconds and finally said, 'Oh, don't be silly.' Then he turned around and went back into his office."

The newspaper almost doubled its circulation in the first four years under Heiskell family ownership. The Gazette generally was neutral in the Democratic primary but always supported Democrats against Republicans.

"In 1903, Heiskell got into a long-term editorial battle with the state's most powerful Democratic officeholder, Gov. Jeff Davis, after Davis branded the Gazette 'a Republican sheet' and implied it was subsidized financially by outsiders," Sawyer and Thompson write. "Heiskell asserted that Davis had lied and that the real reason the governor was upset was because the newspaper had published embarrassing aspects of his record and would not do his bidding."

Davis later died while serving in the U.S. Senate, and Gov. George Donaghey chose Heiskell to succeed Davis until a successor could be elected. Heiskell served from Jan. 6-29, 1913.

Street said of the Gazette: "By 1913, she had a new home with marble steps and so much prestige that Mr. Ned was appointed to the United States Senate to succeed Jeff Davis, the Gazette's bitter enemy. . . . Mr. Ned served only 24 days and made one speech, which summed his convictions, and they haven't changed."

In that Senate floor speech, Heiskell said: "We have indeed, in the popular primary states, a government of the people, and I affirm my faith in that government, even though there are some people in these states who are apprehensive at what may befall us from the votes of the electors who are dubbed with the uncouth terms of redneck and hillbilly. And what is a hillbilly? He is one of the thousands and thousands of white men, poor in the goods of this world, the very foundation course of the strength of human society, who works at the trades of the countrysides or cultivates small farms in the sweat of their own brows, whose greatest interests in this world are home, family, school, church and their country. If these men are misled, the fault is not so much with them as with him who perverts his talents and abuses his powers to play upon their honest hearts and open minds."

Heiskell kept coming to the office until he was 99.

"He continued to take an active interest in the newspaper," Sawyer and Thompson write. "He began by having a copy of the newspaper delivered to his home by messenger as soon as it came off the press each night. Eventually he switched to having his secretary call him daily at his home and read the entire newspaper to him. He operated on the premise that 'anyone who runs a newspaper needs to know what's in it, even to the classified ads.' "

"It was Mr. Ned Heiskell who gave the Gazette her character, and her story for the last 50 years is his story," Street wrote in 1955.

Heiskell died at age 100 in December 1972. He's buried at Little Rock's Mount Holly Cemetery.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 05/12/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Ned Heiskell's Gazette


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