The Star Story 75 Year Career
The Star Story
Paris waited and 75-year career began Harry F. Byrd Jr. started at The Star on July 1, 1935
By Adrian O'Connor
WINCHESTER (2010) — The first thing he did was buy a desk — one of those secondhand, $5 jobs. Then, seated behind that desk, he started work at what was then called The Winchester Evening Star.
The date was July 1, 1935 — precisely 75 years ago.
And though his political career took him first to Richmond, to the state Senate, and then to Washington and the U.S. Senate, Harry F. Byrd Jr. has never, in fact, stopped working at The Star, which has been owned by his family for more than 100 years.
He has served in myriad capacities — as editorial page editor, managing editor and publisher, and finally, a member of the newspaper’s board of directors, a position he still holds.
Yet, it’s a career he never envisioned, especially at age 20 when all he wanted was Paris.
Newspapers have always held a certain appeal for Harry F. Byrd Jr.
As a collegian at the Virginia Military Institute and then the University of Virginia, Byrd, now 96, recalls that he was probably the only member of his class to subscribe to The New York Times. On his daily reading list as well were his hometown newspaper, The Star, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Daily Progress of Charlottesville.
“I’ve always loved reading newspapers,” Byrd said in a far-ranging interview conducted in April. “but I did not plan to make it a career at The Star.”
Though he had worked at the newspaper for one summer in the sports department, Byrd had his reasons for not wanting to make journalism his life’s toil.
“First, I was reluctant to go to work for my father (former governor and then U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.), and, secondly, I was inclined to a broader horizon than Winchester and Frederick County,” he said.
Byrd and his friend and classmate at U.Va., Murat Williams of Richmond, planned to work for an international firm — Freeport Sulfur Co. — of which the latter’s uncle was president. The company had offices in New York . . . and Paris.
But newspapering apparently held a latent appeal as well. Byrd wrote a five-page letter to his father telling him how he thought The Star could be improved.
The elder Byrd’s response was considerably shorter — a few sentences noting that some of his son’s suggestions had merit, but others were “totally unrealistic.”
Then came the kicker. As the younger Byrd recalls, “He said, ‘You won’t be able to really know, unless you come here and try it.’ Then a short sentence, ‘Why don’t you give it a shot?’”
To this day, Byrd can remember neither “the good ideas (nor) the bad ones. I’ve thought about it at least 100 times, but I can’t find the letter.”
The next time father and son were together, they talked about both letters. But Harry Jr., then 20, left his father’s company, knowing “what authority I would have and not have” if he were to accept the offer to return home and work at the family newspaper.
“That conversation helped me with one of my problems about going to work at The Star,” Byrd said. “It eased my concerns about working for my father.
“But I still kept thinking about the possibilities of being with an international company. New York and Paris were still on my mind.”
But the allure of big cities and bright lights would have to wait. In mid-June 1935, he decided to accept his father’s offer and come back to Winchester. And, for all his travels, both as an elected official and a newspaperman, he has never truly left.
“Throughout these past 70 years,” he says, “I have never for one moment regretted it.
“And not until 1951 did I see Paris.”
The Star was “a small newspaper with a small staff” when Harry F. Byrd Jr. walked into its offices at 33 E. Boscawen Street to start his journalistic career. Coincidentally, the newspaper’s telephone was also 33.
Two full-time employees virtually ran the show.
John Hoover was “telegraph editor,” meaning that he oversaw the Associated Press news wire, and doubled as managing editor.
Hoover was one of the newspaper’s original employees, dating back to July 4, 1896 when he assisted founder John I. Sloat in launching The Star.
Thus, with Byrd still gracing the newspaper with his experience and expertise, The Star boasts an unbroken link to its founding. Such continuity — over a century — is a rarity in journalism these days.
The other fulltime employee responsible for the day-to-day news operation of The Star was longtime business manager Ralph “Fuzzy” Fansler, who initially joined the enterprise as a newspaper carrier.
Rounding out the staff were a sports editor, a society (now lifestyle) editor, and three reporters.
