Colonel Nelson’s “Star” – American Travel

“WHAT do you expect to see in Kansas City?” I was asked by the president of a trust company.

“I want to see the new Union Station,” I said, “and I hope also to meet Colonel Nelson.”

He smiled. “One ‘s as big as the other,” was his comment.

That is a mild statement of the case. The power of Colonel Nelson is something unique, and his newspaper, the Kansas City “Star,” is, I believe, alone in the position it holds among American dailies.

Like all powerful newspapers, it is the expression of a single individuality.. The “Star” expresses Colonel William Rockhill Nelson as definitely as the New York “Sun” used to express Charles A. Dana, as the New York “Tribune” expressed Horace Greeley, as the “Herald” expressed Bennett, as the Chicago “Tribune” expressed Medill, as the “Courier-Journal” expresses Watterson, as the Pulitzer papers continue to express the late Joseph Pulitzer, and as the Hearst papers express William Randolph Hearst.

Besides circulating widely throughout Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and western Missouri, the “Star” so dominates Kansas City that last year it sold, in the city, many thousand papers a day in excess of the number of houses there. Other papers have been started to combat it, but without appreciable effect.. The “Star” continues upon its majestic course, towing the wagon of Kansas City.

To me the greatest thing about the “Star” is its en-tire freedom from yellowness. Its appearance is as conservative as that of the New York “Evening Post.” It prints no scareheads and no half-tone pictures, such pictures as it uses being redrawn in line, so that they print sharply. Another characteristic of the paper is its highly localized flavor. It handles relatively little European news, and even the doings of New York and Chicago seem to impress it but slightly. It is the organ of the “feed lot,” the “official gazette” of the capital of the Southwest.

While contemplating the “Star” I was reminded of a conversation held many weeks before in Buffalo with a very thoughtful gentleman.

“The great trouble with the American people,” he declared, “is that they are not yet a thinking people.” “What makes you believe that?” I asked.

“The first proof of it,” he returned, “is that they read yellow journals.”

It is a notable and admirable fact that the people of Kansas—the State which Colonel Nelson considers particularly his own—do not read the “yellows” to any considerable extent. (“I might stop publishing this paper,” Colonel Nelson said, “but it will never get yellow.” And later : “Anybody can print the news, but the `Star’ tries to build things up. That is what a news-paper is for.”)

Even the “Star” building is highly individualized. It is a great solid pile of tapestry brick, suggesting a castle in Siena. In one end are the presses; in the other the business and editorial departments. The editorial offices are in a single vast room, in a corner of which the Colonel’s flat-top desk is placed. There are no private offices. The city editor and his reporters have their desks at the center, under a skylight, and the editorial writers, telegraph editor, Sunday editor, and all the other editors are distributed about the room’s perimeter.

Before talking with Colonel Nelson I inquired into some of the reforms brought about through the efforts of the “Star.” The list of them is formidable. Many persons attributed the existence of the present park and boulevard system to this great newspaper; among other things mentioned were the following: the improvement of schools ; the abolition of quack doctors, medical museums and fortune tellers; the building of county roads; the elimination of bill-boards from the boulevards; the boat line navigating the Missouri River; the introduction of commission government in Kansas City, Kas. (which, I was informed, was the first city of its size to have commission government) ; the municipal ownership of waterworks in both Kansas Cities. More recently the “Star” has been fighting for what it terms “free justice”—that is, the dispensing of justice without costs or attorneys’ fees, as it is already dispensed in the “small debtors” courts of Kansas City and through the free legal-aid bureau. Colonel Nelson says : ” `Free justice’ would take the judicial administration of the law out of the hands of privately paid attorneys and place it wholly in the hands of courts officered by the public’s servants.

“In the great majority of cases justice is still not free. A man must hire his lawyer. So justice is not only not free but not equal. A poor owner of a legal right gives a $5 fee to a $5 lawyer. A rich defender of a legal wrong gives a $5,000 fee to a $5,000 lawyer. The scales of a purchased justice tip to the wrong side. Or, even if the owner of the legal right gets his right established by the court, he still must divide the value of it with his attorney. The administration of justice should be as free as the making of laws. It should be as free as police service.”

