Associate professor Owen V. Johnson, a scholar of Ernie Pyle’s life and writing, wrote this essay detailing Pyle’s life and times.When I was a child, growing up in the state of Washington, Indiana came to mean two things: the Indy 500 and Ernie Pyle. I found the 500 on the radio one Memorial Day. I discovered Ernie Pyle in my dad’s wartime edition of Brave Men, a collection of Pyle’s columns. Pyle died 10 months before I was born. As I grew up and my hobby of journalism turned into a profession, the name Ernie Pyle came to mean someone who wrote exceptionally well. He epitomized for large numbers of people what good journalism was, even though most of his work consisted of columns of impression, interpretation and opinion. Ernie Pyle, struck down by machine gun fire in 1945, would have been 100 years old, Aug. 3, 2000.
IU activitiesPyle’s first contact with Indiana University was apparently a letter of July 31, 1919, in which he wrote, “I desire to enter Indiana University this fall, and am writing for information.” IU responded the next day with information about enrollment. The paper trail of Pyle’s days as a student at IU is pretty thin. Much myth and iconography has grown up about his days in Bloomington. It’s unclear how much of the myth originated with Pyle. Frederick C. Painton, writing in the Saturday Evening Post, quotes Pyle as saying, “I took journalism at Indiana University because it was a cinch course and offered an escape from a farm life and farm animals.” John Stempel, a fellow student of Pyle’s and later chairman of the Department of Journalism for 30 years, dealt with many of the Pyle legends in an article he originally wrote for Quill that was reprinted in Newswire on the 50th anniversary of Pyle’s death. It was impossible, Stempel pointed out, for Pyle to have majored in journalism during his years in Bloomington, 1919-23. The university didn’t have a major in journalism until 1932. “A Big Man on Campus,” Pyle belonged to the Sphinx Club, the Cootie Club (originally made up only of men who had fought in World War I, but eventually included most campus leaders), the Aeons, the Boosters Club and Sigma Delta Chi, today known as the Society of Professional Journalists. He wrote for the Daily Student, the Arbutus, and “Smoke-Up,” a Sigma Delta Chi paper founded as a “Razz Sheet.” He was also the first elected senior manager of the football team.
“This brilliant gem which blushed unseen in Dana, Long since globe trotter, Student Editor, Aeon and who-knows-what, Still wears the same old hat, is still the same good fellow, Lo, this man’s name heads the lot.”
We know that Pyle left IU “a skip and a hop” from graduation to take a job with the LaPorte (Ind.) Herald. The story told by long-time Bloomington sportswriter Bob Hammel has it that Pyle wanted to distance himself from a shattered romance. But alumni secretary George F. “Dixie” Heighway, in a 1944 letter, wrote, “He left school after some sort of row with the Journalism Department. … I am unable to find out just what this was all about but, probably the less said about it the better anyway.”So far as we know, Pyle came back to Bloomington just twice after his student days. The first time was in 1937, accompanied by his father. Pyle wrote about the trip on May 21. He visited with Clarence E. Edmondson, dean of students, and a close friend, judging by the frequency with which he asked IU correspondents to convey his greetings to Edmondson and his wife.“It was they who told a restless boy to go ahead and quit school and go to China if he wanted to,” Pyle wrote about his spring 1922 trip to the Far East. They also supported his taking the job at LaPorte. Pyle saw the Edmondsons again in Colorado on a fishing expedition in the summer of 1941. But Pyle hadn’t really come back to IU in 1937. “I hadn’t looked at the campus or the new buildings as we came in,” Pyle observed. “I didn’t look at them as we drove out. I had come back, but I hadn’t come back — and never could.” The Indiana Alumni magazine contacted Pyle in 1938, inviting him to contribute an article. George Heighway repeated the invitation the following year. Pyle replied, telling Heighway about that earlier request: “I really did want to and intend to [contribute], but dammit, it just seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week even to do the column in, and I never got around to it.” In 1940, Pyle was in Brown County, about which he wrote several columns, later collected in “Images of Brown County” (1980). In April 1941, in a letter from Albuquerque to his friend Hermie (Herman B Wells), Pyle commented, “I do hope to duck into Brown County again for a day or two at least sometime this summer and will look forward to seeing you again then.” But there doesn’t seem to be a word about Bloomington. That October, Wells, in response to an inquiry from Pyle, reported that Delphia Wilkerson was in school that semester, and promised to let Pyle know if she needed financial assistance, hinting that Pyle, whose columns were giving him a growing income, may have quietly provided Wilkerson with support.
The name lives on
Ward Biddle, former vice president and treasurer, proposed in a letter to Wells in September 1944 that Pyle be granted an honorary degree. Pyle accepted the invitation, but said he couldn’t set a date because of “desperate illness” in his family, an apparent reference to his wife Jerry’s mental illness. At the end of October, Pyle sent word that he was planning to come to Indiana. On Nov. 13 the assembled students and faculty of IU saw Pyle receive the first honorary degree of humane letters ever presented by IU.