Three linotype machines produced the news copy, which was then cranked out on a 12-page Goss rotary press.
Among Byrd’s earliest charges were to further develop the newspaper’s editorial page and to help Fansler with accounts receivable, some of which, he said, went back to the 1920s.
One local attorney, in particular, was “about seven or years behind” in paying for some of his legal advertisements, Byrd remembered.
“I began visiting him monthly and then weekly,” he said, “but he was never able to see me. When we finally got together, he said he could find no record of the advertising having been inserted.”
So one afternoon, after The Star had gone to press, Byrd commandeered seven employees — and seven red wagons. Loaded with bound copies of the newspaper, the little cavalcade left The Star building and proceeded over to North Cameron Street and then down Rouss Avenue to the attorney’s offices. And there the evidence was presented.
“I got half of the amount (owed to the newspaper) that day and decided to forget the other half,” Byrd said.
The Star’s new editor also commenced taking stock of the newspaper’s makeup, which, he said, still exhibited an “1890s style.”
Seeking ideas and inspiration, he subscribed to as many 30 daily newspapers and began integrating modern concepts in The Star’s design.
“I learned a great deal from both Mr. Hoover and Mr. Fansler, and, after a year or two, each said he had learned a lot from me,” Byrd said. “We had a fine relationship.”
He benefited as well from a hands-off approach adopted by his father in Washington. Young Harry Byrd was on his own, which suited him fine.
“It was my father’s style in business matters to either immerse himself in details or to almost completely withdraw,” he said. “So fortunately, for me, he gave almost no supervision.”
Byrd assumed the position of editor virtually from the day he purchased that old desk in 1935, but he cannot recall precisely when the title of publisher was added to his job description. But following an incident in 1938, he felt fairly secure the position was his.
In that year, Byrd’s father informed him that the local state senator was telling one and all that Harry F. Byrd Jr. was “ruining” The Star.
“(My father) asked me what I had to say about that,” Byrd remembered. “I said I did not agree with him (the state senator), and that’s the last I heard of the incident. After that point, I guess I assumed I was publisher.”
Harry F. Byrd Jr. is known primarily as an elected public official. He served state and nation as such for 36 years — the last 18 in the U.S. Senate.
But this remarkable span of service is dwarfed by his tenure at The Star.
Thus, it is no surprise that an inevitable question arose during that three-hour interview in April: “Looking back over 70 years, would you say that politics or newspapering courses most through your veins?”
“I never really thought about it in that context. The short answer is, ‘I really don’t know,’” Byrd said with a laugh.
“And the long answer, I’m afraid, is a rambling one.”
In truth, this “answer” represents a short family history — the Byrd legacy in politics and journalism over five generations.
The story begins in the mid-19th century with Col. William Byrd, the senator’s greatgrandfather, who was born in Winchester and educated at Virginia schools (VMI, with a law degree from U.Va.) before emigrating to Texas. There, in the Lone Star State, he became both a newspaper editor (the Austin Gazette) and a member of the Texas legislature.
Before the Civil War, Col. Byrd was named state adjutant general and then, during the war, was an officer in the Confederate army. His obituary in 1898, notes his great-grandson, said that following the war, he returned home, to Winchester, “broken in health and in fortune.”
What’s more, there is no evidence that, upon coming back home, Col. Byrd participated either in journalism — even though his son, Richard Evelyn Byrd, owned the weekly Winchester Times in partnership with Thomas W. Harrison — or in politics, save for his strong support for the establishment of a local hospital.
He did practice law in Winchester, but eschewed the public spotlight, Byrd said, most likely because of poor health. His wife and daughter, in the mid-1890s, also published the Winchester Times.
The colonel’s son — Richard, or “Mr. Dick,” to his friends — followed a similar path, in a sense, as he entered the political and journalistic whirl early in life. He held public office for 28 years — 20 as commonwealth’s attorney for Frederick County and the last eight in the Virginia Assembly, where he served as Speaker of the House of Delegates for three two-year terms. To date, “Mr. Dick” remains the only lawmaker elevated to the Speaker’s post in his second term in the House.