The “Star” has been hammering away at this idea for months, precisely as it has been hammering at political corruption, wherever found. Another “Star” crusade is for a 25-acre park opposite the new Union Station, instead of the small plaza originally planned—the danger in the case of the latter being that, although it does provide some setting for the station, it yet permits cheap buildings to encroach to a point sufficiently near the station to materially detract from it.

Many lawyers disapprove of the “free justice” idea; all the politically corrupt loathe the “Star” for obvious reasons; and some taxpayers may be found who cry out that Colonel Nelson pushes Kansas City into improvements faster than she ought to go. Nevertheless, as with the “Post-Dispatch” in St. Louis, the “Star” is read alike by those who believe in it and those who hate it bitterly.

As an outsider fascinated by the “Star’s” activities, I came away with the opinion that Colonel Nelson’s power was perhaps greater than that of any other single newspaper publisher in the country; that it was perhaps too great for one man to wield, but that, exercised by such a pure idealist as the Colonel unquestionably is, it has been a blessing to the city. Nor can I conceive how even the bitterest enemies of Colonel Nelson can question his motives.

Will Irwin, who knows about newspapers if anybody does, said to me: “The `Star’ is not only one of the greatest newspapers in the world, but it is a regular club. I know of no paper anywhere where the personnel of the men is higher. I will give you a letter to Barton. He will introduce you around the office, and the office will do the rest.”

I found these prognostications true. Inside a few hours I felt as though I, too, had been a “Star” man. “Star” men took me to “dinner”—meaning what we in the East call “luncheon”; took me to see the station, put me in touch with endless stories of all sorts—all with the kindliest and most disinterested spirit. They told me so much that I could write half a dozen chapters on Kansas City.

Take, for example, the story of the Convention Hall. It is a vast auditorium, taking up, as I recall it, a whole block. It was built for the Democratic National Convention in 1900, but burned down immediately after having been completed; whereupon Kansas City turned in, raised the money all over again, and in about ten weeks’ time completely rebuilt it. There Bryan was nominated for the second time. Or, consider the story of the “Harvey System” of hotels and restaurants on the Santa Fe Road. The headquarters of this eating-house system is in Kansas City, and offers a fine field for a story all by itself, for it has been the biggest single influence in civilizing hotel life and in raising gastronomic standards throughout the west.

But these are only items by the way—two among the countless things that “Star” men told me of, or showed me. And, of course, the greatest thing they showed me was right in their own office: their friend, their “boss,” that active volcano, seventy-three years old, who comes down daily to his desk, and whose enthusiasm fires them all.

Colonel Nelson is a “character.” Even if he didn’t own the “Star,” even if he had not the mind he has, he would be a “character,” if only by virtue of his appearance. I have called him a volcano ; he is more like one than any other man I have ever met. He is even shaped like one, being mountainous in his proportions, and also in the way he tapers upward from his vast waist to his snow-capped “peak.” Furthermore, his face is lined, seamed, and furrowed in extraordinary suggestion of those strange, gnarled lava forms which adorn the slopes of Vesuvius. Even the voice which proceeds from the Colonel’s “crater” is Vesuvian: hoarse, deep, rumbling, strong. When he speaks, great natural forces seem to stir, and you hope that no eruption may occur while you are near, lest the fire from the mountain descend upon you and destroy you.

“Umph !” rumbled the volcano as it shook hands with my companion and me. “You ‘re from New York? New York is running the big gambling house and show house for the country. It does n’t produce anything. It does n’t take any more interest in where the money comes from than a gambler cares where you get the money you put into his game.

“Kansas is the greatest state in the Union. It thinks. It produces things. Among other things, it produces crazy people. It is a great thing to have a few crazy people around ! Roosevelt is crazy. Umph ! So were the men who started the Revolution to break away from England.

