E. Gilbert Forbes · 1966
By William J. Wilson
E. Gilbert Forbes was born in St. Louis, Missouri, May 20, 1904. He spent his childhood in that city and attended St. Louis public schools.
After high school graduation, he continued his studies at Elmhurst (Illinois) Junior College (now a four year liberal arts institution). Two more years at the University of Dubuque (Iowa), earned him a Bachelor of Arts degree. His areas of concentration at Dubuque were music and journalism. He was also an organist graduate of the American Conservatory in Chicago.
While at Dubuque, he met Marguerite Bechtel, a Dubuque girl, and they were married shortly after Forbes graduated in 1927. Returning to his home in St. Louis, and undecided about a career, Forbes was offered work at a St. Louis radio station which had need of a young man of his versatility. He stayed in St. Louis six years, fathering his two children, Nancy Lou (now Mrs. Robert D. McDaniel) and Jack Eugene.
In 1933 the Forbes family moved to East Dubuque, Illinois, where Gilbert had taken a job an an announcer and newsman at WKBB.
Forbes joined WFBM, Indianapolis, in 1937, for the last move of his career. He came as radio news editor and quickly established himself as a major broadcast news force within the station’s coverage area. He spent his first few years at WFBM building up the station’s news coverage. But it was during World War II that Gilbert Forbes became the best known news voice in the state.
On December 7, 1941, Forbes was on duty in the news room when the first wire service dispatch concerning the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor arrived at the station. He rushed a bulletin on the air, a full two minutes ahead of the network bulletin fed to the station.
In 1944 he was picked as one of six broadcast newsman in the nation, not employed by a national network, to be accredited as a war correspondent. Forbes landed at Omaha Beach thirty days after D-Day, and reported the part Indiana soldiers were playing in the war effort.
When WFBM-TV, the state’s first television station, signed on the air in 1949, Forbes became the state’s first television journalist. For several years he appeared on radio and television, a schedule which required seven working days a week.
Gilbert Forbes was taken seriously ill in October 1960. The ailment was diagnosed as lung cancer. Sunday morning, May 21, 1961, he suffered a stroke at his northside Indianapolis home and was taken to Methodist Hospital. He never regained consciousness. He died September 18, 1961, at Methodist.
The term "electronic journalism" was not in common use when Gilbert Forbes took his first job in broadcasting. But he was one of a coming crop of young journalists who realized the fabulous potential of radio as a news medium.
Early in his college career, Forbes saw the necessity to gain practical journalism experience. While still a sophomore, he landed a stringer’s job with the now defunct Chicago Herald-Examiner.
But radio interested him far more. He found that a concentration in news work alone was almost impossible during the early days of radio. His first job at a St. Louis station was brought about because of his musical ability as well as his announcing voice.
By the time he moved to WKBB, a station relocating from Joliet, Illinois, to East Dubuque, Illinois, Forbes had gained enough experience and developed enough talent to spend most of his time in news work. He served as WKBB’s radio news editor, a position in which he continued to refine his style of presentation, and which allowed him to become part of the rapidly growing field of broadcast journalism.
It was not until he joined WFBM in 1937 that Gilbert Forbes hit his stride. By then he was an accomplished broadcast journalist, assembling, writing, and delivering several newscasts daily. His authoritative and strong delivery, and his clear resonant voice made him immediately popular with Central Indiana listeners.
But Forbes would never have been able to accumulate so great a listening audience without his constant dedication to
excellence in journalism. His listeners came to trust his word as truth, and knew if Gilbert Forbes reported a story, it would come to them only after it had been determined factual, accurate, fair and put in a perspective that would give it meaning.
Forbes’ level of commitment to his work was also clear to the audience. At one point he worked seven days a week, and wrote and delivered 37 quarter hour news shows weekly. He was the first broadcaster in the state to receive serious attention from the public as a journalist. A high point in his career was being selected one of six broadcast newsmen not employed by a national broadcasting network to become accredited war correspondents. With management assistance, Forbes went into the European Theater of Operations, landing on the beach at Normandy, France, which had just days earlier seen the largest invasion force in the history storm the European continent. While in France, Forbes covered the exploits of Hoosiers who were part of five infantry divisions, the 82nd Air-Borne Division, the 466 Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, and the 735th Tank Battalion. The latter proved to be Forbes’ most memorable. General George Patton was leading his tank corps against heavy German fortifications around Metz. Forbes was there when the Third Army made history in its breakthrough and capture of important bridges needed desperately by the allies for their march toward Germany. He spent nearly a year in Europe, sending back dispatches for broadcast at WFBM.
