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J.N. Heiskell of the Arkansas Gazette was attending a newspaper editors' conference in 1947 when he heard a South Carolina native named Harry Ashmore speak. Heiskell was impressed. He offered Ashmore a job as an editorial writer, a move that ushered in the newspaper's golden era.

Ashmore arrived in Arkansas in September 1947 and went on to become one of the most important figures in the long history of the Gazette, which printed its first issue in November 1819 at Arkansas Post and its final issue in October 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 the evening of Nov. 21 in the Wally Allen Ballroom of Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center.

Ashmore, who was born in July 1916 at Greenville, S.C., graduated from Clemson in 1937 with a degree in general science.

"At both Greenville High School and Clemson, Ashmore demonstrated exceptional writing skills, and he served as editor of both school newspapers," Nathania Sawyer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "After graduation from college, he started his newspaper career as a reporter at the Greenville Piedmont. He later transferred to the Piedmont's morning counterpart, the Greenville News. ... He applied for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, one of the most prestigious honors for a journalist, and was accepted for the 1941-42 school year. World War II cut short Ashmore's year at Harvard."

Ashmore, who served in Gen. George Patton's Third Army, was hired after the war at the Charlotte News as an editorial writer. After coming to the Gazette, he moved up to executive editor and found himself in charge of both the editorial pages and the newsroom.

In a 1955 essay about the Gazette, novelist and former Gazette employee James Street wrote about J.N. Heiskell (to whom he referred as Mr. Ned), his brother Fred Heiskell (known as Mr. Fred) and business manager Fred Allsopp.

"The Heiskell-Allsopp triumvirate parted when Mr. Fred died," Street wrote. "Mr. Allsopp went next, and Mr. Ned was alone. He had planned for his son to take his place and then his son was killed in World War II. A lesser man might have faltered, but Mr. Ned buried his face deeper in the Gazette's editorial page and looked to the future. He was pushing 80 and she was pushing 140, and the time had come to change her. She was a Mutt and Jeff newspaper in the age of Buck Rogers. Her bustle was out of date and her corset was too tight. She needed some paint and powder, a new hairdo and maybe a strapless gown.

"For 50 years, the old lady had lectured that the South's greatest assets were her youths and now was her chance to prove it. Mr. Ned went out and hired Harry Ashmore, a young North Carolina editor for whose services several papers were bidding. Clyde Dew, seeped in Gazette tradition and stooped in Gazette service, resigned in a disagreement over policy and Mr. Ashmore was made second-in-command. ... Mr. Ned brought in Hugh Patterson, his son-in-law, as publisher, and Mr. Patterson is one of the nation's youngest publishers of a major newspaper. He surrounded himself with young men and gave them authority. The marble slabs on the steps, worn so thin, were turned over. Even the windows were washed and proper lighting was furnished the staff, along with new typewriters, desks and all the latest gadgets."

Gov. Sid McMath asked Ashmore to speak to the Southern Governors' Association meeting at Hot Springs in 1951, and Ashmore's comments on civil rights received national media attention.

"Ashmore gained a reputation as a moderate-to-liberal thinker and started to be recognized outside the state for his writing," Sawyer writes. "Ashmore worked with Heiskell and Patterson, who managed the business side of the newspaper, to upgrade the Gazette and improve the newsroom. Ashmore's reputation as a journalist attracted many aspiring newsmen who went on to have notable careers in journalism and publishing."

Ashmore's first book, The Negro and the Schools, came out in 1954. He took a leave from the newspaper in 1955 to work on Democrat Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign but returned to Little Rock in July 1956. Ashmore was working on a book about the changes in the South when the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis occurred.

"Ashmore worked behind the scenes with local moderates and behind the typewriter writing editorials to support compliance with the law requiring desegregation of the schools," Sawyer writes. "The series of front-page editorials won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. More important, the editorials positioned Ashmore as a public figure around whom racial moderates and liberals could rally. Ashmore also became the target of the segregationists' criticism and hatred. His critics labeled him an interloper."

His book for Norton, Epitaph for Dixie, was released in January 1958. Ashmore left the Gazette in 1959 to join a California-based think tank known as the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He also served as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and wrote eight more books.

Ashmore, who remained a popular speaker across the country, died in January 1998. Patterson, who continued to serve as the Gazette publisher until the newspaper was sold to the Gannett Co. in 1986, died in May 2006.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 05/18/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: The Ashmore years

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