John C. DePrez · 1995
When he worked on the Shelbyville High School newspaper in the late 1920s, John C. DePrez took to heart his uncle John Day DePrez’s definition of a good small-town newspaper: The people in our community must come first and we must serve them with local and personal news.
For more than 50 years until his death at 75 on July 1, 1988, John C. — as his employees and friends affectionately called him — put that definition of community journalism into practice at his hometown newspapers, The Shelbyville Democrat, The Shelbyville Republican and their merged successor, The Shelbyville News.
First as a company director after his uncle died and later as publisher, DePrez pursued both, providing his readers with strong local news content and providing his community with economic growth and community development.
Alan M. Horton, DePrez’s editor during the late 1970s and early 1980s, wrote in nominating his boss for the Hall of Fame, “While other newspapers were pinching pennies, DePrez was spending what it took to produce a first-rate, public service-oriented newspaper.” It was so first rate that in 1979 it won the Hoosier Blue Ribbon award from the Hoosier State Press Association, signifying it as the best daily in the state that year. It was at the time the smallest newspaper ever to win that award.
Jim McKinney, DePrez’s last editor, had this to say a few months before DePrez’s death when the publisher won a lifetime achievement award from the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce:
“…Those of us who mark our time in decades at The Shelbyville News believe that John C. DePrez happens to have a pretty good newspaper operation going here….
“In this business where awards are fought for as vigorously as circulation starts, The News has bee the Hoosier Blue Ribbon Daily twice since 1979 (1986 was the second time), and the staff of our editorial department over the years has received enough plaques of wood to perhaps reseed a forest.”
For a newspaper of about 11,000 circulation, DePrez budgeted a larger-that-average newshole, hired a larger-than-average number of news staffers and paid out a larger-than-average newsroom payroll.
He backed that with a commitment to assertive local news coverage, knowing well that the toes being stepped on sometimes were attached to business and government leaders who were his associates, friends and advertisers.
Still, as Horton notes in his nomination, “when the local juvenile court judge was jailing children without bothering with the proper, state-required procedures, The News exposed him. The abuse ended.” And “when the same judge closed certain police records, even incident reports, to the public and the press, The News appealed to the State Supreme Court. Although the high court ruled against the newspaper, the Legislature was so impressed with The News’ point that it changed the law guaranteeing open records.”
DePrez received a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1934 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve the same year. He was called to active duty in 1942 as a first lieutenant and was discharged in 1945 as a major.
He began his business career in the 1930s by managing the family-owned ice and coal delivery company. And in the days of drought and Depression, DePrez brought a grain company out of receivership.
By 1937 he had become a director of The Shelbyville Democrat company. He moved into managing the Democrat in 1938, the same year the company bought the competing Shelbyville Republican. The papers were consolidated into a politically independent daily, The News, in 1947. DePrez became the paper’s first, and until his death, only publisher.
DePrez the community leader saw his duty extending beyond what was printed in this newspaper. For example:
In the 1950s, when community service agencies such as the Boys Club, Red Cross, Salvation Army and Scouts were in desperate need of funding, DePrez co-founded SCUFFY — Shelby County United Fund For You.
When in the late 1970s, downtown Shelbyville storefronts stood empty and deteriorating, DePrez used the newspaper’s money and his influence to achieve a $1.25 million downtown renovation project, which was completed in 1980.
He helped lead Shelbyville Industrial Development Inc. in the marketing of land and infrastructure for factories looking for a welcome mat. The result was the establishment of three industrial parks.
He fought for — and won — continued Conrail service between Shelbyville and Cincinnati, an effort that led McKinney to write: “Plants that have located here in the past few years probably would have gone elsewhere without rail service.”
For all of his accomplishments, DePrez was a modest man. When asked to supply clips for the Hall of Fame file on DePrez, current News editor Scarlett Syse sent back a thin file with the explanation, “The reason the file is not thick is because John did not wasn’t the glory for all his many accomplishments.” Similarly, we could find but one picture of DePrez for the Hall of Fame.
McKinney said much the same in his column about DePrez’s award from the Chamber: “IF we were to list all of John C.’s do-good projects, the story would jump to another page, and the boss would never stand for that — it would sound as if he was blowing his own horn through his own newspaper and no one could ever accuse him of that.”
Generous may not be the first word that springs to mind to describe some newspaper publishers, but it, along with modest, applies to DePrez.
McKinney describes a Christmas Eve when a local social agency called to ask for a newspaper story about three children who would have no Christmas because of the family’s money woes. It was too late to get a story in the paper — the Christmas Eve paper was on the press and The News doesn’t publish on Christmas Day. McKinney picks up the story:
“I took the matter to John C.’s attention after finding out that the social worker had not exaggerated the family’s plight. Within a few minutes I was calling the social service agency back, telling the worker to pick up John C.’s check and take care of Christmas for that family which neither John nor I knew.”
Perhaps the late George L Stubbs — DePrez’s long-time friend and fellow worker back in the late ’20s when they both tried to follow John Day DePrez’s advice at the Shelbyville High School paper — best summed up the late publisher:
“All of this (economic development) seemed like additional work for a newspaper publisher, but John C. did not look at it this way. To him it was a part of his job to help his community. John C. never wanted to take credit of thanks for what he had done. He felt that this was his job and a part of his work as a newspaperman. The help which he gave his community will last for years and be a blessing forever…
“John C. DePrez made journalism an important influence in the whole community — a lesson that all newspaper people should learn.”
DePrez is survived by four children: John C. DePrez, Jr., who succeeded his father as publisher of The News; Arthur W. DePrez; Peter G. DePrez; and Anne N. DePrez.