This is the fourth in a series of articles about winners of the NSNC’s annual Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.
By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
How much impact do columnists really have? Political/social satirist Art Hoppe answered that question after receiving the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
Hoppe said 50 percent of Americans were in favor of capital punishment when he started writing pieces opposing it. “Now, thanks to my columns, 75 percent think it’s a great idea,” the San Francisco Chronicle writer (1925-2000) told the NSNC audience in Snowbird, Utah.
Of course, that was humorous self-deprecation on Hoppe’s part. Columnists can have an impact, as any winner of the NSNC’s Will Rogers Humanitarian Award would tell you.
Hoppe — who wrote more than 6,000 columns between 1960 and 1996 — also used his acceptance speech 20 years ago to make this interesting observation: “When writing satire, it helps to like the target or you become too heavy-handed.” And he challenged the “liberal media” claims of conservatives, saying there’s a “rough balance because most reporters are Democrats and most publishers are Republicans.”
The Chronicle — which described Hoppe’s satire as witty, eloquent and gentlemanly — hired him as a copy boy in 1949 and promoted him to reporter seven months later. Among Hoppe’s stories were those chronicling a week he spent as a homeless person and his witnessing of an execution at San Quentin State Prison. He would oppose capital punishment — along with racial intolerance and the Vietnam War – as a columnist.
Hoppe — who wrote eight books and two plays — clearly had a way with words, as did NSNCers who defeated English professors in an impromptu spelling bee at the 1996 conference that Hoppe attended.
The contest was the brainchild of Diane Ketcham, NSNC Lifetime Director of Fun, novelist, and former New York Times columnist.
“I don’t remember whether Art Hoppe was watching the spelling bee,” Diane said when contacted for this article. “I think he probably was there. We had a huge crowd.”
She explained how the contest happened: “I will never forget telling a young Dave Lieber, ‘You and I are going to go into the hotel ballroom and ask the college English professors if any of them want to compete in a spelling bee.’ We walked in, and there were about 800 of them. They let me get on the stage and make an announcement that we were the newspaper columnists and wouldn’t they like to join us in our hospitality suite and send their best spellers.
“They looked at me as if I was speaking in hieroglyphics. As we walked out, there was dead silence. ‘I don’t think they’re coming,’ Dave said. But a few did, and it was absolutely one of the funniest nights we ever had. Wait — was Art Hoppe one of those picking the words out of the dictionary?”
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Dave Astor writes the “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair (N.J.) Times, blogs at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and authored the memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional.