Wayne Guthrie · 1973
By Janet Preston
Born September 9, 1896, in Nashville, Indiana, Journalism Hall of Fame member Robert Wayne Guthrie never intended to become a newspaperman. Son of Mr. and Mrs. William Irwin Guthrie, young Wayne planned to follow in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather and become a lawyer or a judge.
To this end, he pursued an educational career which included law studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and at the University of Chicago Law School. The job, which he started at 6:30 a.m. on the first day of January, 1921 at the Indianapolis News, spanned over a half-century.
Guthrie was one of three brothers — younger sibling Ray died in 1967 and brother Wilber died in the World War I battle at Argonne in 1918 — and grew up in southern Indiana. The Guthrie family tenant-farmed on the Chambers farm in Bartholomew County’s German Township a few miles north of Columbus. The family home, a one-room, one-story log cabin, by Guthrie’s own account, was destroyed by fire in about 1904 and young Wayne spent much of his residence after that with his grandfather Anderson Percifield in Nashville.
He did attend German Township School until the fire and went to Nashville High School until the completion of his freshman year when he chose to go to a bigger high school and transferred to Columbus.
To support himself while attending Columbus High School, he served as a conductor on a city car at night, worked as a soda fountain boy, and shined shoes in a barbershop. Upon graduation from Columbus High in 1915, he remembered the advice that he had received from a prominent Indianapolis man whom Guthrie had met when he was driving the livery hack line from Nashville to the nearest railroad station in Helmsburg.
That man was Richard Lieber, considered by many the father of Indiana’s conservation and state park system. Lieber, who was to become a friend and counselor for life, had told Guthrie to finish high school and then let him, Lieber, know what he wanted to become. With the help of benefactor Lieber and the then-governor of Indiana, Samuel Ralston, who was brother-in-law to Nashville High School Registrar John Cravens, Guthrie was able to secure a job in the IU Bloomington library. He worked his way through two years of liberal arts schooling there and through two years of IU’s Law School. In the meantime he served one year in the military. He received a commission as a Second Lieutenant of Field Artillery in the US Army in World War I. He attended ROTC training at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1918 and also attended Field Artillery Central Officer’s training school in that year of 1918.
After the war, he continued his law studies at the University of Chicago Law School to which he transferred in the fall of 1919. He spent 1 1/2 years there and left in December of 1920, but did not receive his degree because of some conflict in courses accredited. One of his benefactors at the time of his Chicago studies was Delavan Smith, one-time owner and publisher of the Indianapolis News, who was to figure greatly in shaping the course of Guthrie’s post-law studies career.
It was Smith who got Guthrie started in the newspaper field although he never intended for the position to be permanent. Smith and his brother Richard Smith, then managing editor of the News, along with friend Lieber, were hoping to see two prominent Indianapolis attorneys form a partnership and Guthrie was to become associated with that firm. The two Smiths put Guthrie to work on the paper with the intention of keeping him there only to earn a living until the law position was a reality.
Before that could take place, however, the two Smiths died. The law firm was never formed and, by his own account, something had happened to Guthrie too by then. He says that he had gotten printer’s ink on his hands. He remained with the News, never having intended to become a newspaperman and never having had any formal journalistic training or background.
Although he may be best known for his column, Ringside in Hoosierland, which he has been writing since 1947, Guthrie was a reporter for six years, assistant city editor for seven years starting in 1927, and city editor for 14, starting in 1934. In addition to his duties as head of the city desk, he wrote special sports articles and covered the 1925 and 1927 sessions of the House of Representatives. From then until 1947 he headed the News’ legislative bureau at every session.
Although Guthrie did not receive his law degree upon completion of his studies at the end of the fall term of 1920, he did receive that degree on October 15, 1948, retroactive to June 4, 1920. A former classmate, Bernard Gavit, who became dean of the IU Law School, intervened to see that due credit for the earlier courses was given and the earned degree conferred.
Guthrie was married for nearly 51 years to the former Mildred Elizabeth Ray who is now deceased. Mrs. Guthrie was born at Terre Haute, lived in New York and at Louisville, attended Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, and was graduated from Miami of Ohio at Oxford, Ohio. She was a home economics teacher until a family was started. The Guthries were parents of three. Son Richard Wayne, the eldest and named for Col. Richard Lieber, is an Indianapolis attorney and was a member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1955 to 1964. He was Speaker of the House his last two terms, from 1961-64. Daughter Ruth Marie Guthrie is now Mrs. Robert G. Patterson, Jr., and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. A third child, Frederick Ray, died in 1951. Guthrie is also the grandfather of eight, four grandsons, and four granddaughters.
The many-decade long career of this temporary employee has brought about many opportunities for contributions to the field of journalism. Perhaps one of the most significant for Wayne Guthrie was his assignment to cover three historic atomic bomb test explosions.
The first two of these occurred at the Bikini Atoll in the mid-Pacific in 1946. The Indianapolis News was invited to send a representative to these two tests and Guthrie was their choice. He was one of only about 165 American newspaper, magazine, and radio correspondents observing the tests from aboard the USS Appalachian, the press ship for the Joint Task Force. Correspondents witnessed 150 vessels of every size and description subjected to atomic explosions — one above the fleet on July 1, 1946 and the other beneath it on July 25. Guthrie was on assignment for almost two months and the experience, at the age of 51, caused a big change in his life.
After returning to Indianapolis in August of 1946, Guthrie found that many people wanted to hear about what he had seen and heard. Responding to these requests, Guthrie began to give public lectures. His first talk, though, was to a group of about 100 gathered in a neighbor’s basement on the eastside of Indianapolis in that same August. He then was besieged by clubs and has delivered that speech 850 times in 31 states, in every county in Indiana, and in two Canadian provinces, to audiences ranging up to 12,000.
In this speech Guthrie explained the horror and grandeur of the tests and sought to make Americans more conscious of the awful possibilities and effects of atomic warfare and of the good fortune of being born American.
He has delivered this address to such divergent groups as the Ladies Night meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Indianapolis Council of Women, and Arsenal Technical High School’s National Education Week convocation.
Coverage of the third of those three a-bomb tests occurred on March 17, 1953, at Yucca Flat, Nevada, when many houses and buildings were detonated as part of a civil defense demonstration. Another talk — “Yucca Flat-Dawn or Doom?” — emerged from that assignment and Guthrie has delivered it many times in many states.
Along with his efforts in making Americans aware of the power and possible horrors of atomic warfare, Guthrie throughout his career as a journalist, has also been very active in promoting the American way of life. He has received awards from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 16 times for “contributions to a better understanding of the American way of life and for constructive work and deeds which support America, suggest solutions to basic problems which beset the nation, contribute to responsible citizenship and inspire love of country.” Freedoms Foundations awards are given annually at a ceremony at Valley Forge in commemoration of George Washington’s birthday.
Some of Guthries’ contributions which have earned him Freedom Foundation commendations include:
• A second place award in 1957 for his address “Accentuate the Positive” whose theme is that Americans, in the fight against communism, should adopt a positive program of selling youth on the American way of life. This speech was given 75 times throughout the nation in the period covered by the award.
• A Distinguished Service Award, his 15th citation, for his article entitled “US Could Use Old-Fashioned Fourth.”
• The Honor Certificate Award, his 14th citation, for his article “Bicentennial Call for Rebirth in US.”
• A Distinguished Service Award, his 12th citation, in 1972 for his article “Old Glory Needs Its People.”
No other newspaperman has been honored as often by the Freedoms Foundation as has Guthrie.
Guthrie also has been honored by the American Association for State and Local History for two series he prepared: “Famous Hoosiers” and “Pre-statehood Indiana Towns.”
