Witwer guided News-Sun through many changes
|A native of South Bend and a
graduate of Yale University, George O. Witwer worked for
several newspapers on the East Coast before becoming
editor and general manager of The News-Sun in 1962. He
purchased Kendallville Publishing Co. in 1969 and was
instrumental in its dramatic growth over the years.
Witwer, 67, retired in 1996 as publisher. He remains the
The following is his response to an interview about the history of The News-Sun.
Why did you come to Kendallville?
It seemed a good idea at the time ... and a good idea it proved out to be (at least for my family and me). I had applied for the position of editor and general manager here in 1958, when Busty Fischer died. My cousin Ed Witwer of Niles, Mich., knew Joe Krall, president of McCray Refrigeration Co. Joe mentioned the opening to Ed, who, thinking of me, told my father, who told me. I was just leaving the New Haven (Conn.) newspapers to start up two shopper publications and a small print shop.
I didnt get the job. I was 28 at the time, and perhaps considered too young. Joe Gaskill, the advertising salesman, was promoted to general manager and Norm Carter, the reporter, was promoted to editor. But the relationship between the Carters and the Gaskills, even though they attended the same church, was not smooth. Joe would launch an off-street parking program for the merchants. Norm would write editorials against the plan. Eventually, Joe had a heart attack.
Wyman Finley, the attorney for Mrs. Alice Merica, who owned The News-Sun, found my application from four years previous in his files and phoned my father. Meanwhile, I had sold the shoppers and print shop to my partner and moved from Connecticut to Brooklyn Heights in New York City with Lee and our four kids. I had joined a partnership with two guys from the Wall Street Journal. We published a weekly six-page newsletter on common market stocks called The London Letter. By an amazing coincidence I was about to fly to my parents house in South Bend for the weekend before an appointment with the Continental Bank in Chicago on Monday when my dad received Wymans phone call. I told my dad I wasnt looking for a job, but when he suggested he might help me finance the purchase of The News-Sun, I agreed to drive over to Kendallville on a Saturday and talk with Mrs. Merica and Wyman.
NEWS-SUN TEAM The editorial staff of The News-Sun
gathered for this photo in 1966. From left to right are
George O. Witwer (editor), C. William West (city editor),
Wendell Jollief (sports editor), Bill Gisel
(photographer, reporter), Jeanette Hetrick (society
editor) and Marguerite Sand (wire editor).
|They struck me as delightful people ...
Wyman with his gracious manners, small, compact body,
large head with heavy eyebrows and beautiful hair; Alice
W. Merica, still bright, beautiful and smiling at age 97;
small, trim, straight-backed, with a rather big mouth,
high forehead, gray eyes, I believe; she resembled the
late Helen Hayes.
Mrs. Merica explained to me that before her husband, Charles O. Merica, died in 1917, she had promised him she would never sell The News-Sun during her lifetime; but I could buy it from her estate. Frankly, no one lived past 97 back then. I doubted I would have long to wait.
The News-Sun had not been doing well financially. I figured Id restore its profitability; then, after Id bought the newspaper, Id quickly sell it and return to my partners in New York with a capital gain. I did manage to turn The News-Sun around financially. After about two years I almost forgot about owning The News-Sun. I sold my one-third interest in The London Letter to a fellow whose Japanese wife had highly-placed connections; the Japan Letter which followed did just great until his wife caught him with another woman. That was the end of the Japan Letter. Meanwhile, Mrs. Merica lived one month short of 104!
What was the downtown business district like back in the early 1960s, and what was the newspaper office like? How many employees did the newspaper have? How many reporters and back-shop people?
