Jim Hetherington · 2014
During Act One of his career, he was admired for the way he wrote about Indiana for newspapers in stories that ranged from coverage of tragic events to features about the buzz in barbershops and fall festivals in small towns.
In Act Two, Jim Hetherington was an acclaimed, Indianapolis-based broadcaster who won a raft of national awards for his news documentaries and editorials that tackled sensitive, challenging topics and made significant, lasting impacts on the community.
During Act Three, Hetherington – who always has been regarded as amiable and cheerful in addition to being keenly discerning – became known as a civic leader in the Hoosier capital. He not only made substantive contributions and served on countless boards of nonprofit and journalism organizations, but also oversaw prominently-placed, ever-changing quips that often were the talk of the town over morning coffee.
In addition, Hetherington wrote books about the heritage of Indianapolis, including the history of the pioneering railroad station that became a major factor in the city’s “Crossroads of America” designation.
His multimedia career included editing and reporting for the Indianapolis Times and the Indiana staff of the Louisville Times, as well as writing and producing television editorials and documentaries for WFBM (later WRTV) in Indianapolis. Hetherington also responded as a reporter to such breaking news as the devastating Palm Sunday tornadoes in 1965 that killed more than 130 Hoosiers.
Amid all of this, Hetherington’s work was honored with Peabody and DuPont awards for broadcast excellence and community service, among other accolades. His topics included civil rights, public health, mass transit and race relations in Indianapolis.
“His talents made a remarkable difference in the lives of Indianapolis residents,” recalled former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who served as Indianapolis mayor during the 1960s and early 1970s. “Jim was a leader in Indianapolis journalism at a critical time in our city’s history. His editorial and documentary work helped the city through difficult times in the civil rights movement, racial integration of our schools and the reinvigoration of our city center.”
Hetherington was born Feb. 3, 1931, in Indianapolis but spent much of his adolescence and teenage years in New Jersey, where his father, Fred, worked on AT&T’s first massive computer and, later, the laying of the first coaxial cable across the country. At this point, Hetherington’s aspirations did not include journalism, but rather playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Meanwhile, there was the influence of his aunt, Sue Hetherington, who is believed to have been the first female oil editor of an American newspaper. Her distinction in the 1940s came at the Beaumont (Texas) Journal, where she also had served as state editor.
With his family’s encouragement, Hetherington enrolled at Indiana University and immersed himself in journalism, letting baseball slide (except as a lifelong avocation) after a heart-to-heart with a coach about the limits of his talents on the field. He eventually served as editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student.
At the IDS, he also began dating one of his fellow journalism students, Susan Bassett, an Indianapolis native. They married in January 1953. Never forgetting their reporting roots, the Hetheringtons have established scholarships and served as fundraisers for journalism education at IU.
After graduation in 1953 and Army service, he joined the Louisville Times to cover southern Indiana. Based in Jeffersonville, he worked for legendary editor Norman E. Isaacs.
“With notepad and Speed Graphic camera in hand,” Hetherington noted years later in a family history book titled The Name is Hetherington, he covered a wide swath of the Hoosier state stretching from Evansville to Columbus to Madison.
Eventually, Hetherington was promoted to Indiana editor of the Louisville Times. In 1961, he was named assistant city editor of the Indianapolis Times, where he also wrote occasional columns.
Next came a triumphant Act Two. He switched, as son Bob put it, from “writing for the eye to writing for the ear.” At the suggestion of IU journalism and broadcasting professor Richard Yoakam, Hetherington moved from newspaper work to television news.
As the editorial director for WFBM, then the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, Hetherington wrote and produced local documentaries as well as daily editorials, and won award after award.
Even his competitors expressed admiration. Lee Giles, then the news director of WISH, the CBS affiliate, said he continually was impressed by Hetherington’s way with words, “even to the extent at times of thinking, ‘I wish I’d written that’” and his focus on “sensitive and controversial subjects.”
During this Act Two, Hetherington found time to teach broadcast newswriting at Butler University. He also became the first broadcast journalist to be elected president of the Indianapolis Press Club.
Hetherington became a beloved mentor at American United Life, which he joined in 1974 as vice president of corporate communications. But he undoubtedly became most identified with things short and sweet — or short and punchy. Next to its office tower in downtown Indianapolis, AUL had been displaying daily quips, usually clever puns, on a sign (almost like a community billboard) before Hetherington’s arrival. But under his guidance, the quips flourished. Thousands of motorists chuckled (or groaned) as they commuted every morning.
Some samples: “When the chips are down, the buffalo move on.” “My wife is outspoken. But not by many.”
During his stint at AUL, Hetherington began writing books and serving on several civic boards. He wrote Indianapolis Union Station: Trains, Travelers, and Changing Times, a colorful history of the country’s first united railroad terminal, after retiring from AUL in 1995. His other books include Indiana Remembers, a look at the war memorials in Indianapolis and the Hoosiers they honor.
The Hetheringtons have two sons: IU grad Bob, a public relations consultant and former business editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and Purdue electrical engineering grad Bill, the CEO of Bandera (Texas) Electric Cooperative.
“He always has genuinely cared about people,” Bob said of his father. “He regarded journalism not just as a career, but as a calling where you could make a difference in a community where you were deeply rooted.”
– by Nelson Price, Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame board member, author and radio host