Jack Averitt · 2008
From 1949 to 1988, Indiana was under the leadership of eight governors. The men who sat in the state’s highest office were of different political parties and had different views of the role of government on Hoosiers’ lives. Philosophies ranged from conservative Republican Harold Handley’s belief that the expansion of the federal government was part of a “master plan of the radicals to disrupt American constitutional government,” to the progressive policies, especially on civil rights, of Democrat Matthew Welsh.
All these men, however, had one thing in common: their triumphs, tragedies, and follies were documented fairly by the lively writing of newspaperman Jack Averitt. For thirty-six years Averitt prowled the corridors of the Indiana Statehouse as the Indianapolis News’s state government reporter, unearthing articles on politicians of every stripe for his news articles and weekly column “Inside Scoop.”
From his first day on the beat, Averitt learned that he could look forward to some challenging and often humorous times. Introduced to Governor Henry F. Schricker, who kept a spittoon in his office, as the new Statehouse reporter for the News, Averitt remembered that the two-time governor from North Judson, Indiana, turned to him and said: “How do you do, Jack, Gene Pulliam [owner of the Indianapolis Star and News] hates my guts.”
Until his retirement in 1988, Averitt collected a number of honors from the journalism community, including a United Press International Cadou award for outstanding political or governmental news reporting in Indiana newspapers, numerous awards from the Indianapolis Press Club for his coverage of state government, and national recognition from the American Political Science Association for his distinguished reporting of public affairs.
Averitt also became known throughout the state as an expert on the intricacies of the Indiana budget, becoming, as fellow reporter Chuck Clark of the Evansville Courier noted, “one of only a handful of people in all of Indiana who truly understands the state budget, school-funding formula and the Department of Highways.” Clark described Averitt as “a reporter’s reporter, the dean of the Statehouse and, without question, the journalist most respected by both colleagues and government officials.” Clark noted that Republican and Democratic legislators alike depended upon Averitt to pore over the general assembly’s bills each session to find “glitches, hidden programs and things that are just downright wrong.” Looking back on his job, Averitt indicated that his main assignment in covering state government, in addition to ncovering wrongdoing wherever he found it, involved translating “governmental gobbledygook into something meaningful and interesting for our subscribers.”
Born in Cadiz, Kentucky, Averitt was a child of the Great epression. Because of an injury due to an accident suffered in the 1930s, Averitt’s father was unable to work, and others in the family had to step in and find work wherever they could. This meant that the family moved around from city to city, including stops in Louisville, Toledo, Tulsa, San Antonio, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Chicago. Averitt caught the reporting bug in a high school journalism class and continued to be fascinated by the profession while serving in World War II. As a radio operator and aerial gunner on B-24 bombers, he flew thirty-seven combat missions over China and the South China Sea, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. Between combat missions, he wrote some articles for the Fourteenth Air Force’s newspaper, The China Lantern, as well as producing poetry and the draft of a book.
Upon his return from the war, Averitt entered the University of Cincinnati, where he worked on the campus newspaper, the News-Record. He left, however, after only a semester and enrolled at Butler University in Indianapolis, drawn there because of the high quality of the school’s journalism program. He became managing editor of the university’s campus newspaper, The Butler Collegian, which published four days a week.
Graduating in 1949, Averitt was honored for his outstanding contributions to campus journalism. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a reporter for the Rochester News-Sentinel before joining the staff of the Indianapolis News.
Averitt has fond memories of his days on the News. “There was a lot of pride,” he said of the afternoon daily. “The paper had a Class A reputation wherever it circulated.” His mentors at the newspaper included Gene Pulliam Jr. who, to Averitt’s surprise, turned out to be “a top-notch newspaper man.” Other influences included Mickey McCarty, Averitt’s first editor and who was equipped with a personality that “charmed almost everyone in Indiana—especially the staff at The News,” as well as city editor Clay Trusty Jr., an excellent teacher as well as “a boss who was pleasant to work with.”Averitt added that former News reporter Skip Hess probably said it best when he was once quoted as saying that reporters on the newspaper looked forward to going to work every day.
Competition between The News and the morning Star could be intense, especially in covering politics, which made reporting “a helluva lot more exciting,” said Averitt. Although some readers sometimes believed the two newspapers were a carbon copy of one another, there were many, especially politicians, who could tell the difference. Averitt recalled that when S. Hugh Dillin, a retired federal judge, served in the legislature, he wrote a poem lambasting the Star. The poem went: “Twinkle, twinkle little Star, sometimes in politics you go too far. And when you stub your toe and lose, to your rescue comes The News.” Averitt noted that Dillin and the Star “used to tangle. And when the Star made a mistake, we’d correct them.”
Looking back on his career covering the nineteenth state’s politics and politicians, Averitt said he did his “damndest to stay neutral. There were good guys and bad guys in both political parties and I tried to treat all of them like I would like to have been treated.” Averitt said he was never in awe of the governors he covered as a reporter and columnist or even the notables he interviewed over the years, a group that included Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, Byron “Whizzer” White, Hoagy Carmichael, and Ginger Rogers.
“In retrospect,” Averitt noted, “I did what I wanted to do and I did it as fairly and accurately as I possibly could.”