There was never a vacant storefront on Main Street back in the 1960s. But changes were afoot. The A&P moved from South Main Street to a new building at the intersection of Riley and Wayne streets (now the Kendallville IGA); then, out of town. The wags who tied a rowboat to a stake in the swampy area at the intersection of U.S. 6 and Ind. 3 with the sign Stonebrakers Folly suffered their comeuppance when Tony Carunchia opened Foodtown Supermarket there and began buying full-page ads in The News-Sun. The Publix Cafe was torn down to make way for the Publix Village Square shopping center. Rival merchant groups competed with two Santas and two Christmas parades to the confusion of area children. Mainstay stores like Atz Furniture moved from the Kelly House Hotel, where Kendallville Auto Parts is now located, to U.S. 6, following residential and manufacturing growth north.
As for The News-Sun, it had not changed much before I arrived from about 1911 when its previous owners, Mr. and Mrs. Michaelis, consolidated the News and the Sun, moved to 109 N. Main St., purchased an expensive new flatbed press from the Goss Co. and a complicated linotype typesetting machine; then, overextended financially (I suspect), they sold out to the Mericas in 1913.
REMEMBERED Ralston V. Busty Fischers photo and Oliver typewriter are on display today in The News-Sun editorial department. Fischer, father of Kendallville pharmacist Craig Fischer, was editor and general manager of The News-Sun from 1937 until his death in 1958.
|There were seven of us who worked in tight quarters
with our desks back to back in the front office and nine
who toiled with hot lead in the back shop putting out the
paper. After a monumental effort writing most of our
eight-section centennial edition in 1963, Norm Carter
left The News-Sun for a career with the News-Sentinel.
For a short time, I handled the wire copy and all of our
news with the exception of sports and social notes. I
also supervised our ad sales. And Avis Dickey, our
bookkeeper, worked harder than any of us and supervised
me. Somehow we got through the days, the paper slowly
improved and we hired more people.
Now I had money to hire a reporter, but darned if I could find one. My first hire materialized from a bank in Goshen. His name was Jim Phillips. Tall, thin, blond with twinkling blue eyes, Jim was as refreshing as a drink of water on a summer day. I explained things: I cant afford to pay you very much. Youll have to work night and day. But when you can write a 30 point headline as well as I can, Ill get you a decent job on a decent newspaper.
Anythings better than working in a bank, Jim said.
In 1964, we covered the Palm Sunday tornado together. We were the first newspaper reporters to arrive at the church at Rainbow Lake where 19 people died. Our flashlights caught sight of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Yoder who were killed while fleeing toward the church. The tornado rolled them over and over in barbed wire. They were not a pretty sight. We photographed some strange things, like the strand of straw driven into a tree as though it were a nail.
Probably the biggest story I personally covered for The News-Sun was the school consolidation issue that dominated the news in the early 1960s. Prior to the states school consolidation act each of Noble Countys nine townships ran their own school systems. Graduates of Avilla High School or Wawaka High School were enormously proud of their schools even though their schools could not offer the selection of courses available at the Kendallville or Ligonier high schools.
People like Mrs. Louis Lash of Avilla wrote passionate and articulate letters to me about the issue. As our only reporter at the time, I was challenged to cover the issues in a way both sides would perceive as fair.
The most bitterly divisive battle was between Ligonier, Cromwell and Wawaka over the location of West Noble High School. The people of Ligonier argued that a location in Ligonier made the most economic sense. Utilities were easily available and fewer students would need to be bused. But the majority of those living outside of Ligonier would agree to locating the new high school anywhere except in Ligonier. They had the most votes.
Once, the late Lyle Schuman, the Ligonier representative on the West Noble school board, arrived late for a meeting with his clothes dirty and disheveled and a cut on his forehead. He claimed he had been run off the road on his way to the meeting by people, he claimed, who wanted to prevent him from voting.
|Two daughters of a prominent Kendallville merchant
had moved to Chicago in the halcyon twenties and returned
to Kendallville late in the Depression with a Negro maid.