“Most of the people in the United States don’t think. They are indifferent and apathetic. They don’t want to work. One of our `Star’ boys went to an agricultural college to see what was going on there. What did he find out? Why, that instead of making farmers they were making professors. Yes. Pretty nearly the en-tire graduating class went there to learn to teach farming. That ‘s not what we want. We want farmers.”

The Colonel’s enemies have tried, on various occasions, to “get” him, but without distinguished success. The Colonel goes into a fight with joy. Once, when he was on the stand as a witness in a libel suit which had been brought against his paper, a copy of the editorial containing the alleged-libel was handed to him by the attorney for the prosecution.

“Colonel Nelson,” said the attorney, menacingly, “did you write this ?”

“No, sir !” bristled the Colonel with apparent regret at the forced negation of his answer, “but I subscribe to every word of it!”

Once the Colonel’s enemies almost succeeded in putting him in jail.

A “Star” reporter wrote a story illustrating the practice of the Jackson County Circuit Court in refusing to permit a divorce case to be dismissed by either husband or wife until the lawyers in the case had received their fees. The “Star” contended that such practice, where the couple had made up their quarrel, made the court, in effect, a collection agency. Through a technical error the story, as printed, seemed to refer to the judge of one division of the court when it should have applied to another. The, judge who was, through this error, apparently referred to, seized the opportunity to issue a summons charging Colonel Nelson with contempt of court.

Colonel Nelson, who had known nothing of the story until he read it in print, not only went to the front for his reporter, but caused the story to be reprinted, with the added statement that it was true and that he had been summonsed on account of it.

When he appeared in court the judge demanded an apology. This the Colonel refused to give, but offered to prove the story true. The judge replied that the truth of the story had nothing to do with the case. He permitted no evidence upon that subject to be introduced, but, drawing from his pocket some typewritten sheets, proceeded to read from them a sentence, condemning the Colonel to one day in jail. This sentence he then ordered the sheriff to execute.

However, before the sheriff could do so, a lawyer, representing the Colonel, ran upstairs and secured from the Court of Appeals, in the same building, a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the decision of the lower judge had been prepared before he heard the evidence. This the latter admitted. Thus the Colonel was saved from jail—somewhat, it is rumored, to his regret. Later the case was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Missouri.

An attorney representing the gas company, against which the “Star” had been waging war, called on the Colonel one day to complain of injustices which he alleged the company was suffering at the hands of the paper.

“Colonel Nelson,” he said, “your young men are not being fair to the gas company.”

“Let me tell you,” said the Colonel, “that if they were I’d fire them !”

“Why, Colonel Nelson !” said the dismayed attorney. “Do you mean to say you don’t want to be fair ?”

“Yes, sir !” said the Colonel. “When has your company been fair to Kansas City? When you are fair my young men will be fair!”

If there is one thing about the “Star” more amazing than another, it is perhaps the effect it can produce by mere negative action—that is, by ignoring its enemies instead of attacking them. In one case a man who had made most objectionable attacks on Colonel Nelson personally, was treated to such a course of discipline, with the result, I was informed, that he was ultimately ruined.

The “Star” did not assail him. It simply refused to accept advertising from him and declined to mention his name or to refer to his enterprises.

When the victim of this singular reprisal was writhing under it, a prominent citizen called at Colonel Nelson’s office to plead with the Colonel to “let up.”

“Colonel,” he protested, “you ought not to keep after this man. It is ruining his business.”

“Keep after him ?” repeated the Colonel. “I’m not keeping after him. For me he doesn’t exist.”

“That ‘s just the trouble,” urged the mediator. “Now, Colonel, you ‘re getting to be an old man. Would n’t you be happier when you lay down at night if you could think to yourself that there was n’t a single man in Kansas City who was worse off because of any action on your part?”

At that occurred a sudden eruption of the old volcano. “By God !” cried the Colonel. “I couldn’t sleep !”