“The first and great commandment is: Don’t let them scare you.”
Hoosier-born Elmer Davis began his career in news after his freshman year in high school when he started working for the Aurora Bulletin as a printer’s devil. Davis was a small-built young man and athletics were not his forté. His quick mind and interest in writing moved him in the direction that would eventually distinguish him. Born in Aurora, Indiana on 13 January, 1890, Davis’ father was Elam Davis, a cashier for the First National Bank of Aurora.
Speaking of his printer’s job, his best friend, Alex Cobb, said “Every morning [Davis] sallied forth in clean overalls and with lunch pail in hand, returning at night with empty lunch pail and overalls, shirt, face and hands covered with ink and grease.” But the printing side was not what Davis had in mind for his career. One of his first professional writing jobs was for the Indianapolis Star. He was paid $25 and continued working for them as a the Franklin College correspondent during his college years.
In 1910 Davis received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. The time at Oxford, however, was cut short when his father was taken ill and eventually died. But despite his short stay in England, Davis was able to continue to make frequent trips to the continent. It was during one of these trips that he met and eventually married his wife, Florence.
After returning to America, Davis took an editorial position with Adventure magazine. But a year later he was to leave that for a job as reporter for the New York Times. For the next ten years, Davis would report on stories ranging from pugilist Jack Dempsey to evangelist Billy Sunday. It was his reportage of the latter that earned him fame and fortune. Since reporters were paid by the space their stories occupied, Davis’ coverage of Sunday was a gold mine. Samuel T. Williamson, a fellow Times reporter said of Davis: he “benefited from his facility with the English language,” which “made it possible for him to write a long story so phrased that a copy-reader couldn’t cut it much.”
Davis continued to climb the ladder of success at the Times but left the publication in 1923 to become a freelance writer. Though he was free to write what he pleased, he still feared his decision. In a letter to a friend, Davis wrote: “Can you conceive the relief, after ten years of writing for tomorrow’s paper, of cutting loose for once and trying to see if you can do something good? With the awful peril of the abyss, of course, in case you find that even with everything perfect you can’t do anything more than hack work.” As a freelancer, Davis took up both fiction and non-fiction. But this was all soon to change.
In August, 1939, Davis received a call from Columbia Broadcasting’s news chief, Paul White, asking Davis to fill in as a news analyst for H. V. Kaltenborn, who was off in Europe reporting on the increasingly hostile events. Davis later wrote: “I had done some broadcasting at odd times over the past dozen years, had sometimes even pinch-hit for Kaltenborn during his absences; but to fill in for him in such a crisis as this was a little like trying to play center field in place of Joe DiMaggio.” Davis became an instant success. Edward R. Murrow felt that some of Davis’ success was that his Hoosier accent reminded folks of home.
During the war years, radio listeners tuned in regularly to hear Elmer Davis report and analyze the day’s events. On one occasion he presented the details of the sighting of an unidentified submarine within the U.S. safety (neutrality) zone by announcing, “Of course the safety zone declaration doesn’t say that belligerent war ships must keep out; only that they mustn’t do any fighting. But what are they there for? American neutrality is a serious matter. It seems a pity that it threatens to provide the war with comic relief…” Again, Ed Murrow wrote to Davis. “I have hopes that broadcasting is to become an adult means of communication at last,” said Murrow. “I’ve spent a lot of time listening to broadcasts from many countries… and yours stand out as the best example of fair, tough-minded, interesting talking I’ve heard.” An example of Davis’ tough-minded talk was his broadcast recommending the government disseminate news under one organization.
This would prompt FDR to create the OWI, or Office of War Information, which Davis would be asked to head. Though reluctant at first, Davis finally accepted. Davis always thought of himself as a writer first, but eventually managed to create a powerful organization with one goal in mind: “This is a people’s war, and the people are entitled to know as much as possible about it.”
When the war ended, so did the OWI. Davis returned to broadcasting, this time with ABC Radio. During the next decade he would continue to fight for the rights of the individual, including his public disgust with Sen. Joe McCarthy. But near the end of the 1950s, Davis suffered a stroke and later died. Raymond Swing tells a funny story about an incident at Davis’ funeral. Everyone had assembled in the church. Tribute after tribute was voiced by those who knew him best. Everyone was a bit teary after a particular heartfelt adieu. Suddenly the microphone crashed to the floor. Everyone jumped, startled. It was obvious that the hand of no human at all had done this. Then the sound of soft laughter waved through the church. It seemed that everyone had the same thought: Elmer was sick and tired of all the excessive speeches and wanted to get on with the business at hand!
Thanks to Mary Moliski and Ray Boomhower for this information.
Photo credits: The National Archives