Ernie Wilkinson · 2009
By Ray Moscowitz
For 20 years, the telephone was like an extra appendage to Ernie Wilkinson, seemingly growing out from between his left shoulder and ear as he carried on myriad conversations.
Puffing on Pall Malls and pounding a Royal typewriter, Wilkinson pursued thousands of newspaper stories as State Editor of the Indianapolis Star. Ensconced behind a sturdy metal desk, Wilkinson became friends with hundreds of people he never met face to face.
But not everyone would be “faceless” over the years. Periodically, Wilkinson would leave his desk to hit Hoosier highways — some not much more than dirt roads — to meet a wide range of people: Correspondents who phoned in stories, funeral directors who passed along information for obits, town clerks who provided financial information, mayors who took issue with the state, law enforcement officials who provided facts for fatals and felonies, school superintendents who discussed the latest edicts, and, as he puts it, “just ordinary but interesting people” in big cities and small towns.
Wilkinson took great pleasure in associating with numerous folks who served as correspondents. Some were homemakers in little burgs — Napoleon, Goodland, Delphi, Vevay, to mention a few — while others were reporters on major beats from South Bend to Evansville.
For two decades — 1960-1980 — Ernie Wilkinson created an intricate network of contacts that kept the Star wired to what was happening around the Hoosier state.
Lawrence “Bo” Connor, who retired as managing editor after a long career at the Star, worked for several years with Wilkinson when he was state editor. Connor remembers Wilkinson as “always dependable, faithful, honest, loyal and professional – and he could be feisty when challenged.”
Connor, a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, added: “He built up an extensive roster of stringers throughout Indiana, and I would guess that he knew more about the state than probably any other journalist.”
Wilkinson’s legendary work as a state editor is the limestone-solid foundation for leading him into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame — but there was much more to his storied newspaper career.
Born January 13, 1925, in Terre Haute, Ernest A. Wilkinson earned a degree at Indiana State University in 1950, majoring in social studies/history and English. Before attending ISU, Wilkinson worked in 1944-45 as a civilian employee for the U.S. Navy at Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Wash. He returned home to further his education at ISU and take his first newspaper job as a copy boy and reporter at the Terre Haute Star.
Wilkinson spent seven years in Terre Haute before moving on to Rochester, Ind., to become city editor of the Sentinel. A year later he advanced again in his career, becoming editor of the Brazil, Ind., Times, not far from his Terre Haute roots. Two years later, in 1956, Wilkinson signed on with the Star.
Joining the Star would be his last stop in daily newspapering — a 35-year run filled with reporting and directing coverage of major events. He covered, he notes, “just about everything except a shooting war and the U.S. Supreme Court.” And he became part of the news in 1961, when he was physically ejected from the Student Union Building at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.
Wilkinson had gone there to cover a speech by Mayor Ralph Tucker on Feb. 20 before the ISU student body. Ten days earlier the students had threatened a demonstration over vice conditions in Terre Haute that had been exposed in a national magazine.
Wilkinson’s ouster drew sharp criticism from Gov. Matthew E. Welsh, who took serious issue over the blackout of news coverage of a meeting on the campus of a state, tax-supported college.
As he covered a raft of news stories in the years that followed, Wilkinson built a reputation for being fair, accurate and honest in his reporting.
Wilkinson was the only Star reporter to cover two tragic explosions — one that killed 16 workers and injured scores of others at a meat packing plant at Terre Haute, the other taking 40 lives in Richmond.
Other major stories over the decades included the hijacking of an American Airlines plane by a man who parachuted south of Peru, plus several high-profile murders and other crime stories. And when Wilkinson wasn’t covering major stories, he was supervising coverage of them, such as the Ford Pinto trial at Winamac, Ind., that held the nation’s attention for weeks.
After two decades on the State Desk, Wilkinson became the Star’s farm writer. His routine reversed itself, as he hit the road much of the time in his 11 ½-year stint. Those years produced a wide range of important, cutting-edge stories for Hoosier farmers.
In 1990, he delved into a sensitive economic topic with an in-depth piece that looked at Hoosier tobacco growers. The headline read: “Health/concerns/vs. cash crop.” The article examined the growing health vs. economics debate along Indiana’s Tobacco Road.
Another article he wrote in 1990, dealing with global changes, drew praise from Marion F. Baumgardner, a Purdue agronomy professor. Baumgardner wrote in a letter: “I was delighted with what you did with a rather complex subject with many subtle implications. You are to be congratulated for choosing timely topics and presenting them in a very readable and understandable way to the public.”
In 1991, Wilkinson wrote an enlightening series of stories involving Purdue scientists developing foods that can be grown in space to feed future astronauts.
By the time he retired a short time later, Wilkinson had received numerous honors and awards. They included the United Press International Indiana Editors’ first-place award for the best investigative story, the Hoosier State Press Association’s Indiana Better Newspaper Contest first place for best news story under pressure of deadline, the Indianapolis Press Club best crime news story award and the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors’ first place award for a crime news story.
Upon retiring, Wilkinson received congratulatory notes from both colleagues and important newsmakers he had met in his sterling career.
Among them was a note from fellow staffer Myrta Pulliam, whose grandfather and father had built the Star into the state’s largest newspaper. Pulliam wrote: “I want you to know how much I’ll miss you. It’ll be difficult without you around here. It will feel real odd. I’ve always known I could count on you for anything.”
Skip Hess, who competed with Wilkinson at the Pulliam-owned Indianapolis News, wrote: “Thanks for the excellent years of competition, and for the integrity you brought to this profession.”
Vic Caleca, another Star staffer, wrote: “It’s been a pleasure knowing and working with you. I have more respect than you’ll ever know for the professionalism and work ethic you brought to the newsroom every day.”
Indiana’s highly respected senior senator, Richard Lugar, said in a brief note: “… I will deeply miss the views which you have expressed in ‘Indiana Farming’ (Wilkinson’s column). You have been a great farm editor and a journalist whose thirty-five years of experience have seen wonderful growth and achievements in Indiana.”
After Wilkinson left the Star, he did not stow away his journalistic skills. He moved to Lafayette, Ind., where he became a free-lance writer contributing agriculture-related stories to various publications, including the Star.
He also stayed in contact with professional organizations he had been associated with over the years. He had served as president of many of them, including the North American Agricultural Journalists, the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors, the Indiana United Press International Editors and the Indianapolis Press Club.
Now Ernie Wilkinson’s illustrious career is deservedly recognized with his induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.