By Dave Lieber
Secretary, NSNC Education Foundation
Columnist, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Website: Yankee Cowboy
The office memo changed the course of my writing life. Back in the 1980s, I was a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Gene Roberts, the great editor, sent us a note explaining what kind of writing he wanted in his newspaper.
Ernie Pyle style writing, Roberts wrote.
Short stories, about 800 words long, with a beginning, middle and an end. Strong characters. Good visual descriptions. Dramatic action. So I looked up Pyle at the library. Learned about his wonderful travel columns. Read a few of his World War II columns. Tried to mimic the poetry and poignancy of his work.
I’ve yet to receive a better office memo.
* * *
I was a reporter when I joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists several years ago. And as a columnist wannabe, I wrote then President Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star and volunteered for active duty.
“I’d like to get involved in something that represents my future,” I wrote with steadfast optimism. “What ya got?”
Tammeus wrote back with an assignment: “I have a half-baked idea that there ought to be a National Columnists Day — to be proclaimed and celebrated far and wide with hangings in effigy and whatnot.
“Would you be willing to do a little research and recommend some dates?” he asked. “Like the birthday of some great columnist or other. This may go nowhere, but I think it might be kind of fun.”
I was thrilled. But which day to pick? What writer? Who was so beloved by readers, so respected by peers and still admired long after his or her death? Who is the greatest columnist of all time?
Easy questions for me.
The answer is Ernie Pyle.
Pyle did it all. On-the-road dispatches from across America. Front-line reporting during World War II. Beloved and, of course, still remembered by many readers.
But at the height of his popularity, the Pulitzer Prize winner died in a way almost impossible to imagine by today’s celebrity-writer standards: He was shot in the head by a Japanese sniper near the front lines. The date was April 18, 1945.
* * *
I wrote Tammeus about my idea. He liked it. Eventually, the NSNC passed a resolution written by Tammeus proclaiming April 18th as National Columnists Day. The resolution said, in part: “The anniversary of the April 18, 1945 death of the great Ernie Pyle is a time to reflect on the way newspaper columnists connect, educate, comfort, encourage, celebrate, outrage and occasionally even amuse readers and a time to express appreciation for them for their hard work.”
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of Pyle’s death, the NSNC marked the day for the first time. The society continues to honor the day each year.
* * *
Fortunately, I became a columnist and got to tell this story to my readers. And I keep a drawing of Pyle taped to my computer for inspiration.
Remember, if you write a column about Ernie Pyle or National Columnists Day, don’t forget to send it to us for possible inclusion on our website, www.columnists.com.