One of the daughters was bedridden and needed to be
The Negro maid was a big, jolly person with a deep voice. She was popular with the merchants on Main Street, according to Dave Hughes, co-owner of the Firestone store whom I remember interviewing when I wrote her obituary at the time she died. The reason I wrote the obituary was because I received an anonymous phone call asking if I had checked the death certificate. I phoned John Hutchins at Berhalter-Hutchins Funeral Home and asked if I had to come down and check the death certificate; he grudgingly told me that she was in fact a he.
I dont know yet if I did right to expose the black mans secret. The sisters were embarrassed, although I tried to mitigate the scandal by questioning in my column what desperate economic condition might have driven the black man to conceal his sexual identity from them. On the other hand, it was my job to print the truth and I could not very well write an obituary using she when I knew it should be he. Much later we were faced with another case where a popular citizen died of AIDS. In this case our newspaper used the story he and his family had put out to describe his illness, rather than what we knew was written on the death certificate. Again, I dont know if we did right.
Kendallville Standard office was at 102 S. Main St., now site of the Treasure Me Dolls store.
|How has the business changed?
What impact did changing to offset printing have on the
The late 1950s and early 1960s were not good ones financially for Kendallville Publishing Co. Net income in 1956 was $10,870; 1957, $7,583; 1958, $7,001; 1959, $5,164; 1960, $6,545; 1961, $4,065. By 1962 when I arrived things already were improving. We ended 1962 with a taxable profit of $6,631.79 on total revenues of $139,952.86. In 1963 our gross sales rose to $168,227.56 and profits before taxes were $11,371.69. In 1964, taxable profits were $14,991 on sales of $178,004. Our profits now were easily covering Mrs. Mericas dividend, and I could do no wrong in her eyes. But then disaster struck. We changed our printing process from letterpress to offset.
From my time working on newspapers in the East I had seen the future and its name, I felt, was offset printing. I couldnt wait to convert a newspaper to offset. But I didnt tell anyone about my plans. I didnt want to frighten people. Already my wife was telling me I was stirring things up, making too many changes, asking too much of the employees, and confusing everyone.
Our Goss flatbed press dated from 1911. It was the oldest press of its type under a continuous Goss maintenance contract in nine states. The Evening Star in Auburn had a press newer than ours and Vern Buchanan, its owner, re-equipped with brand new letterpress equipment in 1962. I knew that if we could stretch our presss life a few more years, we could put in revolutionary new equipment that would save us manpower in the back shop and allow us to hire more reporters, ad sales and circulation people, and, yes, make more money. Maybe instead of one editorial person for more than 1,000 subscribers we could afford one reporter for every 500 subscribers. (Today, with over 8,000 subscribers and about 14 editorial people, counting part-time equivalents, we are closer to that goal than in 1962 when we had two and one-half editorial people for about 3,300 subscribers.)
By 1964, I was spending much of my time studying the new
offset printing process. I heard of a new offset press the
shopper in Coldwater, Mich., had installed. I drove up to see it
at the publishers open house.
As I sipped his punch and nibbled his cookies, I made the mistake of opening my heart to him. We had so many ads from our Main Street merchants that I had trouble printing them all, I said. It took us two and one-half hours to print The News-Sun, I told him. The shopper publisher listened very closely.
A couple of weeks later Jack Emerson, the postmaster, phoned me. I think there is something you should know, George. A man from Coldwater just left my office. He took out a third-class mailing permit, Jack said.
My blood froze. My God, I thought, Im going to have to share our advertising income with a shopper just when Im trying to pay for a new press. I rushed to complete the business plan I had been preparing for Wyman Finley and Mrs. Merica. Only one other daily in the state, The Martinsville Reporter, had gone offset, and although the publisher claimed the conversion was successful, he confessed after he was badgered by other publishers at our state convention that even if it wasnt successful, he wouldnt admit it. I needed authority to buy the building next to us, build on to the back of it and install a new type of printing press and new composing equipment. All of our bonds and savings would not be enough. Mrs. Merica at the age of 99 would have to authorize me to put the company in debt. Should a 99-year-old woman take on thousands of dollars of debt?
