David Stamps · 2010
Standing over a spiny dogfish shark in a college zoology class set the course for David Stamps’ journalism career, although he didn’t know it at the time.
For Stamps, knowing what he didn’t want to do in life was the key to finding his passion. Stamps had been “infected” by the newspaper business and its hot metal type as a boy when he was a carrier for the Daily Leader in Pontiac, Ill. But it took a few years for him to realize that passion could determine his career. The Daily Leader would become the first newspaper to publish his stories: reports from Vietnam battlefields.
But in the early 1960s, while standing over that shark for a quiz, trying to identify the body part each pin was pointing to, he realized “I didn’t care,” Stamps said. He dropped the class, left the college pre-med program and returned to what he knew he liked: English.
When he ultimately came to journalism, Stamps embraced the need for local watchdog news coverage. At the Copley Newspapers in Illinois’ DuPage and Kane counties he beefed up the coverage at suburban dailies. During those years he came to believe that journalism is “an essential core function of democracy.”
He brought his passion for protecting and improving journalism to his position as director of the Hoosier State Press Association for the past 15 years – a span of exceptional achievement that propelled him into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
When he came to the Wheaton, Ill., newspaper, Stamps “took a rather stodgy newspaper, heavily laden with wire and canned news, and transformed it into a lively and timely, community-focused newspaper,” then co-worker Don Asher recalls.
In Elgin, Ill., Stamps built the Courier-News “into a lightning fast, breaking news operation, providing quality enterprise and investigative work and winning award after award,” Asher said.
Under his direction the newspaper:
- Uncovered illegal activities by a community police officer who was using his powers to collect and sell information in his private investigation business.
- Exposed inappropriate funding practices by the College of DuPage.
- Discovered illegal toxic waste dumps on 28 acres of Forest Preserve land in DuPage County.
- Settled a debate over water quality in the Fox River to determine whether it was a suitable source of drinking water for the City of Elgin. Tests from a lab the newspaper hired showed the water was in better shape than expected. Asher recalled that when the lab president said the water was clean enough to “filter through a sock and drink, the newspaper called him on that. A follow-up story showed the man drinking water straight from the river after running it through a sock.”
Stamps continued to seek new challenges. A stint as director of advertising and marketing at the Elgin Daily Courier-News gave him an understanding of the business end of journalism. The experience would later become valuable as HSPA director. His Master of Business Administration degree from Northern Illinois University helped develop his management style.
Stamps is credited by Indiana news executives with regenerating HSPA.
“If Stamps had not stepped into the breach when he did, HSPA might have ceased to exist,” said Scott Schurz of Hoosier Times Inc.
The association and its Indiana Display Advertising Service were near financial collapse when Stamps assumed the directorship in 1996. His business sense gave him the tools to work with others to find solutions. He partnered with Kentucky and later Pennsylvania to re-establish a profitable advertising service.
After the series, “The State of Secrecy in Indiana,” ran in seven newspapers, in which 92 counties were audited to see if public agencies were complying with public access laws, Stamps and HSPA asked then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon to create a task force on the issue. O’Bannon went further than expected by appointing a Public Access Counselor. Then HSPA appealed to the Legislature to ensure that position became permanent under state law.
“It was the biggest advance in public access in 20 years,” Stamps said.
Thirty states replicated the series, and Stamps proudly notes that the public is responsible for the majority of calls to Indiana’s Public Access Counselor. Government officials are second; journalists generate only 10 to 12 percent of the requests. “So this wasn’t just for us,” he said.
Stamps was the driving force in creating the HSPA Foundation dedicated to fostering public understanding of the role of a free press in society. He set and met a fund-raising goal of $1 million to fund the foundation. It lobbies for journalism, public access, freedom of information and literacy. It offers training programs and internships for young journalists and helps fund Newspapers in Education.
The same perseverance Stamps applied to his work in journalism was needed in 2003 when he successfully battled a life-threatening brain aneurysm.
Stamps showed that perseverance and vision from an early age, noted his older sister, Patricia Madson of Kingston, Wash. She recalls repeatedly having to retrieve the toddler when he slipped away from their farmhouse and pedaled his tricycle more than a mile down the road. When he was 7 or 8 years old, he would set up his hundreds of cowboy figurines and develop elaborate scenarios. Like a stage director, “when someone would say ‘Action’ he would put all his figurines in play.”
Stamps was born in Evansville in February 1944, but his family moved to Pontiac when his father, Erwin G. Stamps, joined his brother, Roy, in a car repair business. David went on to become a high school football star, homecoming king, write a column for the school newspaper and join the yearbook staff. He graduated from Illinois State University with an English degree.
And when he settled into a job teaching at Proviso High School in Hillsdale, Ill., he again found himself in a job that didn’t satisfy him. After a semester of teaching, he was drafted and headed to Vietnam. On a firebase, he encountered journalism again. Two men from the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division newspaper were looking for correspondents. He agreed and began sending stories by helicopter. Gradually his stories, first without bylines, began appearing in the division newspaper. When the men rotated home, they recommended him for their jobs.
“The more I did, the more I liked it,” he said.
When he was discharged, Stamps had no desire to teach, so he joined the weekly Press Publications in Elmhurst, Ill., as a reporter. His work there caught the attention of editors in Elgin who hired him as the DuPage County bureau chief. He eventually became managing editor for the Wheaton, Ill., Daily Journal in 1971, managing editor for the Elgin Daily Courier-News in 1973; director of sales and marketing for the Elgin newspaper in 1981; and publisher of the Beacon-News in Aurora, Ill., in 1989. In 1995 he also became publisher of the Daily Courier-News. He became executive director of HSPA in 1996, a position from which he will retire this fall to spend more time with his family.
Stamps, his wife Sandra, and his 95-year-old mother, Leola C. Stamps, who lives with them, plan to move to Bellingham, Wash., to live near their children, Sarah Woolson and Mathew Stamps, and grandson, Eli. Stamps has two sisters, Patricia Madson of Kingston, Wash., and Katy Lootens of Moline, Ill.
And now he has the distinction of joining a select group of Indiana journalists.
—By Linda Negro, managing editor, Evansville Courier & Press