In addition to his work for the cause of Americanism, Guthrie has also had successes in crusading for local Indianapolis and Indiana causes. He was instrumental in persuading the state to name a state park after Col. Richard Lieber, recognized to be the father of the state park system; in getting the name of the baseball field in Indianapolis changed from Victory Field to Owen J. Bush stadium in honor of one of the greatest professional baseball players to hail from Indianapolis; in bringing belated honor at the 1969 Veterans Day observances in Indianapolis to Walter Myers, one of a trio of men who, in 1919, had, at their own expense, succeeded in getting the American Legion to establish its national headquarters in Indianapolis; in having a bronze plaque placed at or near the site where Abraham Lincoln, on his way to be inaugurated in 1861, spoke in response to a welcome from Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton — the site is at the Washington Street crossing of the railroad switch behind the Indiana Employment Security Division in Indianapolis and the plaque had hung for years on the Washington Street side of the old Claypool Hotel.
Guthrie also was responsible for suggesting the erection of a marker at the Nashville home in which Col. Lieber, his old benefactor and friend, had mentioned, during his first trip to Brown County, his vision of a state park system. That marker was placed by the Indiana District of Kiwanis in December of 1952.
Guthrie’s first association with the Indianapolis News preceded his 1921 job when, in his childhood, he sold papers. In Nashville, he sold the Pennsylvania Grit but widened his sales after moving to Columbus. There he met all trains arriving at the Pennsylvania station and sold papers to passengers. One of those which he sold was the News and others included Inter-Ocean and the Record-Herald from Chicago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer and Post and the Louisville Courier-Journal.
His first major assignment on the News, after giving up the budding law career to stay with journalism, was to cover the 31-night revival of evangelist Gypsy Smith, an early-day Billy Graham, in the old Cadle Tabernacle in Indianapolis. Guthrie covered two sessions each day for 31 straight days — the regular meeting at night in the tabernacle and a noon meeting for businessmen in a downtown theater.
Another major story was a “scoop” of the crash of two interurban trains at Alfont in Madison County on February 2, 1924. Guthrie and his wife were passengers on the eastbound train and he had the story phoned in to the News Indianapolis’ office before people there were even aware of the disaster. Twenty-one persons were to burn to death in that crash and Guthrie’s coverage gave the News a “scoop” on it.
Guthrie also was part of a special group who escorted World War I General John J. Pershing to Indianapolis from Galion, Ohio, to lay the cornerstone of the main shrine of the Indianapolis World War Memorial in 1927.
Citation and Awards
In addition to his many contributions in the journalistic field, Guthrie has also had an active role in many civic and philanthropic organizations throughout the years. He has had longstanding affiliations with Kiwanis, Shrine, Masons, DeMolay, and the American Legion.
He was the first president of the Irvington (Indianapolis area) Kiwanis Club and was elected governor of the Indiana District of Kiwanis in 1954, serving in 1955. He also was an international Kiwanis chairman several times. As 1956 international chairman he headed the organization’s committee on support of churches in their spiritual aims and the committee’s work won an award of meritorious service.
For his interest in youth and work with the youth organization, the International Order of DeMolay honored him with its Legion of Honor Award in 1958. He has also been named a Sagamore of the Wabash by three Indiana governors — first by Governor Harold Handley, then by Governor Roger D. Branigin and lastly by Governor Otis R. Bowen, M.D.
The Indianapolis Press Club named him “Indiana Newsman of the Year” in 1970. He was president of that organization in 1966.
In addition to these honors, Guthrie has also been named an honorary member of the Continental
Confederation of Adopted Indians; was chosen for membership in SOUP, the Society of Undersized Papas, a group for dads with taller sons; was made an honorary lifetime member of the Clown Club of America for his column on clowns at the Indianapolis Marat Shrine circus; and was presented a plaque and gavel from the Progress for Perry County, Inc. in 1968 for his role in correcting the name of the town of Sassafras.
Guthrie is listed in the 1976-77 edition of the American Biographical Institute’s “Community Leaders and Noteworthy Americans” in recognition of his past achievements and outstanding service to community and state.