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Center for Great Plains Studies


TALES OUT OF SCHOOL
February 2004

 WILLIAM ALLEN WHITE--A KANSAS TREASURE

    In 1996 a panel of 15 state experts placed William Allen White first on a list of the most influential Kansans.  High praise indeed in a state that has produced such notables as Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Dole, Alf Landon, Amelia Earhart, Carry Nation, and William Inge.  But the designation does indeed reflect the importance of William Allen White to the world of journalism during his long career.  As editor of the Emporia Gazette he not only brought the news of the world to the people of Emporia, but he also showed the people of the world how world events affect lives in a small Great Plains town.
    In 1895 WAW borrowed $3000 to purchase the Emporia Gazette, a struggling newspaper in the city of his birth.  Emporia would never be the same.  In the 1880s and 1890s farmers and laborers, frustrated by their financial conditions, flocked to the Populist Party.  One day in August 1896 a group of angry Populists confronted WAW as he walked to work.  So angered was he by this confrontation that he went right to his office and wrote his next editorial, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”  In the editorial he took the Populist Party to task.  The national media reprinted the editorial and it gave the Republicans a theme for the 1896 presidential campaign.
    Walter Johnson, in an article in the Kansas Historical Quarterly in February 1947, told the story of two young Emporia runaway boys who were found by Kansas City police in 1913.  When asked why they had left Emporia, one of them replied, “Well, there’s nothing there but William Allen White, and we got tired of hearing of him.”  But from the time of his “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” editorial William Allen White was well-known to the world outside of Emporia both as an astute political observer and as a gifted writer.
    His philosophy as a newspaper editor encompassed three principal themes–getting reliable news to the people quickly, fairly representing all sides in a controversy, and expressing a definite point of view on the editorial page.  White once wrote in Harper’s Magazine (May 1916), “The country newspaper is the incarnation of the town spirit...The newspaper is in a measure the will of the town, and the town’s character is displayed with sad realism in the town’s newspapers.  A newspaper is as honest as its town, is as intelligent as its town, as kind as its town, as brave as its town.”  Although many of his editorials were directed at national leaders and/or issues, many more were written about items with a local flavor.  Such editorials varied from a touching editorial about the death of a young girl in Emporia, to an editorial in praise of the Welsh community in Emporia, to one telling how the women of Emporia should cook baked beans, to suggesting that “joints” selling bootleg liquor should be closed.  Readers never knew what the topic might be when they opened their daily paper.  Under White’s guidance the Emporia Gazette became a training ground for such future editors as Roy Bailey (Salina Journal); Rolla Clymer (El Dorado Times); Oscar Stauffer (Topeka State Journal); John Redmond (Burlington Republican).  Charles M. Vernon became manager of the Los Angeles office of the Associated Press and Burge McFall became an Associated Press correspondent during World War I.
    White ran for public office only once, in 1924.  At a time when the influence of the Ku Klux Klan was growing and membership in the Klan was increasing, the major party candidates for Kansas governor refused to speak out against the Klan.  White believed that Klan beliefs were contrary to the principles of this country and that their tactics were cowardly, and so he ran for governor as an independent.  He used his editorial writing skills to attack the Klan.  Although he finished third in the race, the Klan disappeared from Kansas and he believed that his campaign had accomplished its goal.
    Without a doubt, White wrote his most poignant editorial in 1921 after the death of his sixteen-year-old daughter Mary.  This touching eulogy has become a classic and for many years was included in reading anthologies used by schools.
    In 1901 White and his wife Sallie bought “Red Rocks,” a two-and-a-half story house that features red sandstone brought to Emporia from Garden of the Gods in Colorado.  It is the exterior that gives the house its nickname.  The house was originally built in 1885 by cattleman and lawyer, Almerin Gillette.  When the market crashed, Gillette could not afford to finish construction and so he and his wife lived in the uncompleted home for fourteen years.  There are rumors that the financial difficulties caused depression and she eventually committed suicide in the home.  Though the cause of death was never determined, there are stories that her spirit roams the house.  The Whites began renting the house in 1899 and bought it in 1901.  The Whites completed construction of the house.  One of the changes they made in the original design was in the living room area, originally designed as four small rooms.  Because the Whites enjoyed entertaining, they took out walls and opened up the space to accommodate large gatherings.  Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned the original plan into a modern, oblong shape.  However, White thought that the design would not be well-accepted in Emporia.  White did incorporate Wright’s design for the main staircase into the renovation.
    The Whites opened their home to locals and notables.  Legend has it that six presidents visited the home.  Theodore Roosevelt certainly did and Herbert Hoover probably did.  The four-post bed they slept in is now in the west room on the second-floor.  Other notables who visited the Whites included novelist Edna Ferber and journalist Ida Tarbell.  Edna Ferber once wrote: “there is no ocean trip, no month in the country, no known drug equal to the reviving quality of twenty-four hours spent on the front porch or in the sitting room of the Whites’ house in Emporia...”
    William Allen White lived in Red Rocks for forty-five years.  After his death, his son William Lindsay White kept the house and lived there part of each year.  When WLW’s wife Katherine died in 1988, their daughter Barbara White Walker inherited the house.  In 2001 the Walkers donated the house to the Kansas State Historical Society.  With funds appropriated from the federal government, work is now underway on renovations and cataloging at Red Rocks.  The house will be opened for public tours when the renovations have been completed.  The site is a rare addition to Kansas state historic sites.  Not only is it important historically, but it also contains furnishings, artwork, etc. that were used by the White family.  It looks almost as it did when William Allen White died in 1944.
    President Franklin Delano Roosevelt eulogized White: “As a writer of terse, forcible, vigorous prose, he was unsurpassed.  He ennobled the profession of journalism.” 

