Edwin V. O'Neel · 1970
By Jerry Miller
Edwin Vinton O’Neel was born June 4, 1902, in Dupont, Indiana, a small southeastern Indiana town in Jefferson County, north of Madison. His father, William M. O’Neel, operated a general store in Dupont, and his mother, Hattie Davis O’Neel, was a former schoolteacher.
O’Neel attended school in Dupont and was founder and editor of the Dupont High School student newspaper. After graduation from high school, he entered DePauw University at Greencastle, Indiana, in 1920. He studied English but later changed his field of study to journalism, becoming editor of the DePauw student newspaper in his senior year.
During the summers of 1922 and 1923, he worked as city editor of the Madison Courier.
He became active in Sigma Delta Chi at DePauw, where the professional journalism society had been founded in 1909.
He left the university in 1924 without completing its requirements for graduation and became a police reporter for the Indianapolis Times. In 1925, he did investigative work in one of the most publicized murder cases in Indiana history, that of Madge Oberholtzer, a young secretary from Indianapolis. David C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, was arrested and later convicted in the case.
O’Neel lost his job at the Times in 1929, when the Great Depression hit America. In June of the same year, he married the former Anna C. Gardner of Indianapolis, once society editor of the Miami Herald. The couple later had three children: Barbara, Bill, and Bob and ten grandchildren.
Active in Sigma Delta Chi activities at the national level since he left college, O’Neel held several offices in the journalism society. At its 1929 convention, he was elected Sigma Delta Chi National President for 1930.
A life-long Republican, O’Neel took a job as publicity man for the Democratic Party’s candidates in the 1930 Indiana elections. The next year, he served as a legislative correspondent for the Indianapolis Star and the Louisville Times.
In May of 1931, he purchased the Hagerstown (Ind.) Exponent, a weekly newspaper in a small eastern Indiana community in Wayne County, west of Richmond. He assumed the duties of editor and publisher the following month, publishing his first issue on June 4, 1931.
Due to breakdowns in the newspaper’s antiquated typesetting equipment, only the top half of the front page of his first issue of the Exponent had type on it. The equipment was repaired in time to publish a full front page in his second issue a week later.
O’Neel replaced the old equipment with new, streamlined intertype typesetting equipment in July of 1940. The following year, he moved the editorial and business office of the
Exponent to larger quarters, separate from the newspaper’s printing plant.
He remained active in journalism organizations on the state level during the 1940s. He served as president of the Indiana Weekly Press Association, which eventually was absorbed into the Hoosier State Press Association. He then was elected president of the Hoosier State Press Association for 1947-48.
In December of 1956, he moved the editorial and business offices of the Exponent to new quarters again. Then, in January of 1958, he reunited the offices and the printing facilities of the newspaper in a single, larger building in Hagerstown, Indiana.
During the early 1960s, O’Neel campaigned actively to have Sigma Delta Chi recognize DePauw University as a historic journalism site. In 1967, the society’s national convention voted approval of that recognition.
In July of 1969, after 38 years as its editor and publisher, O’Neel sold the Exponent to James Lagomarcino, Floyd C. Lacy, and Roy Werking.
After selling the newspaper, O’Neel remained in Hagerstown and continued to write biographical and historical articles for newspapers and college organizations. He also did daily news broadcasts for a New Castle (Ind.) radio station.
He began work on a book recounting the history of Hagerstown since 1932 to be completed in time for the town’s sesquicentennial in 1982.
He was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1970.
O’Neel began his journalism career at Dupont (Ind.) High School. Until his arrival there, the school did not have a student newspaper, but O’Neel and some of his friends started one, the Echo. He served as editor until his graduation in 1920.
At DePauw University, he began working on the student newspaper as a freshman and served in various editorial positions there in his first three years as a student. With that experience and two summers as city editor of the Madison Courier, he was named editor of the college newspaper in his senior year.
When he was hired by the Indianapolis Times in the summer of 1924, he was assigned to the police beat. It was on that beat, just one year later, that O’Neel became involved in one of the most memorable series of news events in Indiana history.
In April of 1925, David C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, was charged in the rape-murder of a young Indianapolis secretary, Madge Oberholtzer.
Stephenson, whose power extended beyond the half-million Klan members in Indiana into some of the highest political offices in the state, boasted that, even if convicted, he would never serve a day in prison.
O’Neel worked with the Times investigative team that covered Stephenson’s arrest in Indianapolis and his subsequent trial in Noblesville. During the trial, one of Stephenson’s subordinates accidentally left an important letter in a Westfield restaurant.
Tipped by a carnival worker who had seen the letter, O’Neel found the owner of the restaurant and pressured him into turning over the letter. O’Neel and his editor then gave the letter to the Marion County prosecutor’s office.
The letter led authorities to a barn in southern Indiana, where one of the Klan leader’s “Black Boxes,” containing secret records of his organization, was hidden. The records were introduced as evidence in Stephenson’s trial, and the Klan leader was later convicted of second degree murder and, despite his earlier boast, imprisoned for 31 years.
The records also were used to discredit the Klan in Indiana, a campaign that culminated with a series of articles and editorials in the Times in 1928. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.
It was also during the late 1920s that O’Neel became active in the national activities of Sigma Delta Chi. A member of the professional journalism society since his college days, he was elected to the society’s executive council at its 1926 national convention.
