This story starts with a tape that, until recently, was in a box at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas. Archiver historian Virgil Dean found it.
It’s a speech 79 years ago by William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette, social commentator and player in national Republican politics. And, best that we can tell, this is the only surviving recording of the man known as the Sage of Emporia.
“Since I first came to the University of Kansas 50 years ago and left after four years without a degree, I’ve often asked myself; what is the thing we call an education? And I don’t know.”
While White said he didn’t know a lot about education it’s clear that he did. White talked about the advantages of a good education but, for me, the most intriguing line was this: If he can read and reason sensibly, White said, he will not mistake kindnesses for cowardice. Seems like something we should be talking about now.
White was speaking on November second, 1938 at a gala celebrating the 75th anniversary of KU. It was a nationally broadcast speech, originated by WREN, the KU radio station at the time and picked up by the NBC Blue network. It was front page news in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, sharing space with the civil war in Spain, the Japanese invasion of China and the 16th annual potato exhibit at the Lawrence armory.
I asked Archiver historian Virgil Dean about how he discovered the tape and what it means to actually hear White’s voice.
“Prior this this even White’s most recent biographer, Sally Griffith, who I contacted, said she wasn’t familiar with the tape, had not found that, and was under the impression from contemporary accounts that White spoke in a high pitched voice,” Virgil says. “Certainly that’s what we have here. It’s not a dynamic speaking voice by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it gives you an opportunity to get the know the person better. Especially for people who are writing or trying to do a biography of somebody like that. Whatever you can find that helps you get to know them a little bit better, using that along with all the other historical evidence you have might be of significant value.”
The whole speech was only about five minutes, part of a much longer program. Early in the speech White had, frankly, some pretty boiler plate education ideas; someone should be able to read 50 pages of a serious book and then write a cogent retelling with correct spelling and proper punctuation. But then the speech turns throughly thought provoking, White suggests that education leads to civility and even kindness.
“If he can read and reason sensibly, he will know how to judge his fellows, how to spot a fool, how to know a knave when he meets him. He will not mistake kindnesses for cowardice. He will not find himself suspecting everyone and believing everything.”
There’s a great biography on White by Sally Foreman Griffith written in 1989 and there’s White’s autobiography published posthumously in 1946.But film maker Kevin Willmott, a friend of Archiver, is making a documentary about White’s life. It’s being narrated by legendary news anchor and documentarian Bill Kurtis.
Now you may just know him as the announcer on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me or the narrator of the Anchorman movies. But Kurtis has had a celebrated journalism career. He’s won two Peabodys and a DuPont. Full discloser: I produced several documentaries for Bill that aired on A&E in the late 90s.
He talked to me from his studio in Chicago. I asked him if there was one thing people needed to know about White and what he meant to journalism, what would that be? Kurtis didn’t hesitate. “Wisdom,” he said. “He was the voice of the midwest. We don’t have those anymore. People who are associated with a region of the country. People came to him. People came to his front door,”
White’s writing was clean. It was understandable and it was aimed at everybody not just the elite, Kurtis says. “But with a smile and perhaps a laugh along the way.”
Wit, wisdom, sage, all William Allen White writing qualities. But there was passion too.
“Dip your pen into your arteries and write,” he said.
White, it seems to me, spoke and wrote not just for Emporia but for Goodland and Dodge City and Chillicothe in Missouri and Enid in Oklahoma and every other small town in the Midwest. And with government and media in flux, maybe even in crisis, there’s no better time to remember and study William Allen White.