He left public office in 1913 at the age of 53 and practiced law until his death in 1925.
Byrd said his grandfather “was regarded as a brilliant lawyer and orator, but was not a businessman.” This became evident during his ownership of The Star, which he purchased in 1897.
By 1903, the newspaper was all but bankrupt. To save The Star’s flagging fortunes, “Mr. Dick” turned to his oldest son, Harry Flood Byrd, named for his wife’s beloved brother Hal, a powerful Virginia lawmaker.
Harry F. Byrd Sr., future governor and U.S. senator, was but 16 when he assumed the reins of The Star and rescued it from financial ruin, using the classic “pay-as-you-go” principles for which he would become famous later in life.
With The Star deeply in debt and its lone source of newsprint, the Antietam Paper Co. in Hagerstown, Md., no longer willing to provide credit, the young Harry Sr. negotiated a deal: Antietam would continue to supply The Star’s newsprint — but only one day’s supply at a time, cash on delivery.
For the better part of a year, Byrd spent many a morning selling ads, collecting debts, and persuading older businessmen to keep their accounts with The Star. But when the noon train arrived carrying the next edition’s supply of newsprint, he was always there, money in hand. And thus was born the concept of “pay as you go.”
His father left the newspapering to him, though “Mr. Dick” did reserve the authority to write editorials for The Star.
Just a teenager when he started his journalistic career, the elder Harry Byrd entered political life in 1915 when, at age 28, he was elected to the Virginia Senate. Ten years later, he was in the Governor’s Mansion, Virginia’s youngest chief executive since Thomas Jefferson.
In 1933, after making his mark as one of Virginia’s more progressive and fiscally conservative governors — a rare combination — Harry F. Byrd Sr. was appointed to serve the unexpired U.S. Senate term of Claude A. Swanson, who had been named Secretary of the Navy by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“As to when he left active participation in the newspaper business, it is difficult to say with precision,” his son and namesake said. “But it is appropriate, I think, to say it occurred when I returned from World War II military service in 1946.”
By then, the junior Harry Byrd had been with The Star for more than a decade and had run the newspaper more or less on his own. His father, meanwhile, had attained iconic status both in Virginia, as head of the Democratic Party, and in Washington, as “watchdog of the Treasury” from his post as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“My father (much like his father) left newspaper work in mid-life,” the younger Sen. Byrd says. “But he never left political life until his health prompted him to resign from the U.S. Senate just a year before his death.
“So I think you could say that politics definitely took precedence over newspapering in coursing through his veins.”
Not so for Harry F. Byrd Jr.
“With me,” he says, “it is not so clear, although it probably would be newspapering. I retired (from politics) after 36 years in elected public office, at age 68, but as a member of the board of directors of two newspaper companies, I am still, to a degree, involved in the newspaper business at age 90.”
Appointed to fill his father’s seat in the Senate in 1965, he served in that capacity until 1983. Two years earlier, Byrd, like his father and grandfather before him, officially turned over The Star’s day-to-day operations to a son, whom he had first put to work in his early teens doing odd jobs in the press room and composing room.
In 1973, Thomas T. Byrd took over The Star’s daily operations as general manager and, on March 5, 1981, succeeded his father as publisher. He represents the fourth generation of the Byrd family to hold that title at The Star and the fifth generation to run a newspaper in Winchester.
“For outstanding achievement in bringing about a better understanding of the American way of life.”
— Medallion presented to Harry F. Byrd Jr. for editorial writing by the Freedoms Foundation, Valley Forge, Pa., 1953
One of Harry F. Byrd Jr.’s first duties at The Star was to reinvigorate and enhance the newspaper’s editorial page. It was a task that suitably melded his — and his family’s — penchant for the political and the journalistic.
If there has been one constant in the senator’s 70 years at The Star, it has been editorial writing. To this day, he contributes the occasional opinion to the top left-hand corner of Page A4.
