James T. Neal · 1990

James T. Neal was the third generation in his family to own, edit and publish the Noblesville Daily Ledger. He began his career as a paper boy and eventually, as editor, guided the newspaper in 1980 to the title of Blue Ribbon Newspaper in the annual contest of the Hoosier State Press Association.

In between, he dedicated The Ledger to local coverage and adamantly pursued a watchdog role over Hamilton County and Noblesville government. He continually criticized government bodies for conducting business in secret and aggressively pursued records — including coroner reports — that officials tried to withhold.

His commitment to honest and open government occasionally got him in trouble. Neal made national headlines in 1965 when he was arrested for contempt of court by Hamilton County Judge Ed New. Neal had written a front-page column criticizing the judge’s policy to treat traffic offenders as serious criminals. It took three years to resolve the case, during which time Neal remained an articulate advocate of the First Amendment.

Sometimes the consequences of Neal’s passion for the First Amendment were less serious, but nonetheless carried personal consequences. When The Ledger published the names of Noblesville High School basketball players arrested for underage drinking, Neal was told never again to patronize the city’s No. 1 dry cleaner. The owner’s son was one of the players.

Here are other examples of Neal’s commitment to open government:
During a period in the 1950s, it became evident to The Ledger — which routinely monitored records of county real estate transactions — that an out-of-state buyer was purchasing wide tracts of farm land. Investigation over several months revealed that the Indianapolis Water Co., a public utility, had employed a firm to buy the land without explanation to create what eventually became Morse Reservoir northwest of Noblesville. Water company officials initially denied the purchases. The newspaper disclosed the secretive purchases, which needless to say caused the sales price of the land to soar. The newspaper felt it acted in the public interest by disclosing the secret negotiations.

Hamilton County’s Board of Commissioners repeatedly met in secret over the years. The Ledger discovered that the commissioners would meet privately in restaurants before their regularly scheduled meetings — and even conduct business over the telephone and in their cars en route to meetings. The Ledger continually exposed such practices as violations of Indiana’s open door law.

Neal graduated from Butler University with a degree in journalism. He also was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He served during World War II in Germany for three years as an armored artillery lieutenant.

He was active civically and politically on both the local and state scenes. He was a founding member of the Noblesville Boys Club and the Hamilton County Community Fund, now the United Way. He was secretary of the Indiana Republican State Central Committee for 11 years and served as chairman from 1972 to 1973. He was widely credited for healing Republican party rifts and was instrumental in the election of Dr. Otis Bowen as governor in 1972.

He was a three-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, served on the Republican National Committee and also was the Republican member of the Indiana Election Board. He is a past president of the Indiana Republican Editorial Association. He was a member of the board of trustees of Butler University and, after The Ledger’s sale in 1985, headed the school’s journalism department until his retirement in 1987.

He is married to Georgianne Davis Neal and has two daughters, Anne Neal Petri, a Washington, D.C. attorney, and Andrea Neal Schmelzer, an assistant city editor at The Indianapolis Star.

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