Op-Ed: Danforth to SL editors: ‘Keep publishing’

James T. Madore | Class of 1987, Former Student Life Co-Editor-in-Chief

Uncle Bill saved Student Life 35 years ago.

That’s the first memory that came to mind on Sept. 16 when friends in St. Louis sent the news that Chancellor William H. Danforth, affectionately called Uncle Bill by generations of Wash. U. students, had died at age 94.

In the fall of 1985, the fate of Student Life (SL) was in the hands of Danforth. The newspaper’s business manager had skipped town with the treasury. There was no money to even publish the next issue.

That news was gleefully delivered to Erick Norlin and me the day before fall break by the Dean of Student Affairs. Erick and I had been co-editors-in-chief for about six months and had been SL staffers since Freshman Year, but we had no idea about the paper’s finances.

We were doubly shocked when the dean told us there was nothing he could do to help. There was no money in his budget for printing a newspaper.

As Erick and I walked back to the SL office, then on the top floor of Karl Umrath Hall, we vented our anger at the paper’s thieving business manager. We also vowed to keep publishing.

I believe it was Erick’s idea to contact Danforth. I placed a call to the chancellor’s office and in less than an hour we were telling him about the SL crisis. When we asked what we should do, he said, “Keep publishing.”

Danforth said the University would make a loan to SL with generous terms and recruit an honest business manager. “But we can’t put the paper out, only you and the Student Life staff can do that,” he said. “Promise me you won’t miss an issue.”

Erick and I were in disbelief.

Danforth was rescuing SL, which often was a thorn in his side. The news and opinion pages were filled with criticism about tuition hikes, funding for science over the arts, the need for a more diverse student body and other controversies.

I remember asking Danforth why he was helping us. “Student Life serves the Washington University community with its reporting,” he said. “And you and the staff are learning as much in Umrath Hall as you are in the classroom.”

The following Sunday night, as the SL staff was editing stories, writing an editorial and designing pages, I received a telephone call from Danforth asking if he could stop by. Around 9 p.m., he and wife Ibby arrived with Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. They didn’t stay long, but I remember Danforth insisting on shaking hands with every staff member and thanking them for their dedication to the paper.

Student Life, started in 1878, remains the oldest continuously published newspaper in Missouri because of Uncle Bill’s dedication to student journalism and the First Amendment.

James T. Madore, AS’87, is the economics writer at Newsday. He earned a master’s degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1988 with the encouragement of Danforth.

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