Frank Widner · 2010
A journalism professor once told Frank Newton Widner that he would never make it in the newspaper business. How wrong. Printer’s ink seemed to be in Widner’s blood from birth.
Widner was born on April 1, 1917, in Indianapolis where he lived on the city’s east side until his death on May 8, 1995. He left behind his wife, Marie, and six sons.
Widner worked nearly all of his life for newspapers. At Indianapolis’s Cathedral High School, he served as editor of the school newspaper, The Megaphone. His taste for journalism never faltered after leaving high school. At Indiana University, he was sports editor of the Indiana Daily Student.
Widner left IU a few weeks from graduation to become a copy boy for The Indianapolis Times in 1939. He was three credit hours short of a degree. Norman Isaacs, called the dean of American newspaper editors by The Columbia University Record, hired Widner. Three weeks later, Widner advanced to the police beat, where he developed numerous news sources. A colleague once said of Widner, “No reporter in the history of journalism had the police and fire departments wired for sound as Frank did. They called him from the dispatcher’s desk before they called the cruiser to investigate a murder, accident or holdup.”
Widner’s first byline came out of the “cop shop.” It was on page one—“a gasser,” as one editor observed. The story was about a 21-year-old woman arrested for shoplifting a pair of panties and other lingerie. She told the judge she was a poor girl engaged to a wealthy man but was ashamed of her clothes. The rewrite man grilled Widner for details. Widner was stunned to see that afternoon a page- one, four-column article under his byline titled “She Didn’t Want to Be Ashamed of Herself on Her Wedding Day.”
On another occasion, Widner covered a story about a small boy dying of leukemia. Widner suggested that The Times fly the boy to New York for treatment. It was these and other human-interest stories that helped The Times earn a reputation as “a newspaper with a heart.”
Widner advanced to other beats — city hall, the federal building and sports desk — before joining the U.S. Army in 1944 and being assigned to the Persian Gulf area during World War II.
Two years later, he returned to The Times’ sports desk. He soon was transferred to the copy desk and a short time later was named news editor. Later he became assistant managing editor.
One of his most memorable actions as an editor occurred when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Immediately on receiving a “news flash” about the killing, Widner stopped the presses that were printing the day’s final edition. This gave time to remake page one so the latest news of the killing could be included.
Although he was in the top rung of newsroom management, Widner remained in close touch with the police beat, keeping a police radio on virtually night and day at home. Because of this he heard the first reports of a propane gas tank explosion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1963. It was one of Indianapolis’ worst disasters. Widner turned his home into a control center, directing The Times’s staff in coverage of the disaster.
When The Times folded two years later, Widner was out of a job, but not for long. Five days later he joined The Indianapolis Star, directing printers in page makeup. Subsequently he was named news editor and night assistant managing editor.
At The Star, one of Widner’s most memorable events was preparing the front page on July 21, 1969, after the moon landing. The entire page was devoted to a photograph of astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the lunar surface.
When one staffer remarked that never before was an entire page devoted to a photograph, Widner took off his glasses and replied, “Man never walked on the moon before.”
Of all of his newspaper jobs, Widner said being news editor was his favorite.
“He labored with the rest of us old-timers in the transition from hot lead type to computers,” said Lawrence S. Connor, retired managing editor of The Star. “I liked him, liked his sense of humor, and we shared the love and excitement of newspapering.
“I always felt safe when Frank was running the news desk. He oversaw the entire paper and edited the front page with care and often with flair. And he did the job with a touch of humor and without histrionics. A real pro.”
Widner’s dedication to his hometown and state was unshakable. Yet he sought the truth even when the truth cast a pall over his city. In the judgment of his peers, Widner was a dedicated newspaperman who sought to report the truth, pushed his reporters to thoroughly investigate and communicate their stories and always keep the reader in mind in the final product.
He shunned the limelight and sought instead to stay behind the scenes to craft the newspaper rather than write it. His love for newspapers was reflected in his belief that only newspapers had the ability to report a story in depth and inform the public.
Irving Leibowitz, a former Tines columnist, once wrote this about Widner: “There are fine editors in this world who can put out pretty newspapers, some of them almost as fast as Wid. But, few if any, have his instinct for a news story, his heart for human interest features, or his knack with a picture.”
Another former Times staffer, Charlie Miller, once said that Widner taught him to love the business, truth and the need for personal integrity.
His peers said many different things about Widner but all agree that he “was one helluva newspaperman.”
By Ernest Wilkinson