Prominent Alumni: Part II

In the United States, the Pulitzer Prizes are among the most highly acclaimed forms of recognition for those in the fields of journalism and letters. The monetary value of the awards is slight--some $3,000 currently--but the prestige value is incalculable. The awards were initiated by the publisher Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), who sought to honor outstanding achievement in journalism and in drama, poetry, history, biography, fiction, and general non-fiction. The funds come from Pulitzer's legacy of some $2,000,000, and the prizes were first awarded in 1917. Columbia University's School of Journalism administers the prizes, and winners are selected by an advisory board based upon recommendations from juries of specialists in each field. The awards are formally conferred by the trustees of Columbia University.

During its first seventy-five years, 1,056 Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded: 617 in journalism, 439 in letters and music. A Pulitzer has been said to be a "passport to the unalloyed glory of an instantly recognizable byline" for a reporter or "a can t miss best seller" for an author. For a prize-winning composer, a Pulitzer is said to open doors: "It has a quality of catching other people's attention in a way no other prize in music does," in the view of one winner. Russell Baker, the well-known columnist for the New York Times has stated that the prizes have endured "because they stood for something more than fame and fortune."

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has had five Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni: Owen Davis (1923), Bernadotte Schmitt (1931), John Hightower (1952), John Noble Wilford (1984, 1987), and Charles Ronald Kirksey (1994).

Owen Davis

Owen Davis was born January 29, 1874, in Portland, Maine, where his father operated a small furnace, the Kathoden Iron Works. In 1888, the family moved to southern Kentucky, and it was at this time that Owen Davis attended the University of Tennessee as a subfreshman in 1888-1889. He left to enter Harvard where, by his own admission, he was a "wretched scholar." Other than being a "fair football player and a very fast hundred-yard sprinter," Davis did little of distinction or value to himself in Cambridge. Indeed, forty years later, the memory of his college days was "vague and shadowy." After a brief stint as a mining engineer in Kentucky, Davis went to New York and began writing plays. His first production was titled Through the Breakers, and it was performed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, sometime in the 1890s. Because of the volume of his writing, Davis soon became known as "king of the melodramas," writing some 150 of these popular thrillers over a twenty-year period and making a fortune in the process. The most famous of these was Nellie: The Beautiful Cloak Model (1906). Another, Under Two Flags, was written overnight and when produced earned Davis over $10,000 in four weeks. During one five-year period, Davis wrote thirty-eight melodramas, two farces, a number of vaudeville acts and burlesque pieces, and one big stage show!

Davis also wrote comedies and serious dramas, beginning with Making Good, which appeared on Broadway in 1912. It was not a success, but Family Cupboard the next year was. A string of successes followed, including two highly praised dramas, The Detour (1921) and Icebound (1923). Davis thought the former deserved a Pulitzer Prize, but it had the misfortune of competing with Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, which took the award. Icebound was a story of a New England family greedy for an inheritance and awaiting the death of the mother only to be foiled by her leaving it to the drudge who cared for her and to the black sheep of the family with whom the drudge was in love. The play, produced by Sam Harris, ran for 170 performances and was named the Pulitzer Prize winner for drama in 1923.

The Pulitzer Prize elevated Davis's standing with drama critics, who now forgave him his years as a writer of potboilers. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Authors League of America and became the first president of the Dramatists Guild in 1923. During the remainder of his life, Davis authored over a hundred additional plays and also became a motion picture script writer. His last Broadway success was Mr. and Mrs. North, in 1941.

Critics commented on Davis's enormous energy and productivity. One noted that his style of playwrighting suggested "a combination of mass production and perpetual motion." Davis himself conceded that he wrote "for the eye rather than the ear" and that when dialogue was necessary, he filled his scripts with "noble sentiments." As for his cheap melodramas, he confessed that they amounted to "a preposterous amount of rubbish."

Upon his death on October 14, 1956, he was hailed by a famous drama critic as one of Broadway's "grand old men" and recognized as "America's most prolific and produced playwright."

John M. Hightower

John M. Hightower was born in Coal Creek, Tennessee, on September 17, 1909. He attended public schools in Knoxville and entered the University of Tennessee in 1927, with a major in civil engineering, but soon changed to liberal arts. He remained only two years. Why he did not complete his degree program is not known. After a brief stint with a trade journal, Hightower began his professional career as a reporter with the Knoxville News-Sentinel. In 1933, he moved to Nashville and worked for the Associated Press as its Tennessee editor. His coverage of the Tennessee delegation at the 1936 national nominating conventions caught the attention of the chief of the A.P. Washington Bureau, Byron Price, who shifted Hightower to the capital. Assigned first to the Navy Department, Hightower switched in 1944 to the State Department. He covered the major diplomatic events of the era, including the meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Quebec--at which agreement was reached on the invasion of France in 1944 --the organizational meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, the earliest meetings of the U.N. in New York and London, and the establishment and development of the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

It was while he was at the Navy Department that Hightower developed his unique style of explanatory-interpretive reporting. He raised questions during World War II concerning the Navy's island-hopping strategy and sought to enlighten his readers on this score in his newspaper reports. His penchant for rechecking his sources led him to hold off sending out a story given to him by a Secretary of State until he could check the facts with two other sources. Despite his caution, Hightower was able to score several scoops. Early in 1951, he accurately predicted the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur by President Harry Truman over the issue of military strategy in the Korean war, and his story on the event which precipitated the general's removal was an exclusive. The Associated Press, in recommending Hightower for a Pulitzer Prize, called particular attention to his perceptiveness and insight in grasping the depth of the split between Truman and MacArthur and in understanding the implications of the disagreement and the possible consequences. Hightower's other "feats" included reporting the terms of the Communist offer for withdrawing its troops from Korea and the instructions to General Matthew Ridgeway, MacArthur s successor, concerning the armistice to end the fighting.

