Commentary
10:00 am
Thu October 3, 2013

Preserving the Legacy of Ernie Pyle, Famed Journalist and Indiana Native

Ernie Pyle
Credit IU

There have been many notable names associated with Indiana University, just up the road from Louisville at Bloomington, including Hoagy Carmichael, the songwriter whose big hit was “Star Dust,” actor Kevin Kline, NPR’s puzzle master Will Shortz, violinist Joshua Bell and Wendell Willkie, the Wall Street tycoon who ran for president against FDR in 1940.

But no person associated with IU was more illustrious in his time than newsman Ernie Pyle (1900-1945), the nationally syndicated columnist who covered the Great Depression and later donned fatigues and followed American troops through Europe and Asia, telling the “story of G.I. Joe” in the most vivid and memorable terms. Pyle, who was born in West-Central Indiana’s town of Dana, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, the peak of his career, when he was among the first (and certainly the best) to report the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy. Pyle’s dazzling career came to an end just 10 months later, when he was machine-gunned by Japanese forces during the American invasion of the island of Ei Shima, an outpost of Okinawa. Only months before, IU had honored the war correspondent with its very first honorary doctor of humane letters, and he was celebrated by notables everywhere, including President and Mrs. Roosevelt. She frequently quoted Pyle in her daily newspaper column.

So it was fitting that Indiana would honor this great son in a notable way. One way was by supporting a museum at his home in Dana, but a few years ago without even consulting local citizens the state cut off its funding for the shrine and collected some of the main artifacts (including Pyle’s typewriter and a fan letter from Eleanor Roosevelt) and carted them off to the state history museum in Indianapolis.

Another far more visible gesture, was to named the building that houses the School of Journalism (founded in 1932, years after Pyle left IU) for the war correspondent. And for more than a half-century, some of the top journalists in America have passed through its limestone entrance to study the art and craft of news reporting. IU has long been regarded as among America’s top ten schools of journalism, a magnet that competes with Columbia and Northwestern universities, as well as the universities of North Carolina and Missouri. And even if most Americans today don’t remember who Ernie Pyle was, the fact that IU preserves his memory is a point of great distinction.

Or at least it has been. That is all endangered however by some misguided decisions that IU administrators have made about pushing the Ernie Pyle’s legacy, like the world of journalism he starred in, aside like a shelf of buggy whips, horse collars and manual typewriters.

Writing in Friday’s Indianapolis Star, Jim Stinson, a Florida journalist, reported that plans are underway to merge the School of Journalism into the University’s College of Arts & Sciences, along with other communications offerings such as public relations and screenwriting. What is more, the journalism school would be yanked out of Ernie Pyle Hall and relocated in a new “media” school at the larger Franklin Hall, another venerable limestone classroom building on campus. Ernie Pyle’s building, no longer home for journalism students, would face an uncertain future.

Stinson quoted IU’s president, Michael A. McRobbie, who told the Bloomington Times-Herald in July 2012 that “there’s no point in saving a school that trains people to manage fleets of horses if the motorcar has taken over horse-drawn transportation.”

As a practitioner of newspaper journalism for 46 years now, and as a former Hoosier (Evansville North High School Class of 1968), I take deep offense at that flippant comment. Regardless of the means by which news is transmitted, whether it be in print (as it has been since the era of Ben Franklin, by the way), by television, by Internet, by radio or by iPhones, iPads, and goodness knows what else, a solid education for those who report, write and edit is essential.

This article is a case in point. I am going to discuss this topic on a public radio station and the written account will appear on a website. It will be tweeted to those who follow me. I shall post it on Facebook and invite comments. And it will be added to my blog on the Huffington Post. All new media. But the tools I used to research and compose it are the same that Ernie Pyle, James Reston, Edward R. Murrow, Janet Flanner, David Halberstam and other famed writers have used for generations. I researched (by re-reading Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from World War II), I reviewed stories on the Internet, I contacted friends like Hunt Helm, a former Courier-Journal city editor and now vice president of Bellarmine University, who went to graduate school at IU, and I thought a good bit. Yes, thinking and deciding what to say (and what not to say) is a crucial element of journalism too.

Hunt had this to say about the proposed changes at IU: “ … [S]tudents who want to be journalists today really should master all the new and emerging tools and technologies. And I do mean master. If merging the journalism school with related disciplines will accomplish that, I’m for it. If moving this important work to another building will accomplish that, I’m for it.

“Those things aren’t nearly as important to me as the actual course of study, the degrees offered, and the ethical, professional principles taught. Some things should not change. The heart that motivates real journalism is one of them. Ernie Pyle’s name at IU is another.”

President McRobbie, an Austrialian by birth, is—surprise, surprise!—a specialist in information technology. And he has been quite distinguished in this field, making Indiana University a cutting edge school when it comes to hi-tech research and instruction. But his administration’s decisions regarding journalism, and particularly the legacy of Ernie Pyle, make him seem more than an E.T. than an I.T. guy.

The board of trustees is scheduled to meet October 17-18 to consider the changes—and the abandonment of the Pyle Building.

I would encourage that in the meantime, they do some reading of the traditional sort, the kind that their students should be doing. They could begin by going to the Library of America’s marvelous two-volume anthology Reporting World War II. There they will find many of Ernie Pyle’s powerful accounts of soldiers and battle. Always remember he wrote these in peril of his very own life. And then, in volume two, read Evan Wylie’s “Ernie Pyle,” an account of the correspondent’s heroic death, published in Yank on May 18, 1944. It’s contained in the LOA’s anthology. Or they could go to IU’s own website where 40 of Ernie Pyle’s columns from World War II are published.

After doing this research, why not head back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to retain the school for journalists’ important link to a great American. Why not name it the Ernie Pyle School of Communications? Now that’s an idea that makes great sense, and would do honor to a great and heroic Hoosier.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He'll discuss this commentary at 1:30 p.m. Thursday with WFPL's Jonathan Bastian on Here & Now.