Don Scism · 1976

By David Owen

Don Scism, long-time editor of the Evansville Courier, was born in Bloomfield, Missouri, on September 1, 1893, the son of William Luther Scism and Bertha Reed Scism. Other family children were Dan, Mark, and Rose. Scism graduated from high school in his home community of Bloomfield and then attended South East Missouri Teachers’ College in Cape Girardeau where he majored in history, graduating in 1915. Although Scism maintained an interest in history throughout his life — especially in the American Civil War period — he said of his schooling, "I consider that two years in the army during the war did me more good than all college."

Following graduation, Scism moved to South St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught history and was principal of the South St. Louis Ward School until his enlistment in the United States Army on June 3, 1917.

The date of his enlistment is of interest. The United States had entered the First World War on April 6, 1917. On May 18th a compulsory draft bill had been passed by Congress and was to be implemented by way of a national day of registration which was set for June 5, 1917. Two days in advance of this date, Scism enlisted in Company M of the First Missouri National Guard which later became part of the 138th Infantry, 35th (Rainbow) Division. This division served in France for one year — as support troops during the San Mihiel drive and as one of the jump-off divisions of the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the Fall of 1918.

Indiana Today 1942 reports that following the war Scism "worked on southern Missouri newspapers." Family members believe that at this time he contributed articles to the St. Louis Republican and that for one summer he managed the Duncan County Democrat in Kennett, Missouri, during the absence of its publisher. In a biographical data sheet, Scism himself declared all of his jobs prior to his work on the Courier to be "meaningless."

Clearly, for him, his life’s work began in Evansville.

Don Scism arrived in Evansville in September 1920 and was hired as a court reporter for the Courier. Who’s Who in Evansville, published in 1932, says of this period:

…he was assigned to the Court House beat where he gathered and wrote the news of the Courts county offices, and politics. He found there the tragedies of life as they unfolded behind the bars of justice and learned of business records of all types and descriptions.

After three years, Scism was assigned as City Editor. He assumed that post in May 1923. Eight months later he was promoted to Editor on January 3, 1924. His rapid advancement was made possible, in part, by the fact that he had come to the Courier during a time of changing ownership. First, Howard Rossa left the paper after 23 years as Editor when he, with two others, sold the Courier to Henry Marshall. Marshall, in turn, soon sold the paper to Ben Bosse, then mayor of Evansville. It was Ed J. Fehn, acting as publisher and general manager for Bosse’s widow, who named Scism to the post of Editor in 1924. At that time Scism was 30 years old.

It was during the earlier years as court reporter that Don Scism married Opal Osman of Piggot, Arkansas. Their wedding took place July 17, 1922 in Festus, Missouri. Three children were born to the Scisms: Ruth Elizabeth, October 24, 1923; Robert Bruce, February 14, 1925; and Nancy Jane, February 7, 1927. The Scisms were to be married 31 years.

Don Scism served as editor of the Evansville Courier for thirty years, retiring on January 3, 1954. Following his retirement at age 60, he vacationed with his wife in Florida and was thought to be considering a purchase of a small Florida weekly. However, Don and Opal Scism had returned to Indiana and were traveling from Columbus to Evansville after visiting family, when they were both killed in a three-vehicle accident at a narrow bridge on Indiana Highway 57 north of Petersburg at 4 p.m. on March 2, 1954. At the time of his death, Scism was survived by a brother, Dan Scism, sports editor of the Courier; a brother, Mark Scism, a manufacturing executive in Bristol, Pennsylvania; a sister, Rose Walker, of Evansville; a son, Robert, then correspondent for the New York Daily News in Madrid, Spain; daughters, Mrs. Ruth Kennedy of Bloomington and Mrs. Nancy Marble of Columbus; four grandchildren and five nieces and nephews. Funeral services and burial took place in Evansville.

Journalistic Contributions:
Several biographers agree that it was his work as editor of the Evansville Courier which was the consuming thrust of Don Scism’s life. Writing in 1932, Clyde Lee Reece said:

As Managing Editor of the Evansville Courier Don Scism is merged in the paper he represents and shares impersonally in all its achievements.

Mr. Scism’s life has been in a newspaper plant and it is there that he finds all that he has worked and wished for in his many years of written contributions.

There were, in addition, certain civic involvements, a few clubs and groups, a bit of state-wide and even national recognition, but the instrument of service was almost always the Courier.

