Fighting for the integrity of expression

William Evjue

The abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was the first American editor to die in defense of freedom of the press. Very few have been called to follow him since the transplanted Yankee’s blood ran out on the cobblestones of Alton, Illinois.

Today freedom of the press calls on editors to live for integrity of expression rather than to die for it. An editor who exemplifies the daily living free press is William Theodore Evjue, editor and publisher of the Madison, Wis., Capital Times.

White-haired Bill Evjue reached the age of 80 on Oct. 10 [1962]. Thus he has lived more than twice the lifespan of Elijah Lovejoy. But there is much in common in their careers and in their intense devotion of their own concepts of honor and truth and the welfare of their fellow men.

Evjue told the story of his mother and father, Nils and Mary Erickson Evjue, immigrants from Norway, in his page 1 column “Hello Wisconsin,” on his eightieth birthday. He told how they made their new home in the lumber country, surrounding Merrill, Wis. There Bill Evjue was born.

He did the hard work of a small town Midwestern boy, and then worked his way at the University of Wisconsin where he became a devoted admirer of the first Senator Robert Marion La Follette – “Old Fighting Bob” who led the liberal and progressive forces in the first quarter of this century.

Evjue started his newspaper career as a cub reporter on the Milwaukee Sentinel back in 1905. He was business manager of the Wisconsin State Journal at Madison in 1917 when its editor launched an intemperate, unjustified attack on Sen. La Follette. The Wisconsin statesman was opposed to involvement in the war in Europe and this brought the bitter criticism.

As soon as this attack on La Follette appeared in print, business manager Evjue went to the editor, protested the attack and then immediately resigned. Almost at once he started The Capital Times. For a year the Madison merchants boycotted the new paper, but its readers and friends sustained it until it could obtain needed legitimate revenue.

Last April [1962], Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalistic society, honored Evjue by naming him one of its annual fellows. The citation commended him for fighting “for honest government, better politicians, clean journalism and for what he believes would contribute to a better America. He has not been daunted by criticism, by the threat of the Ku Klux Klan, or by rabble-rousing politicians, but has continued since 1917 to public and edit a fearless and independent newspaper. — Irving Dilliard

William T. Evjue, who died in 1969, crusaded against gambling and Joe McCarthy. His paper, The Capital Times, ended its 90-year run as a daily newspaper in 2008, but continues an online edition.

Excerpted from “Lovejoy and Evjue,” published in the November 1962 edition of FOCUS/Midwest. Dilliard, who lived in Collinsville, Illinois, was the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1950s.