Donald R. Mellett · 1969
By Sherry Kalan
Donald Ring Mellett was born on September 26, 1891, in Elwood, Indiana, where his father was the founder and publisher of the Elwood Gazette. He pursued, as did his father and five of his six brothers, a career in journalism.
Mellett was a 1909 graduate of Shortridge High School which was and still is located on the near north side of Indianapolis. While in Indianapolis, he and his family including mother, father, Homer, Roland, John, Hickman, Lowell, and Lloyd, resided for a time at 2067 Park Avenue.
When it came time to go to college, Mellett and a boyhood friend, Wendell L. Willkie, decided on Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington. Mellett attended IU from 1910 until 1913. While enrolled at IU, he was a member of the Emanon Club, from which the chapter of Alpha Tau Omega originated.
Prior to leaving IU due to illness resulting from over-exertion while participating on the university’s cross country team, Mellett was the editor of The Daily Student, IU’s school publication. It was here that Mellett’s first crusade began as he campaigned to get Bloomington to improve its water supply or move the university to Indianapolis. The campus finally received a modern water system, thanks for Mellett’s efforts.
Mellett’s first newspaper job outside of college was with The Indianapolis News, a job he landed shortly after leaving IU. He then worked for ex-Governor Frank Hanley’s prohibition paper, The National Enquirer. Following work with the prohibition paper, the crusader bought and edited The Columbus Ledger in Columbus, Indiana.
Mellett and his wife Florence, whom he met while at Shortridge High School, and their four children (Evan, Martha, Betty, and Jean) moved to Akron, Ohio, in 1923. After a brief position as the Advertising Manager for the Akron Press, a Scripps-Howard paper, Mellett was persuaded to take a job as the editor of The Canton Daily News, in Canton, Ohio, in January, 1925. He turned down a newspaper job in Cleveland at the same time.
While in Canton, Mellett was active in the Kiwanis Club and in the University Club of Canton. He was also a member of the Presbyterian Church.
It was in February of 1925 that trouble began for the Melletts. Prank calls were coming in and following were offers of bribes. The threats became more frequent. Donald Ring Mellett was the victim of assassin’s bullets on July 16, 1926, while fighting corruption and underworld control of the Canton Police Department.
Donald Ring Mellett’s body was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery on the near northwest side of Indianapolis.
Born to a newspaper family, Donald Ring Mellett’s first apparent journalistic experience outside of the family business was during his years at Indiana University where he was at one time the editor of The Daily Student. "If we have any definable editorial policy it is this — an effort to speak openly and above board on all questions which affect students and their interests," wrote Mellett when he was the editor of The Daily Student. With this in mind, the crusader campaigned to get a better water supply for Bloomington or to move the campus to Indianapolis. This was only the beginning of Mellett’s excursions in journalism and crusading.
After brief employment with The Indianapolis News, Mellett worked for a prohibition paper called The National Enquirer. Mellett at one time also owned and edited The Columbus Ledger in Columbus, Indiana.
The Mellett’s move to Ohio came in 1923. The journalist first worked in Akron as the advertising manager for The Akron Press. There he met James M. Cox, former Ohio Governor, Democratic candidate for President in 1920, and owner of a newspaper chain. Cox pursued Mellett to take the post as editor of The Canton Daily News. At the same time he turned down a job offer from a Cleveland paper.
Mellett’s first duties at The Daily News included being the business and resident publisher. The News at this time was a penny paper whose competitor was The Repository, a Republican paper which had gained twice as much circulation as The News.
Mellett began crusading to clean up Canton and printed story after story and editorial after editorial in an effort to expose the corrupt city government. The News’ circulation rose after the Canton mayor suspended the Canton police chief for questionable treatment of criminals and inefficiency in the police department.
The News and Mellett were instrumental in sending several of the corruptors to the State Penitentiary and also for getting two underworld brothers convicted of perjury. Mellett pointed out inadequacies in the board of education. Although Canton had been electing Republicans, The News supported a Democratic mayoral candidate who was elected. Next, The News attacked the board of Canton’s Aultman Hospital for appointing an incompetent surgical chief, whom the paper called a crony of "Jumbo Crowley," and said to be the rackets king of Canton at the time.
Mellett made enemies, but The News’ circulation grew. At the end of 1925, it stood only about 10,000 behind The Repository. About a month before Mellett’s assassination, the difference was only 5,000.
The editor then became involved in a murder case. The victim was underworld figure, Paul Kitzig. He was about to tell all he knew about the corruption in Canton to the authorities, but never got the chance. He was killed.
