Independent NCR rose to 100,000 circulation in its first five years. Foreground, editor Robert Hoyt, holding the paper, and publisher Donald Thorman. In back, Tom Blackburn, James Andrews, Art Winter, and Robert Olmstead. (Courtesy of the National Catholic Reporter)
Here are some of the things and people that my father loved: Gregorian chant, Joe Louis, airplanes, the Detroit Tigers infield of the mid-1930s, Salem cigarettes, Martin Luther King Jr., Latin, and big northern lakes. “That’s not a lake,” he would say, whenever I used the L-word about some muddy little man-made body of water, “that’s a pond.” Once, we drove all night from Missouri to vacation at Torch Lake, in Michigan, where he had experienced some happiness as a boy. I was in the front with him when we arrived, exactly at dawn, the rest of the family slumbering in the back of the wagon, a golden sun fingering across the blue water. He had tears on his face.
Another thing he loved: reporting. He was in awe of how good reporters find things out—interesting and significant things to be shaped into news, analysis, argument. He believed that journalism has a moral center, and that its motor is honest, independent reporting. Doing that reporting—asking questions of strangers—was not his cup of coffee. But he was an editor, and he didn’t have to.
My father’s claim to fame is that, nearly 50 years ago, in the fall of 1964, he and some colleagues set in motion a lively newspaper that covers the Catholic Church and its tidal pull on the world, from an independent and intelligent lay perspective—a paper that changed the rules for covering religion and remains an influential voice.
One of his favorite stories was how that newspaper got its name. In the late 1950s, he was the editor of The Kansas City-St. Joseph Register, the local Catholic weekly, which at the time was yoked to a dreary national chain. This was an era of great ferment in the church—not to mention the world—and he and his staff asked Kansas City’s bishop to let them get ambitious and go independent. It was not easy to speak truth to religious institutional power back then, but the bishop consented, and in his enthusiasm, even came up with a name: Veritas, Latin for Truth. My father hated it. A newspaper that offered church-sanctioned perspectives was pretty much the opposite of what he had in mind. Veritas, he told the bishop in a moment of inspiration, means the same thing as Pravda. We can’t have that.
So the paper got the name my father wanted: Catholic Reporter. In 1964 the local weekly gave birth to a national edition, the National Catholic Reporter, with an emphasis on all three words. My father would run NCR for seven years before they chased him out. It was a heady time for all of us.
Like a lot of people, I had a complicated relationship with my dad. He was a good father in the early innings but faded later and then quit the game, heading for New York with a new wife, leaving my mother and six young children behind. I was the oldest. My mother regrouped with the three girls, two of them younger than us teenage boys, who grew up more or less like weeds. I remember driving with friends through the city one night in search of one of those machines that take four photos for a dollar. The idea was to document my nose—gloriously broken and bloodied in a (short) bar fight. I recall thinking that this might be the kind of thing that fathers and sons have a little talk about, if a father is available. He wasn’t. We reconnected, but not fully, in his later years, after I chased him down. He died in 2003, at 81.
Still, of course, he’s here. I have been tracking some of his footprints lately, trying to draw a bead on him as an editor and a man. And I wish I could find the slug of lead he gave me as a kid—my name typed out on a Linotype machine, right in front of my awestruck eyes.