Asked if any one particular editorial still resonates in his mind, Byrd immediately recalls what he wrote on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941 when The Evening Star, as did many newspapers the nation over, quickly cobbled together an “Extra” on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, home of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet.
His prose was sparse, and his sentiments clear and to the point: “The developments of the past 12 hours are almost unbelievable. The madness of Japan is staggering . . .
“Yesterday, the people of the United States were peaceloving, peaceful. Today, we are no less peace-loving, only less peaceful.
“Yesterday, our people were sharply divided, wholly disunited. Today we are as one.
“Every resource of this resourceful nation — of these united people — will be used to annihilate our enemy.”
But Byrd also vividly remembers an editorial he penned in response to a considerably less momentous (albeit memorable) event — a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling for the defeat of incumbent Democratic Sen. Walter George of Georgia.
Following his landslide victory over Republican Alfred M. Landon in 1936, Roosevelt was riding high. But a number of more conservative Democratic senators — Bennett “Champ” Clark of Missouri, Millard Tydings of Maryland, and “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, among them — strongly opposed the president’s New Deal legislation, as did a majority on the Supreme Court, dubbed the “nine old men.” Walter George was part of that former group.
In 1938, Roosevelt spoke at a political meeting in Georgia, excoriating George and urging his defeat. But then he ended his speech with the words, “God bless you, Walter.”
Back in Winchester, Byrd seized the moment, writing a front-page editorial citing “good reasons for Sen. George’s re-election” in the Democratic primary. He headlined the opinion with Roosevelt’s closing words, “God bless you, Walter.”
George was re-elected.
But endorsements were rare in those days, at least in presidential elections. As Byrd noted, The Star, in the first 40 years of its existence, uniformly backed the Democratic nominee for the White House. But, for the next 40, it did not endorse either presidential candidate. In the past quarter-century, the newspaper has officially backed the Republican hopeful.
In 1950, two years after his first successful run for the state Senate, Harry F. Byrd Jr. was also elected to the Associated Press Board of Directors. Elevated with him was Paul Miller, president of the Gannett newspaper chain.
Youth was clearly not at a premium on the board. At the time, Byrd was 35, Miller was 42 — and the 16 other members were all in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. In fact, as Byrd recalls, the editor and publisher of the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune was 84 — “exactly double Paul’s age.”
Miller proved to be one of Byrd’s “closest and dearest friends” — the first employee of the AP to rise to its presidency. Before moving to Gannett, Miller had been the AP’s bureau chief in Washington.
New rules dictated that an AP director could only serve three successive three-year terms. But, after leaving the board in 1959, both Miller and Byrd were re-elected — the former in 1960, the latter in 1961 — the first time that had ever happened in the history of the AP.
Byrd later resigned his directorship when he was appointed to succeed his ailing father in the U.S. Senate.
Emerging from Byrd’s friendship with Miller were a number of writing assignments for Gannett. In 1951, for instance, Byrd spent eight weeks in Europe interviewing political leaders, starting in Great Britain with Winston Churchill.
Over his seven decades with The Star, Harry F. Byrd Jr. has made several key hiring decisions and was blessed with relationships he has long treasured.
From the early days, there was John Hoover and Ralph Fansler. Then, in 1954, seeking an editor to oversee operations at The Star’s sister newspaper in Harrisonburg, the Daily News-Record, Byrd went to New York to speak with Wes Gallagher, the AP’s general manager.
Gallagher recommended the organization’s former bureau chief for North Carolina and South Carolina, who by then was raising funds for Wofford College. By company policy, the AP could not re-hire this man. But Byrd certainly could offer him a job. And that is how D. Lathan Mims, editor of the Daily News-Record from 1954 to 1980, came to Harrisonburg.
Succeeding Mims over the next two decades (1980-2000) at the helm of the DN-R was Richard R.J. Morin. Peter S. Yates, hired in 2000, is now editor and general manager of the newspaper.
Suffice it to say, Byrd has displayed a keen eye in selecting managers over the past half-century.