For "the sustained quality of his coverage of news of international affairs," Hightower won a Pulitzer Prize in 1952, but more remarkably, he received two other prestigious journalistic honors the same year: the Raymond Clapper Memorial Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for "exceptionally meritorious coverage of the State Department" and the national journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi's annual award for "distinguished service in the field of Washington correspondence." Never before had a reporter won three such awards in a single year.

Hightower continued to cover international events until his retirement in 1971. During that period, he was designated a special correspondent by the Associated Press, a title conferred on only four other reporters before that time, was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and received the Commander's Cross, Order of Merit, from the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1980, he was elected to the Hall of Fame of the Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. After his retirement, Hightower moved to New Mexico, where he taught journalism at the University of New Mexico and wrote a column for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He died in Santa Fe on February 9, 1987. Fellow newspaper reporters remembered him for his painstaking investigations, his modesty, and his "careful and cool-headed reporting under pressure." One colleague remarked that he was so calm while working on a story that one could not know whether Hightower was "dictating a hot bulletin or a Sunday advance." Perhaps the epitaph that Hightower would have enjoyed most was the statement by Dean Rusk, Secretary of State in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that in so far as press coverage of the State Department was concerned, Hightower was "the most capable and best informed reporter I have ever seen."

John Noble Wilford

John Noble Wilford was born October 4, 1933, in Murray, Kentucky. He attended Grove High School in Paris, Tennessee, and spent a year at Lambuth College before entering UT in the fall of 1952. Here he was active in student journalism activities, serving as president of the Journalism Society, in the Air Force ROTC--where he was selected as Wing Commander of the Air Command Squadron, the national honor society for basic ROTC students--and in the Methodist student organization, the Wesley Foundation, of which he was president. Wilford was also elected to three honor organizations, Phi Kappa Phi, Beta Gamma Sigma (business), and Kappa Tau Alpha (journalism).

After receiving his B.S. degree in journalism in 1955, Wilford took an M.A. degree in political science at Syracuse University and spent two years with the army in West Germany. His professional career in journalism began in 1956 with a job as a general assignment reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Upon the completion of his military tour of duty, he rejoined that paper as a medical reporter. Following a year's fellowship at Columbia University in 1961-1962 under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, Wilford took a position with Time magazine as a contributing science editor before moving to the New York Times as a science reporter in 1965.

At the Times, where he continues to work, Wilford became its best known science reporter, covering "the solar system." He has covered all the major explorations of space, has flown through the eye of a hurricane to report on cloud seeding, has submerged in a submarine, has searched for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, and has flown with the International Ice Patrol in Newfoundland and Greenland.

For his newspaper writing, Wilford won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first in 1984 for his national reporting of science topics ranging from the tug of "Planet X" on Uranus and Neptune to the competition over space war weaponry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1987, Wilford shared the prize with other Times reporters for their team achievement in reporting on the Challenger explosion and its aftermath. Wilford has also found time to be author, co-author, or editor of eight books including We Reach the Moon (1969), Scientists at Work (1979), The Mapmakers (1981), Spaceliner (1981), The Riddle of the Dinosaur (1985), The New York Times Guide to the Return of Halley's Comet (1985), Mars Beckons (1990), and The Mysterious History of Columbus (1991).

In addition to the Pulitzer Prizes, Wilford has been honored with two awards from the Aviation-Space Writers Association (1970, 1983), the G.M. Loeb Achievement Award of the University of Connecticut (1972), the National Space Club Press Award (1974), and the Westinghouse Science Writing Award (1983). In 1987, Rhode Island College conferred an honorary Litt.D. degree upon him. Wilford has been a visiting professor and lecturer at Princeton, Syracuse, Duke, Yale, and UT, Knoxville.

Still the science correspondent for the New York Times, where he was assistant national news editor from 1973 to 1975 and director of science news from 1975 to 1979, Wilford has been called the preeminent space reporter in the United States.

Charles Ronald Kirksey

Charles Ronald Kirksey was born in Knoxville, Tennesse, on October 22, 1947. He attended Clinton High School and the University of Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1970 with a B.S. degree in political science. Joining the army, he served as a journalist in Vietnam for a year. The experience whetted his appetite for a newspaper career. After a brief stint as a social worker for the Tennessee Department of Public Welfare, Kirksey began working as a reporter for the Paris, Tennessee, Post-Intelligencer.

A year later, in 1975, he became associated with the Times-News in Kingsport, Tennessee, first as an area news editor and then as an editorial writer. In 1982 he moved to Akron, Ohio, joining the Beacon Journal staff first as chief editorial writer, then as metro editor and, for a time, as business editor.

It was in Akron that Kirksey participated in a yearlong investigation of racial attitudes in the city, involving extensive field interviewing, research, and writing. Kirksey was the lead writer of a five-part series of articles that appeared under the title "A Question of Color." Using computer analysis, focus groups, and comprehensive graphics, the team explored, analyzed, and explained local racial attitudes. What emerged was a contradictory view of race relations in Akron, whites asserting that conditions were fine, while the survey revealed that discrimination against African Americans was evidenced in education, real estate values, and the criminal justice system. For this series, the team was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1994.

Pleased with the prize, Kirksey is not sure where his future career lies. He now covers higher education for the paper and is taking graduate work towards a master's degree in media management. His special interests are creativity and the reading habits of women and baby boomers. "I'm doing a lot of work on trends," Kirksey says, "looking at where we are going to be int he next five years." The reportorial skills which helped his team win the Pulitzer Prize will surely aid him in his new quest.