He was then elected alumni secretary at the organization’s 1927 convention. The 1929 convention elected O’Neel as Sigma Delta Chi president for 1930.
At the completion of his presidency at the end of 1930, he was awarded the Wells Memorial Key, Sigma Delta Chi’s highest personal service award.
O’Neel, who had been dismissed by the Times for economic reasons in 1929, covered the 1931 sessions of the Indiana General Assembly as a correspondent for newspapers in Indianapolis and Louisville. Later the same year, he persuaded Harry L. Stoltz to sell him the weekly Hagerstown (Ind.) Exponent.
The first issue O’Neel published proved to be a mechanical disaster, and he had to leave the bottom half of the front page blank except for this apology: “This indeed is not our idea of a newspaper but rather than disappoint entirely merchants who had advertisements we printed only part of the copy because of mechanical grief. Thank you.”
The next issue featured a complete front page. It also featured O’Neel’s first major change in the Exponent format, no front-page advertisements. The new editor-publisher soon revised the newspaper’s column widths, headlines, and use of photographs.
He also altered its masthead and added the Sigma Delta Chi motto, “He Serves Best Who Serves The Truth,” as a permanent fixture in the upper left-hand corner of the front page.
He later instituted the pyramid style of layout for advertisements and the use of flush-left headlines.
In 1938, O’Neel was active in state press associations, serving as president of both the Indiana Weekly Press Association and the Hoosier State Press Association. He founded the Copper Club for past HSPA presidents in 1946, later earning membership himself when he was elected president in 1947.
O’Neel also continued to be an active member of Sigma Delta Chi on the state and national levels. He was president of the Indianapolis alumni chapter when a bronze plaque was installed at DePauw University to mark it as the birthplace of Sigma Delta Chi.
In 1962, he began pressing for official recognition of DePauw as the society’s birthplace by the national organization. The 1967 convention of Sigma Delta Chi, meeting in California, voted to designate DePauw a national historic site in journalism.
In May of 1967, a bronze monument donated by Indianapolis Star publisher Eugene C. Pulliam, one of the original founders of Sigma Delta Chi, was unveiled at DePauw.
O’Neel continued to publish the Exponent until July of 1969, when he sold it to three Hagerstown men. O’Neel’s 38 years as editor and publisher were later chronicled in a special six-part supplement to the Exponent produced by the journalism of Ball State University in 1975 to commemorate the newspaper’s 100th anniversary.
In 1970, O’Neel was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, located on the DePauw University campus.
After leaving the Exponent, he continued his journalism pursuits writing occasional articles for the Indianapolis Star and other newspapers. He also wrote a biography of poet-theologian Dr. Earl Marlatt for DePauw University.
In 1974 and 1975, O’Neel did a daily news broadcast of Hagerstown area news over WCTW, a radio station in New Castle, Indiana.
In addition to his 45-year career as a professional journalist, O’Neel was active in several civic, political, and charitable groups.
He was a member of the Masonic Lodge for 50 years and was also a member of the Scottish Rite in Indianapolis and the Methodist Church in Hagerstown. He was active in Heart Fund drives on both the county and state levels, serving as a member of the Indiana Heart Association board for two terms.
He was also a member of the James Whitcomb Riley Association for many years.
In 1932, one year after coming to Hagerstown, he was one of the organizers of the town’s centennial celebration. He contributed to and printed a book on the first 100 years of Hagerstown’s history, written by Hagerstown resident Robert H. Bryson.
O’Neel was active in the Republican Party for most of his life. He was a member of the Republican State Committee in 1940, serving as 10th District Chairman.
He also served as president of the Indiana Republican Editorial Association.
In 1950, he became the first honorary member of the Indiana Future Homemakers of America while his daughter, Barbara, was state FHA President.
O’Neel received the Outstanding Individual Conservation Merit Award from the Wayne County Soil and Water Conservation District in 1964 for his support of conservation programs. The same year, he was given the Good Neighbor and Friend Award by the Hagerstown chapter of the Future Farmers of America.
In 1966, the Hagerstown High School Band presented a special program at the school honoring O’Neel for his 35 years of service to the Hagerstown community.
The Wayne County 4-H Clubs made O’Neel an honorary member in 1968 in recognition of his support of 4-H activities. He also was made an honorary member of the Hagerstown Rotary Club that year.
Three student organizations at Hagerstown High School, the Future Farmers of America, the 4-H Club, and the Marching Tiger Band, joined together in 1968 to give O’Neel a brief vacation from his newspaper duties. Announcing that they were running the newspaper editor “out of town,” the three groups presented O’Neel and his wife with an all-expense-paid trip to General Butler State Park in Kentucky for two days.
In 1969, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Hagerstown Jaycees.
He also was the recipient of various awards from the Cub Scouts and Optimist Club.
O’Neel was active in Historic Hagerstown, Inc., serving as its president in 1975. He was involved in the planning of a historical museum by the organization and the writing of a history of Hagerstown from 1932 to 1982 to supplement the earlier book by Bryson.
He also began writing a biography of well-known Hagerstown industrialist Ralph Teetor.
Indiana Governor Otis R. Bowen named O’Neel a Sagamore of the Wabash in 1975.