Seven years after hiring Mims in Harrisonburg, Byrd went calling on his associates at the AP once again, this time for a new editor at The Star. Though the AP wouldn’t specifically recommend the person he had in mind for the position — West Virginia bureau chief Jack F. Davis — Byrd hired him anyway.
Davis served as executive editor and, three years later in 1964, took on the duties of general manager. He left The Star in 1973 when he was hired by Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. as a special assistant.
Byrd’s son, Thomas T. Byrd, took over the reins as general manager in 1973. On March 5, 1981, Tom Byrd succeeded his father as publisher.
For 39 years, Audrey Jones was Byrd’s personal secretary. In addition to running his office at The Star, Jones would, at times, travel to Richmond during General Assembly sessions. There, in the Senate chamber, Byrd would dictate correspondence, which Jones would type on her return to Winchester.
In 1973, Wynnona B. Kirk succeeded Jones as Byrd’s personal secretary. Hired by Davis, she has served both the senator and The Star’s publisher as secretary and administrative assistant for more than 30 years.
Finally, one day in the summer of 1941, Byrd and Fansler were discussing personnel. The former noted that a replacement would have to be found on the news staff for a certain Gretchen Thomson, who was leaving the newspaper’s employ to get married.
“Ralph said, ‘Dammit, I trained her and now she’s going off and getting married,” Byrd recalled with a laugh.
“And then he said, ‘Who’s she marrying anyway?’ And I said, ‘Well, she’s marrying me.’
“Ralph took it in good grace. I had always called her Miss Thomson in the office. He didn’t even know I was dating her.”
Harry and Gretchen were married for 48 years before her death on Oct. 26, 1989.
Looking back over 70 years, Byrd states his foremost accomplishment as a newspaperman was being the first publisher of a daily newspaper in Virginia to take his publication from “hot” type to “cold.”
Offset printing came to The Star in 1964. “Today,” Byrd said, “that is the standard for virtually every newspaper in the United States.”
But the publisher himself was neither in the newspaper office nor even in Winchester on the day of the big change.
“After I made the decision to go offset, Jack (Davis) decided to accomplish the changeover in one day,” Byrd said. “I told him I would not object, but that the best way for me to be helpful to him would be for me to leave the city, which I did.”
Likewise in the vein of capital improvements, Byrd oversaw the construction of new offices for the family’s two daily newspapers. The Daily News-Record building in Harrisonburg, erected in 1941, has undergone seven additions. The Star office, which moved a few hundred yards east up Boscawen Street to the northeast corner of Kent and Boscawen, has witnessed five additions.
Now, more than 75 years and a U.S. Senate career later, Byrd does not miss many days at The Star. He still sits behind his desk — though not the original $5 second-hand version — and plies the journalistic trade. He still reads at least seven newspapers daily. And he still engages in what he calls “research in areas that could be helpful to current operations.”
Old habits, as he admits, die hard. For example, just last year, much as he did seven decades ago as a fledgling editor, he subscribed to 30 different newspapers nationwide — all in The Star’s circulation range of between 20,000 and 30,000 — for 10 weeks at a time to compare and contrast composition and makeup.
In the same vein, he also undertook a study to compare the number of locally bylined stories in The Star and Daily News-Record with those of “15 or 20 other newspapers, some in Virginia and some nationwide.”
In other words, Harry F. Byrd Jr. stays busy and vitally interested in the business of a lifetime, one that he nearly bypassed for a “broader horizon” — and Paris — some 70 years ago. He still clearly enjoys it and, in a special sense, things have changed very little since the day in 1935 when he took pen in hand and, in that letter to his father, offered his suggestions for improving The Star.
“I like being in a building where newspaper people are,” he said. “And, although I have no authority in regards to operations, I sometimes will make suggestions, which sometimes are accepted and, more often, are ignored.
“But I enjoy thinking about newspaper matters, though I do try to hold to a reasonable number the ideas I might throw out. It’s a habit I acquired many years ago. When one gets older, habits are difficult to break.”
How true, but once a journalist, forever a journalist — and always the bright shining light here at The Winchester Star.