There is an endangered American breed of animal, yet few seem to care.
Dale Allison is a member of that dying breed. Alison is a journalist.
He’s also an author.
In his new book, “Oldest Iowa: An Informal Look at the History of the Burlington Hawkeye and Its Incredible Personalities,” longtime news journalist Allison sheds light–finally–on the legend of Iowa’s oldest newspaper, and how it grew and created with the young nation’s history and helped Burlington grow, And how a media giant almost toppled it, and yet a young newspaper was born on this day from the death rays of the Internet.
And the hawk’s eye is still alive.
Allison knows what he’s talking about. Before radio, before television, before email and text messaging and Twitter and Facebook, the world got its news from newspapers.
Allison is just the guy telling this story, and he, the venerable, street storyteller, he tells it so well.
The introduction states “This book is for all employees who worked between 1838 and 2017 at The Hawk Eye and the Burlington Gazette”. Gatehouse Media purchased The Hawk Eye in 2016, and earlier this month, Mississippi Valley Publishing purchased The Hawk Eye from Gatehouse; MVP also owns the Fort Madison Daily Democrat and the Daily Gate City in Keokuk.
The past of the hawk’s eye
Allison said he wrote “The Oldest State of Iowa” because Hawkeye had an important story to tell and that story needed to be told.
Indeed: The venerable broadsheet began publication as a weekly newspaper on July 10, 1837, the first newspaper in what became Iowa Territory. James Clark and Cyrus Jacobs began the claim for “Iowa’s Oldest State” after Visitor Dubuque, the first to publish The Western Adventurer and Herald in Montrose, the second to go to print. But because the lineage of the Burlington newspaper has survived without interruption, it holds the title as the oldest in the state.
The United States was cash-strapped in the mid-nineteenth century, Allison explains, and the economy was in the worst shape in its young history. Cotton prices and real estate values collapsed, mostly due to speculators. The situation was grim.
Fortunately for Clark and Jacobs, they could count on government printing to keep their fledgling venture afloat. At the time, editors were supplementing their meager earnings with general printing. Newspapers learned that they could increase their audience by becoming political figures who entertained readers with “partisan satire and unabashed reinforcement.”
And so it goes: The history of Hawkeye is crammed with historical figures ranging from US Senator James W. Grimes to Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley. From the grain elevator explosion to school board president Chuck Ball’s tragic suicide; From the shooting of policeman Tom Walz to the Central Standard Lumber fire.
“One of the most important of these is the IAAP story,” Allison said.
As the 20th century drew to a close, Hawkeye political reporter Dennis Carroll and business editor Mike Augsberger received a special mention for their work exposing top-secret Cold War work at an Iowa Army munitions plant that involved handling nuclear materials.
For months, Augsburger wrote stories about families suffering from a variety of ailments, including cancer, while Carroll sifted through documents and interviewed medical professionals.
Their efforts were rewarded when US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson met with IAAP employees – past and present – in early 2001 to announce that plant workers employed between 1947 and 1975 would be eligible for private medical compensation. The University of Iowa has established a clinic to help workers and their families.
“If Carroll and Augsburger had not written the stories, the help would not have been available to those families,” Alison wrote.
Hawk Eye came close to winning a Pulitzer with its IAAP Series.
In addition to a comprehensive history of Iowa’s oldest newspaper, Allison’s book is full of contemporary anecdotes and people who are still alive, and his long service as managing editor of The Hawk Eye puts him in the same category as people he introduces in “Oldest Iowa.”
Sadly, Alison was one of the victims of a corporate takeover, but fortunately, after leaving The Hawk Eye, he sat down and wrote this book of history, local lore, and anecdotes.
“I got my first order of the books two days before the Mississippi Valley sale was announced,” Allison said. “Harris owned the paper for 75 years and I thought it was a good time to reflect on the history of this paper.”
The story opens with a table of contents, enriching the reader with the promise of chapters on the history of The Hawk Eye and why it is the oldest newspaper in Iowa, and how things changed when the Harris family bought—and eventually sold—the paper.
Editor/Publishers Clarence Moody, Stuart Aubrey, John McCormally and the best boss this century has had on the Hawkeye staff Bill Mertens; All in this book.
Allison grew up in a small town somewhere between Wichita and Hutchinson, Kansas, where his grandparents ran a flower shop — but let us let him tell you his story.
The floral traditions of the time meant that funerals were a big part of their business, and fresh flowers for sprays, wreaths, and casket pieces had to be ordered in preparation.
“The best way to do this for my grandparents’ market was to monitor the deaths in the local daily papers. My grandparents subscribed to the Hutchinson News and had my parents get the Wichita Eagle, so between the two papers, they were able to keep up with all the deaths in the area.
“While Mom and Dad dutifully followed the death notices, the entire paper was gutted,” Allison said.
And so the story begins.
Alison was a volunteer with the Halstead Independent in 1973 when freelance photographer Galen Bowler captured a photograph of the collapse of an old, run-down hotel on the High Street. Allison contacted Hutchinson and Wichita Papers to see if either of them would be interested in the photos; The news said yes, and Allison and Poehler drove to Hutchinson to deliver the photos.
There was no World Wide Web at that time.
“The news said yes!” Alison Books. “I never really recovered from this physical rush. The next morning the pictures were on the front page of the news and I was hooked.
And so it went: After earning her master’s degree, Allison was offered a job in 1982 at Harris Enterprises’ experimental electronic newspaper Agritext in Hutchinson, where he met Bob Brueger, a Burlington native.
“We realized later that we had been working with the Internet before the Internet existed,” Allison said.
Harris withdrew his funding and Alison applied to become Sunday editor at The Hawk Eye. He finally arrived in Burlington in 1985, where he was interviewed by Hawk Eye managing editor Bobby Wilson and Sunday editor-in-chief Grant Marshall. Publisher Bill Mertens hired Allison to replace the retiring Marshall.
Allison had no real intention of staying in Burlington, but the community soon grew fond of him, and in 1990, he became managing editor of Hawk Eye, which he calls “the best job in the world.”
On December 1, 2016, Gatehouse Media purchased The Hawk Eye; Allison stayed on until he was fired in 2017, and he has a lot to say about that in his book.
With free time on his hands, Alison dived deep into the newspaper’s rich history, and was surprised by what he learned.
The fruits of his labors can be found—and enjoyed—in “Iowa’s Oldest State.”
Now, with the new direction from the MVP, Allison said, the hawk’s eye should focus on stewardship.
“When Clarence Moody was here, he said it very, very succinctly: The newspaper needs to make some people’s money — public money — well spent,” Allison said. “Track how public money is spent.”
Alison provides kudos to former Hawk Eye contributors including Mike Sweet, Rex Trott, Ron Givens, former and recent Hawk Eye publisher Steve Delaney, and reporter Will Smith, whom Alison calls “perhaps the best general-assignment reporter The Hawk Eye ever had.”
He also thanks historian Ross Fry for encouraging him to pursue the project, and Nancy Crispin for her invaluable historical perspective.
Alison’s book makes the perfect last-minute Christmas gift that will last for generations of Burlington residents to come.
“Iowa’s Oldest” is available at Burlington Buy The Book, or 301 Jefferson St. in Burlington, or online at Amazon.