I tried to explain things to Wyman. He was noncommittal. Finally I said, Wyman, I cant assure you that our profits will be greater if we convert to offset, but Im positive they will be less each year if we dont.
With the business plan finally completed, I telephoned Mrs. Merica for an appointment.
What do you want to see me about? Is everyone warm enough there? Whenever I telephoned her in the winter her first question was if her employees were warm enough.
Were warm enough, I assured her. Do you remember that press the newspaper bought back in 1911? I asked.
Yes, I remember it, she said.
I think we need a new one, I said. Our pictures will look better. Well be able to add color and we can make money doing job work for others.
Can we afford it, Mr. Witwer?
Ill need your permission to borrow some money, but I believe we can afford it, Mrs. Merica.
Well, good, Mr. Witwer. You go do it!
A week or two later she phoned me to say she had not noticed an improvement in the pictures in the paper. Six months later, in July 1965, while fighting for our economic life against the new shopper, we converted to the offset. Our profits disappeared and I was afraid that I might be fired. We ended the year with an operating loss of $2,092 compared to an operating profit of $17,496 in 1964. The sale of old letterpress equipment brought our net profit to $455.27 for 1965 compared to $14,992 in 1964. About a month after we went offset we were able to start our own shopper. The downtown merchants chose to support our shopper. Early in 1966 the man from Coldwater asked if we would like to buy his Kendallville offices typesetting equipment and furniture. I said we would be delighted.
In 1966 we grossed over $25,000 in commercial printing revenue and our profits exceeded those of 1964. We added to our staff as our volume grew. Today we publish two dailies, a weekly, three shoppers, dozens of special sections and a good many other publications and fliers we dont own. We employ about 130 full-time and part-time equivalent people. Thanks partly to inflation, our volume and profits are many times what they were when I arrived that pretty June day in 1962. Thanks most of all to those downtown Kendallville merchants who supported us when our financial life hung in the balance!
The change from letterpress to offset printing, although it offered great opportunities, discombobulated many News-Sun employees. None was more agonized than our longtime foreman, Paul Zawadzke.
Paul began working at The News-Sun at the age of 12. His family had scraped some money together to send Paul to a Lutheran school in Chicago in preparation for a career in the ministry. Poor little Paul was so homesick for Kendallville that he ran away from the school and walked all the way home from Chicago.
His parents were so disgusted with him they sent him to The News-Sun to work in the basement casting hot lead. Eventually Paul was promoted to foreman because he was the only employee in the back shop to whom everyone would talk. The compositor would say to Paul, Paul, tell that blank, blank linotyper he made this line 34 picas when I asked for 36. The linotyper would reply, Paul, tell that blank, blank stone man 34 picas is exactly what he asked for.
When I informed Paul we were switching to offset, Paul had worked at The News-Sun more than 40 years.
Well, George, I guess its time for me to retire, he said.
You cant retire, Paul. If you retire, Ill retire and then who will run this place? I replied.
He grudgingly agreed to stay on, supervising the publishing of The News-Sun more by the force of his will than by any real understanding of the chemistry upon which offset printing is based.
After our transition to offset printing was completed, Paul said to me once, George, it would just be my luck to live long enough to have to go though this again. Such a situation I would now be facing had I not been able to retire last year.
We began publishing The News-Sun on the Internet (www.noblecan.org/~kpc, for those with Internet access) a year ago. Rather than replace the printed page, the web edition will complement it. We can store vast amounts of digitized words and photos on our web site. This can be accessed day or night from a home computer, or, within two years, from your TV set. I foresee more of an evolution than a revolution shaping up. Our web site will be competing for the attention of our subscribers with other web sites and our job will be to make it the most useful to subscribers and advertisers alike. Our printed edition will promote it. For example, this series on downtown Main Street will be available to anyone at any time on our web site through a hyperlink from our web page.
As Paul might have said, I think Im retiring at about the right time.