Mellett believed Kitzig’s murderer to be Ben Rudner, a Massillon bootlegger running an auto accessory store as a front. The more Mellett found out, the more he printed in The Daily News.
About this time, the crusading editor confided in his friend Wendell Willkie, that he was beginning to receive threats. A guard was even hired to look after the Mellett household, but was let go after a couple of weeks, a little too soon. Mellett was shot to death right outside his home on July 16, 1926.
Testimony given following Mellett’s murder shows that Rudner just before the death, introduced Patrick Eugene McDermott and Steve Kascholk, two out-of-town hoodlums looking for "work," to Louis Mazer, another bootlegger, who in turn told Detective Floyd Streitenberger that he knew of some people who would probably give a fellow a beating for money.
When Rudner decided the editor should be killed rather than beat up, Kascholk disappeared. That left Streitenberger and McDermott to kill Mellett.
The bullet that killed Mellett while he was putting his car in the garage, struck his head above the left ear. Another bullet entered the kitchen and passed through his wife’s hair.
An initial investigation was bungled purposely by the Canton police, but an out-of-town detective, Ora Slater, collected enough evidence to get McDermott, Streitenberger, and Rudner life sentences. Canton Police Chief Lengel was also sentenced to life and Mazer was convicted of manslaughter. The trial never brought out who actually fired the shot (although McDermott is thought to be the most likely subject) nor was the murder weapon ever found. Reports indicate that from $11,000 to $27,000 was offered for the finding of Mellett’s murderers).
Although numerous escapes were attempted, McDermott spent the greater part of his life after Mellett’s death, in jail. He died in 1972 in the Lima State Hospital.
Shortly after the death of the crusading editor, The Canton Daily News, too died. The competing paper, The Repository, bought out The Daily News in 1927.
Don Mellett’s contribution to the journalism profession were many during his short life of 35 years. From writer, to editor, to publisher and owner, to advertising manager and business manager — Mellett handled them all as only a professional could.
Awards and Other Unique Aspects:
Donald Ring Mellett’s death was recorded on July 16, 1926, but his memory will continue to live. The Canton Daily News was awarded the 1927 Pulitzer prize for public service for Mellett’s underworld, corrupt government and police exposes printed during his time as editor/publisher of the paper.
1927 is significant for another reason, also. It was on the first anniversary of Mellett’s assassination that a cornerstone was laid for the new Canton Daily News building. The cornerstone was dedicated as a memorial to the late editor.
Also in Mellett’s memory is the Don Mellett Annual Lecture in Journalism. Newspapers of the United States have raised a fund administered by the Don Mellett Memorial Foundation which provides for a lecture in journalism at a university or college having a school or department of journalism. These lectures have been given by outstanding editors at such institutions as the universities of Illinois, Kansas, California, and the Sanford, Columbia and Indiana universities and many more institutions of higher education. The lectures are indexed in "The Literature of Journalism," by Warren C. Price.
In addition, shortly after Mellett’s death, IU President William Lowe Bryan urged the erecting of a plaque on the campus in honor of the crusading editor. The plaque was first placed in the Union Building and then later moved to the journalism building, Ernie Pyle Hall, where an auditorium has been named in Mellett’s memory.
In contribution to the memory of the crusading editor, WIRE radio of Indianapolis, in 1943, broadcast the life story of the Indiana University alumnus, Don Mellett. The show was aired on a Sunday morning from 9:30 until 10 with a cast of all IU students. Many poems have been written about Donald Ring Mellett, too. Canton-born James Artzner, free-lance photographer and novelist, is even planning to write a book about Mellett’s life.
Most recently, the Mellett Historic Site in Journalism was established in Canton during ceremonies at the Stark County Historical center on April 21, 1976. Designated by a bronze plaque, the site is the 56th in the nation and the fourth in Ohio. It marks Mellett’s national significance in the history of American journalism. The plaque is on permanent display at Stark County Historical Society.
Donald Ring Mellett, charter member of the Rho chapter of the journalism honorary, Sigma Delta Chi, was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in May of 1969. His widow, the former Florence Evans, attended ceremonies honoring Mellett and accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. The Hall of Fame project was undertaken to honor Hoosier-related newsmen and newswomen who have achieved prominence in newspaper, magazine, radio or television work. The first sixteen names, one for each decade of journalism history in Indiana, were added to the Hall of Fame in 1966. It was planned that two or three persons would be honored annually in succeeding years. There are now many journalists honored in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, located on the campus of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where Sigma Delta Chi is headquartered. Nominations to the Hall of Fame are made by Indiana newsmen and selections are made by a committee, which was first headed by C. Walter McCarty of The Indianapolis News.