Within the offices of the Courier, he was seen and remembered first as "a real newspaperman." Recalling their first meeting, one of his reporters later wrote:

I had talked with dozens of editors — bigger editors than Don Scism, maybe even better editors — but he was the first one who looked like a newspaperman. He smoked cigars and kept his hat on in the office and sort of barked at you the way I always figured an editor was supposed to do.

A nephew remembers his green eye shade and sleeve garters. A neighboring newspaper described him as rubbing his bald head and smoking cigars as he "furiously pounded out editorials." The "real newspaperman" motif had to do with more than appearances, however. For Scism himself, a real newspaperman was one you could depend on when the going got rough and one who combined idealism, integrity, hard work, and courage. It was in this sense also that co-workers and friends applied the term to him. That was also the way that Robert C. Enlow, president of the Courier, in 1954, spoke of Scism after receiving word of the former editor’s death.

The highest tribute that can be paid to Don Scism, and the one he would have valued most highly, is that he was a real newspaperman….

As an editor, Scism was skillful in managing and developing reporters. Co-workers found him "a kind man with a deep understanding and an almost infinite patience." he was known to be sensitive to the personal needs and problems of his staff. He knew that it took time and experience to develop good reporters. He could be sharply critical and yet was generous with his praise. His own intense devotion to the Courier called forth an answering loyalty among his reporters in response. At the time of his induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1976, some of the reporters whose skills Scism had helped to develop were mentioned as a tribute to this aspect of his editorship:

…Mark Ferree, eventually general manager of Scripps-Howard Newspapers; John Denson, later editor of Newsweek, Dick Thornburg, who became managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Marc Purdue, a foreign correspondent of the Associated Press.

Scism is remembered, too, for his wisdom and courage in shaping the Courier’s editorial policy — especially for his staunch long-term fight against first successful political battle in 1929 to block the re-nomination of Mayor Herbert Males. He spear-headed a "good government" campaign which helped to unseat Charles J. Eichel as head of the local Democratic organization in 1945. He launched major efforts to expose and protest tie-ups between political figures and commercialized gambling interests. Speaking in Evansville in 1952, he said:

A free press is the most powerful institution in the life of a free people. It can eliminate political humbuggery and hypocrisy in our political life to a large extent, if it uses its power wisely and courageously toward that end.

Scism believed also in giving praise to public leaders who had done well in serving the public trust. He is remembered not only for being critical of evil, but for encouraging good. At the time of his retirement he said:

I like to think we’ve put out a newspaper we could be proud of, one that did not condemn unnecessarily, but that had the courage to speak out.

Scism also spoke out for better traffic safety and more stiff traffic law enforcement. He was a frequent advocate of a free press and a persistent critic of centralized federal government. He encouraged his community to take up many causes on behalf of children. In the 1940’s he objected to City Hall interference in Evansville’s public schools.

The middle 1930’s saw Scism lead the Courier to be one of the first of the nation’s newspapers to point up the dangers of Hitlerism. Later, he supported the Selective Service Act and other measures that would stiffen United States resistance to the Third Reich. In years that followed, he took public positions against Communism.

A Courier tribute, written at the time of his death, summarized the values and commitments with which Scism pursued his task in this way:

Don Scism served the community well. He was acutely conscious that the editor of a newspaper has a responsibility and a trust. He kept the faith. He had a wealth of friends, but he never allowed friendship or personal relationship to temper his judgment. The readers came first; the interests of the community and the greatest good to the greatest number were his paramount considerations. He believed in good government, he believed in decency and community progress — and he fought for what he believed. You always knew where Don Scism stood.

Beyond the Courier, Scism was elected president of Indiana’s Associated Press in 1947. In 1952, he, together with five other editors of AP papers in Indiana, was named to a "Freedom of Information Committee" which was given the task of breaking down "arbitrary and illegal iron curtains which kept from the public information to which it was entitled." For fifteen years he was a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Other Contributions:
In addition to his journalistic work, Don Scism contributed to his community in several ways. For twenty years he served as a member of the Board of Directors of Boehne Tuberculosis Hospital in Evansville. For the last five of those years, 1949-1954, he was the president of that board. Within Evansville he was for several years the director of the Community Chest. He was appointed to the Indiana Flood Control Commission in 1949 and served until 1952. During World War II, he chaired Evansville’s Committee on the Care of Children in Wartime. He also helped to direct the Veterans’ Information Center following the war. In earlier years he was a member of the Ohio River Bridge Dedication Committee. He was listed in Who’s Who in America from 1928 until the time of his death.

Scism was a 32nd degree Mason and a Shriner, a member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a member of the Evansville Country Club.

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