Pyle had finally made his peace with the University. “I still feel that the business at Indiana on Monday was wonderful,” he wrote from Washington at week’s end. “It was the kind of thing that just leaves a good taste in your mouth. Probably the finest part of it to me was that my Dad and Aunt Mary had such a wonderful time.”
Two weeks later, Pyle asked Heighway to find out the name of the “red-headed girl” from the Bloomington High School paper who had wanted to interview Pyle on the day he received his honorary degree. Gladys Morrison had stood quietly nearby, waiting for her time, while Pyle visited with many old friends. Time ran out before she could talk to him. Pyle wanted to make amends by sending her an autographed copy of one of his books.
The Pyle name has remained associated with Indiana University both because his name graces the building in which IU Journalism is housed, and because of the Ernie Pyle scholarships. The idea of a scholarship originated soon after Pyle’s death on Ie Shima on April 18, 1945. Individual contributions began to arrive, and IU officials invited selected individuals to donate. Heighway wrote to the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, suggesting a contribution of at least $10,000.
A major contribution came from the proceeds of the world premiere at Loew’s theater in Indianapolis, on July 6, 1945, of the film “The Story of G.I. Joe,” which starred Burgess Meredith as Pyle. Both the theatre and Lester Cowan, the film’s producer, promised their share of the take to the scholarship. Newspapers reported that 1,885 people attended the showing, with the sponsoring IU Foundation and the IU Clubs of Indianapolis netting $16,601.95. The program opened with the presentation of an original Pyle manuscript to the highest bidder, with all of the winning bid money going to the purchase of war bonds. A few days before the show, Indianapolis newspapers were reporting that bidding had topped $100,000.
More than 50 years later, the terms of the scholarship remain as they were: ability in journalism, promise of future success in that profession, and war service record, although simple military service is now substituted for the last requirement. The first three winners were Joseph W. Gingery of Indianapolis, who had spent three years as a gunner on a B-24; Norma K. Abbott of Anderson, a member of the WACs for three years; and Ed L. Sovola of Hammond, who had written extensively on war issues. By the time the first scholarships were awarded, the collected funds had reached $40,000.
Ernie Pyle was a master of the reporting art of observation. With the use of strong nouns and verbs, he created word pictures, providing the virtual reality of the pre-television era. These did not come easily from his pencil and typewriter. Pyle struggled to meet the expectations he created for himself. He drank too much, struggled with melancholy and hypochondria, and even suffered some depression. He lived through difficult marriages (he married, then divorced, then remarried) with a lively woman who fought the demons of an almost bi-polar personality, made worse by alcoholism.
There were times when Pyle suffered from reportorial burnout. He didn’t see how he could continue. He abhorred the fame that resulted from his columns. He felt an obligation, however, to his readers, and pressed on. He died virtually at the peak of his fame, just a short time after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The country mourned both as symbols of the allied fight against the Axis powers.
In the years since, Ernie Pyle memorabilia and information have continued to turn up. In 1980, Richard G. Gray, the late dean, received a letter reporting that when Pyle died, he was wearing a watch that had been presented to him by Amelia Earhart on behalf of the aviation writers with whom Pyle served in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Today’s students don’t often know the name of Ernie Pyle. Their parents and usually their grandparents were too young to have known Pyle and his work. But the students continue to discover new lessons in Pyle, in his powers of description, the pressures of journalism, or his focus on ordinary people. It’s those discoveries that will keep Pyle’s connection with Indiana University long into the future.When I began to teach journalism history 20 years agp, the main biography of Pyle was Lee Miller’s 1950 book, “The Story of Ernie Pyle.” Miller also put together “The Ernie Pyle Album” (1946). Ellen Wilson wrote “Ernie Pyle, Boy from Back Home” (1955) in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.
In the second half of the 1980s, David Nichols edited two books of Pyle’s columns, one of his travels across America, and the other from World War II. Pyle’s career spanned only two decades, a substantial part of it in relative obscurity. Before his wartime columns started, his writing only appeared in about 40 Scripps-Howard newspapers, just a small portion of nearly 1,800 U.S. daily newspapers.
Pyle’s main fame was concentrated in just about 30 months of wartime.
The most recent biography is James Tobin’s “Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II” (New York: The Free Press, 1997; published in paper by the University of Kansas Press), a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle awards in the biography and autobiography category. He brings to the book a background in both journalism, a Pulitzer Prize nominee at the Detroit News, plus professional study as a historian at the University of Michigan.
This is certainly the most balanced and complete portrait of Pyle’s life. There is respect, but not hero-worship. There is understanding, but not excusing. Tobin tells about Pyle’s early departure from IU, his work as an aviation reporter in Washington, D.C., his travels across the United States, and his life in the battles of World War II.
- Read a column written on the 60th Anniversary of Ernie Pyle’s Death.