Kate Milner Rabb · 2012After a stroll in Indianapolis in 1905, pioneering newspaper columnist, historian, author and playwright Kate Milner Rabb and actress Edith Keay daintily lifted the skirts of their long, shirtwaist dresses and sat down on the curb at 14th and Delaware. The two talented women, who wanted to show off their talents, envisioned starting their own dramatic club.
That curbside chat propelled the formation of The Players, one of the most venerable social clubs in the city, now in its 107th season.
Some 15 years earlier, her journalism career had begun to blossom when she edited a weekly magazine, Indiana Women, for several years. She published her first book, National Ethics, in 1896. That was followed in 1900 by The Boer Boy, a work of fiction translated from the German.
Rabb was just getting started. What followed were acclaimed accomplishments that are the basis for her entry into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
A red-head from the Ohio River town of Rockport, Rabb was born Aug. 9, 1866, to Dr. Isaac Livingston Milner and Martha Parsons Milner. And early on, the vanished past fascinated the freckle-nosed, pig-tailed little girl as she rode in her father’s buggy while he made rounds throughout Spencer County.
“Kate gained the knowledge and background of early Indiana pioneers as she accompanied her father,” according to Kay Dian Bertl, Daughters of the American Revolution Spier Spencer Chapter Regent. He treated patients; she talked to them.
She also fast-talked her way into Indiana University at the age of 15. She began a romance there with football star Albert Rabb Sr. of Covington, Ind., a plot she later used in a novel.
“She arrived as a freshman from her hometown of Rockport and immediately asserted a feminine prerogative,” according to an April 18, 1961, UPI article. “She wouldn’t tell her age. She never did and her insistence caused some amusing tangles. A friend said she thought for years that Kate’s insistence on keeping her age a secret was because she was older than her husband. But it developed that it was her youth she was trying to conceal. She hadn’t wanted her freshman classmates to know that she was only 15 years old and most of them were 18.”
A member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and Phi Beta Kappa honorary, Rabb received her B.A. in 1886 and M.A. in 1888. Her sorority pin later became the chapter president’s pin.
While on campus, she submitted articles to the Rockport newspaper. And she became engaged to Albert before he left for the University of Virginia to obtain his law degree. She returned home to teach school there and in Jeffersonville.
The Rabbs married in Rockport on Oct. 7, 1891, and moved to Indianapolis. They had two children, Albert Livingston and Martha Charlotte.
Newly married, Rabb began to focus on journalism. In 1907, she edited the five-volume Wit and Humor of America, published by Bobbs-Merrill Publishing for whom she had read manuscripts for many years. Her interest in Indiana history was sparked while writing the 1916 centennial pageant for her native Spencer County. History was burgeoning in Indiana, and she was at the forefont.
In 1923, she was appointed to membership in the Indiana Historical Society, which published her Indiana Coverlet Weavers in 1928. She also sold articles to the Atlantic Monthly, the Delineator, St. Nicholas and the Youth’s Companion. In addition, she and William Herschell (a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame) co-authored two volumes of a four-volume History of Indiana.
Kate was 52 when Albert, a prominent attorney, died in 1918. They had been married for 27 years. His death marked the beginning of her career as a columnist.
Indianapolis history was featured in her three-times-a-week column, “The Old Town.” But she is best remembered for her popular column, “A Hoosier Listening Post.” It ran daily on The Indianapolis Star’s editorial page from 1920 until three days after her death in 1937. (She always wrote in advance when she visited her daughter, Martha (Mrs. William Hobbs) of St. Augustine, Fla., so there was no lapse in its appearance.)
Featuring local, state and regional history, her column and daily articles covered history, customs, fads and fashions based on her research of records of Indiana towns that had faded from the scene.
She went on “pilgrimages,” where she reportedly knew someone in every town. Readers supplied much of her material, and she showed her appreciation by writing thank-you notes, sometimes more than 3,000 a year.
Meanwhile, Woman’s Press Club of Indiana was founded on Feb. 18, 1913, as a support system and a network for women in journalism. At the time, it was a male-dominated profession, as illustrated in this news item from a 1937 WPCI newsletter:
“Kate Milner Rabb, Florence Webster Long, Mabel Wheeler Shideler and Louise Eleanor Ross attended the Sigma Delta Chi-Associated Press annual dinner May 14 at the Columbia Club. The invitation was extended to club members by Mickey McCarty of the News. About twenty-five women in all were present, the first time they were permitted to sit in on the men’s dinner party. The women made a favorable impression, so they were told, and will be asked again….”
Rabb was elected president of Woman’s Press Club of Indiana in 1929 and served a three-year term. The organization became a state affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women when it was founded in Chicago in 1937, the year that Rabb died.
Fellow WPCI member Florence Webster Long said, “Mrs. Rabb’s interest in her native state formed the basis of her books and her daily column, ‘A Hoosier Listening Post,’ through which she was known throughout the state.”
Rabb was offered a chair in the IU English department twice by former classmate and later IU President William Lowe Bryan. She declined. Bryant wrote in the Summer 1937 IU Alumni Quarterly, “Her love of books helped her to grow in fine appreciation of what was best, to her masterly sense of what was fine and finest.”
On May 7, 1961, members of Woman’s Press Club of Indiana were at Indiana University for the formal naming of the Kate Milner Rabb residence hall, which is part of Teter Residence Center. In 1913, she was elected as a member of the first Indiana University Alumni Council. She served until 1924 and was a frequent speaker at alumni banquets.
IU was a family affair. Her son Albert Livingston Rabb was also a graduate and served on the Board of Trustees from 1936-1939. President Herman B Wells introduced family members at the Rabb Hall dedication, including the widow of Kate’s son, Mrs. Albert L. Rabb. Two of four grandsons were in attendance: Dr. Frank Morrison Rabb, a 1947 graduate of the IU School of Medicine, and Albert L. Rabb, who graduated from IU with honors in 1949.
Tributes to her memory continued in 1962, when WPCI members presented Florence Stone with the first Kate Milner Rabb Award. It is given annually to a WPCI member who has made a significant difference in the organization during the past club year. This award — WPCI’s highest honor — recognizes a member for continuous excellence and professional service in journalism.
With her enthusiasm, energy and zest for life, the bubbly Kate was a people person. She enhanced the lives of people – the IU and Butler University journalism students she taught, members of the Indiana Historical Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, Theta Sigma Phi, the Writers’ Club, the Contemporary Club, Portfolio, The Players, Nature Study, Women’s Rotary, the Indiana Artists Club and the Society of Indiana Pioneers.
Joan Bey and Jinsie Bingham, members of both the Society of Indiana Pioneers and Woman’s Press Club of Indiana, said in a joint statement, “Not only was Kate Milner Rabb a descendant of Indiana pioneers, but a pioneer in the field of journalism when few women had the time, means and ability to write for publication and influence the destiny of women in journalism today.”
By Julie Slaymaker, past president of Woman’s Press Club of Indiana