English and Journalism

George Fitch, William Allen White, Edna Ferber, Jay Darling, Harry Webster, and George Matthew Adams

George Fitch (1877-1915)

By Bill Knight

The forgotten saga of Illinois newspaperman George Fitch comes from a time when “Jack of all trades” was praise, and when the newspaper industry welcomed reporters familiar with the back shop, printers willing to write a lead as well as run a Linotype, pressmen who could be pressed into service for spot news or handle drops, Teamsters who could develop sources or knew pica poles.

“George knew the precincts of Journalism well—the vagaries of the newspaper game as well as the idiosyncrasies of those entrapped within it, ” wrote Martin Litvin, a Galesburg native who authored the Fitch biography, I’m Going To Be Somebody (Western Books).

“As good as any professional, he could toss off birth, wedding and death notices, editorials, and, when necessary, sell ads and write copy, ” Litvin writes about Fitch. “He knew how to write straight news, do headlines and layout, [and] could produce pretty good political cartoons. ”

A prolific, ambitious and witty reporter, editor, humorist and columnist, Fitch graduated from Galesburg’s Knox College in 1897, and advanced through work on weeklies and dailies, magazines and books, until he became famous, influential and rich—demonstrating that talent and perseverance could pay off regardless of one’s roots.

Galva, Ill., was where George Helgesen Fitch was born, on June 5, 1877. Northeast of Galesburg on what’s now U.S. Route 34, Galva then was a mining town that depended on the CB&Q railroad and its two struggling weekly newspapers. George’s father Elmer bought the Galva News on April 14, 1883, and printer’s ink seemed to have been pumped into his five-year-old son's bloodstream.

Years of informal family apprenticeship exposed the young Fitch to typesetting and delivering newspapers as well as planning and writing them. Following college, the six-foot, four-inch native returned to Galva to work for his father at the Galva News, then went to Galesburg, where he was a reporter for the Mail.

Galesburg’s rival Republican Register lured Fitch away, only to fire him. So he returned again to the Galva News, then worked for newspapers in Ft. Madison and Council Bluffs, Iowa, and finally the Peoria Herald-Transcript.

The career chronology is described in detail and in an engaging style by Litvin, who tackled this first scholarly study of Fitch by blending news accounts and reviews of Fitch’s work with material gleaned from correspondence and volumes of personal papers. The results are a pleasant recollection not just of a newspaperman, but of time; not just reporting, but writing.

Litvin’s research yields a readable book of interest and of unique value—a testimony to Litvin’s devotion to his craft and his subject.

After all, Fitch had essentially been forgotten. And that meant more than merely overlooking one Illinois newspaperman. It meant denying the work of a world-known scribe. For example, Fitch also wrote for the Ladies Home Journal, Munsey’s and American Magazine; he was a contributing editor at Collier’s; and from 1908-14 penned 20 short stories based at fictional “Siwash” college. Featured in such publications as the Saturday Evening Post and the Kansas City Star, the stories set at Siwash (a word supposedly derived from the French word for savage) were based on Fitch’s experience and exploits at Knox.

These well-received comic pieces traced the misadventures of students at “Good Ol’ Siwash,” including football player Ole Skarsen and a coach who paid his “amateur” athletes. Eventually the stories sold well in book form and were used as the basis for the 1940 William Holden movie, Those Were The Days.

Coincidence and connection played roles in Fitch’s success, Litvin found. Knox afforded an impressive network of alumni and associates for Fitch, including John Sisson and Robert Finley (McClure’s magazine), Charley May (the Peoria Advocate and the Herald-Transcript), Earnest E. Calkins and the Hampton brothers (Hampton’s magazine), and John Phillips (American magazine).

By 1910, Fitch not only was a respected writer and editor, he became a nationally syndicated columnist for George Matthew Adams’ news service. Fitch’s “Vest Pocket Essays” and other articles appeared in dozens of periodicals, and Fitch became associated with the syndicate’s stable of stars dubbed “Adams’ trained seals.” They included Kansas editor and publisher William Allen White, reporter and playwright Edna Ferber, comic-strip artist Harold Tucker Webster, and editorial cartoonist Jay “Ding” Darling.

After covering the political conventions in 1912, Fitch quit the Transcript over a disagreement about Progressive Party presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Fitch himself ran as a Progressive for State Representative, and published the Daily Progressive newspaper for six weeks, until Roosevelt’s loss to Woodrow Wilson—and Fitch’s own election to the Illinois statehouse.

The Chicago Tribune published Fitch’s series of humorous essays about Springfield and capital politics, then Fitch lost his re-election. He retreated to his Peoria home across the street from Bradley University at the corner of Main and Institute, where he entertained colleagues such as poet Vachel Lindsay and journalist/poet Edgar Guest. Fitch considered returning once more to his hometown of Galva, where he’d write books. But en route to a Press Humorists convention in San Francisco, Fitch was stricken with appendicitis and died at the age of 38.

Fitch was fondly recalled then, when poet and Indiana native James Whitcomb Riley wrote, “even while we smiled and laughed with him, he left us, hushed as though awaiting the gladness of his return. Only heaven is the brighter now.”

But Fitch’s career and contributions were unfairly unforgotten. As New York editor Stanley Walker said about the American newspaperman: “When he dies, a lot of people are sorry and some of them remember him for several days.”

Thanks to Litvin, the memory of Fitch was brought back.

This is excerpted from Knight’s 1992 book R.F.D.

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