The Distinguished Alumni Award is Murray State University’s highest accolade for graduates. Fifty years ago, the university issued the first of these awards to Gene Graham. In that same year, Graham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and was a Harvard Nieman Fellow. Gary Pitts looked into the life and work of Murray State’s first Distinguished Alumnus.
GARY: Gene Graham was born on August 26th, 1924 in Murray, Kentucky. He lived in Murray until he joined the US Navy and served as a pilot during World War II. He came back at the end of the war, got married, and started classes at then Murray State College. In 1948, he graduated, and started working as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean.
SEIGENTHALER: “Gene Graham and I were colleagues…”
GARY: John Seigenthaler is a former editor and publisher for the Tennessean, a founding editorial director for USA Today, and former President of the American Society of Newspaper Directors. He says he started at the paper a year after Graham, and the two worked their together for more than a decade.
SEIGENTHALER: “I knew him a long, long time. Was his great admirer, his great friend, his colleague. He was a multi-talented journalist, a first rate reporter, a wonderful cartoonist believe it or not, and also a fine editorialist.”
GARY: And it was as an editorialist that Graham performed his Pulitzer Prize winning work.
SEIGENTHALER: “He collaborated with a veteran reporter named Nat Caldwell. Nat Caldwell and Gene together investigated and reported on a sweetheart deal between John L. Lewis, the head of United Mine Workers, and the owners of the mine company. It was sort of a relationship between management and labor, and did not benefit the workers.”
GARY: The deal between Lewis and mine owner Cyrus Eaton forced lay-offs and closures for other mines, many of which Lewis represented. Graham and Caldwell’s coverage over six years spawned a federal investigation. In the end, the union was found guilty of violating anti-trust laws. And both Lewis and Eaton would face numerous lawsuits. Graham and Caldwell landed the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. It was the start of a busy year for Graham. He was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from Murray State, his almer mater. And he began a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. From there, he would go on to become a faculty member in the Journalism Department at the University of Illinois: Champaign-Urbana.
GILMORE: “He was very popular with the students…”
GARY: That’s Dr. Gene Gilmore. He was a colleague of Graham’s at Champaign-Urbana. He says Graham was awarded instructor of the year honors more than once while there, recognition of his unique ability to relate to his students.
GILMORE: “He often had anecdotes that would get across to his students the point he was trying to make.”
GARY: Anecdotes like ‘kill your darlings.’ John Siegenthaler quotes veteran media executive Alan Mutter.
SEIGENTHALER: “In so saying, he was arguing for clear reporting and concise writing, that put’s priority on informing the readers. Not flaunting rhetorical aerobatics of a self-indulgent writer.”
GARY: Such philosophies influenced countless future journalists at the University of Illinois. And Graham’s influence reached even further, as he was instrumental in establishing a Mass Communications program at Middle Tennessee State University. Dr. Ed Kimbrell is the founding Chair of MTSU’s Department of Mass Communication.
KIMBRELL: “Graham had done a research project throughout all of middle Tennessee to see if there was a need for such program. And Gene Graham’s research was wonderful. Of course it was beautifully written. And of course it was the justification that went in to establish a degree in mass communications in 1973.”
GARY: And like John Seigenthaler, Kimbrell recognizes Graham’s talents did not end at being a writer. He worked as a cartoonist for the Tennessean throughout his career. And sitting in his office among accolades for his own successful life’s work, one of Kimbrell’s most prized possessions is a set of cartoons Graham gave him.
KIMBRELL: “They sit in a place of honor, and it’s the first thing a student sees when he or she comes into my room. Just really beautiful work.”
GARY: Graham spent his final semester teaching journalism at MTSU. A struggle with cancer and brain tumors forced him into retirement. He passed away 30 years ago at the age of 61. But not before his influence spread, immeasurably changing the world of journalism.