Gilbert Forbes came to be regarded by many in his audience as the "voice of World War II." He returned from Europe even higher in stature then when he left, his audience now the beneficiary of his overseas reporting. He resumed his work at WFBM with typical vigor, made transition into television when WFBM-TV signed on in 1949, and soon had conceived what was to be one of the most popular news-entertainment shows on local television.
"Test the Press" went on the air in 1949, and featured journalists trying to identify film clip material and answer questions contrived by Forbes. More than 400 reporters, editors, and publishers appeared on "Test the Press" during its five-and-a-half year existence.
But television was a new medium for the straight reportage of news, and one which presented a completely different set of challenges. For a while it was a matter of "radio with pictures" as many print newsmen referred to it. There weren’t even many pictures for a long while, until newsmen could arrange for the services of commercial photographers for scheduled events, and began utilizing photographs from wire service facsimile machines. Newsfilm was a rarity and was usually supplied by a national source.
Forbes entry into television greatly increased his popularity. He had already established the strongest base of public acceptance ever held by any Hoosier news broadcaster, and television added to it.
Step by step, and always with a critical eye on the frailties of his new medium, Forbes brought to radio many of the same revered practices of the printed press, including analysis. While other broadcasters would occasionally attempt news analysis, Forbes’ efforts stood the merciless test of peer review from his colleagues in the print media.
Gilbert Forbes’ passion was his work. He set himself a punishing pace, and to those nearby he was often considered standoffish and gruff. In his newsroom there was usually little time for anything except the next deadline.
But to his public he was credibility personified. The authority of his presentation was reassurance enough that as long as Gilbert Forbes said it, you could be sure it was so. And beneath the frosty exterior there was a man who held real concern for his fellow human beings.
When Forbes was in Europe as a war correspondent, he provided a service for his listeners that won him almost as much praise and thanks as his news dispatches sent home. He penned hundreds of letters to worried parents and loved ones, reporting on the whereabouts of their men in uniform. WFBM Manager Frank O. Sharp recalls "the response was overwhelming. I don’t know how many people called up to thank us for Gilbert’s kindness."
His frenetic news reporting schedule kept him from becoming part of community involvements. Nevertheless, he received many honors during his career. In 1961 he was recognized along with two other Indianapolis newsmen by the Indianapolis Railroad Community Committee for journalistic excellence. His Silver Lantern Award was based on "experience, service to citizens of Indiana and accomplishment in the news field."
In 1958 he was honored by the Indiana State Teachers Association for his special series of radio programs on school problems. It was the first time that an association had so cited an individual.
He was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, Indiana Professional Chapter; the Indianapolis Press Club; the Indianapolis Literary Club; the Indianapolis Artists Club (associate); the Children’s Bureau; the National Honor Society (Order of DeMolay), and an honorary life member of the 735 Tank Battalion of World War II.
Posthumously, he was honored as the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Alumni of the Year. He was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1966.
Words and citations can express only a few aspects of the Gilbert Forbes who was truly a part of Central Indiana’s daily life for over 24 years. Perhaps the description contained in this Indianapolis News editorial on September 20, 1961, says it the best:
"He combined a keen reporter’s instinct with a scholarly background. Indiana television and radio audiences received from Gilbert Forbes the benefit of interpretive thinking as well as spot newscasting. His deep, resonant voice carried the authority of studied conviction. His was a personable presence that won friends whether in studio and screen presentations or in the face-to-face informality of discussions like those at the roundtable of the Press Club, where his journalist colleagues, in a manner of speaking, sat at his feet. He was the dean of Indiana newscasters in far more than years of service. He was a presiding spirit in this community’s contemporary era who will be long and kindly remembered."