Terms for further study:

Ku Klux Klan                 Populism
People’s Party                Editorial
Pulitzer Prize                   Mary Elizabeth Lease
Bull Moose party                

Other Resources:

The Story of William Allen White produced by Sagebrush Video http://www.sagebrushvideo.com/waw.html
White’s Printing Press  http://www.kshs.org/cool2/coolwhit.htm
“What’s the Matter With Kansas?” editorial  http://www.ku.edu/~jschool/waw/writings/waw/newspaper/editorials/editorals.html
“Mary White” editorial  http://www.ku.edu/~jschool/waw/writings/waw/newspaper/editorials/editorals.html
“To An Anxious Friend” editorial  http://www.ku.edu/~jschool/waw/writings/waw/newspaper/editorials/editorals.html
Quotations  http://www.creativequotations.com/one/2621.htm
Postcards from Lyon County http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/ks/lyon/postcards/ppcs-lyon.html
“Red Rocks” http://www.ku.edu/~jschool/waw/memorials/house/house.html

Books by William Allen White

Fiction:
1896- The Real Issue: A Book of Kansas Stories
1899- The Court of Boyville
1901- Stratagems and Spoils: Stories of Love and Politics
1906- In Our Town
1909- A Certain Rich Man
1916- God’s Puppets
1918- The Martial Adventures of Henry & Me
1918- In the Heart of a Fool

Political and Social Commentary:
1910- The Old Order Changeth: A View of American Democracy
1924- Politics: The Citizen’s Business
1925- Some Cycles of Cathay
1926- Boys–Then and Now
1936- What It’s All About: Being a Reporter’s Story of the Early Campaign of 1936
1939- The Changing West: An Economic Theory About Our Golden Age

Biography:
1924- Woodrow Wilson, The Man His Times, and His Tasks
1925- Calvin Coolidge, The Man Who is President
1928- Masks in a Pageant
1938- A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge
1946- The Autobiography of William Allen White

Verse:
1893- Rhymes by Two Friends (with Albert Bigelow Paine)

Biographies of William Allen White:
Agran, Edward Gale– Too Good a Town: William Allen White, Community, and the Emerging Rhetoric of Middle America
Clough, Frank C.– William Allen White of Emporia
Griffith, Sally Foreman– Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette
Jernigan, E. Jay– William Allen White
McKee, John DeWitt– William Allen White: Maverick on Main Street 
Quantic, Diane D.– William Allen White