THEY WERE THERE: Jerry Dhonau chats with Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine at a 2012 civil rights symposium. He covered the school crisis as a Gazette reporter and later became the newspaper's editorial director.
Jerry Dhonau, a retired newspaperman whose career included reporting on the Little Rock school crisis and being editorial page editor of the Arkansas Gazette when it closed in 1991, has died at 83. Ernest Dumas’ obituary of his colleague follows.
Jerry F. Dhonau, whose reporting at Little Rock’s Central High School during the historic school integration crisis in 1957 helped his newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize, died Friday at Albuquerque, N.M. He was 83.
In his later years, Dhonau and his wife, Joyce, split their time between residences in Albuquerque and Little Rock, where he was born and reared and spent most of a long and distinguished career in journalism. He was the editor of the editorial page of the Arkansas Gazette when the newspaper closed on October 18, 1991, and wrote a farewell editorial for the paper’s final edition that morning.
The Gazette won two Pulitzer Prizes in 1958, one for its editorials on the school crisis in which it called for obedience to the law in the face of Governor Orval Faubus’s directives to the National Guard to prevent black students from attending classes at Central High School, which had been ordered by federal courts. The other Pulitzer was for exceptional community service, for its coverage of the tumultuous events of the school year and for summoning the community to abide by the rule of law.
Dhonau, the youngest reporter on the Gazette’s staff, was summoned by the paper’s editor away from helping his father build a lake cabin on Labor Day to check on rumors that the Ku Klux Klan planned an event of some sort that evening at Central High School to protest the integration of classes the next day. Dhonau staked out the school in his car that evening but went back to the newsroom to report that nothing was happening. Faubus went on television then to announce that he was mobilizing the Arkansas National Guard to stop the integration of classes the next day.
Dhonau rushed back to the school as a National Guard caravan arrived and began unloading. He telephoned a story to the paper from an apartment across the street and returned to the office late in the night to write the complete account. Dhonau stayed at the school every day for a couple of months and recorded the events that attracted world attention and created the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas Guard and sent the 101st Airborne Division to the school to see that black students could enter the school protected from the mobs that had gathered around the school. Dhonau never used the word “mob” in his accounts. He revealed in an oral history in 2000 that the paper’s executive editor, Harry S. Ashmore, told him firmly that he must never use the word mob because it would be inflammatory.
Dhonau and another young reporter, Ray Moseley, later a foreign correspondent for news services and major urban newspapers, furnished most of the coverage of the events at Central High School and the state Capitol during that period. His face appears in a few of the iconic photographs of the period. When Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African American students who were attend Central High School, did not get a telephone message to stay at home because of the mob and the armed National Guardsmen at the school, she walked alone to the school, where she was stopped repeatedly by soldiers from approaching the school doorways and then followed by a crowd shouting racial epithets. Dhonau, who later said it was the only time in his long reporting career that he stepped out of his role as an objective news gatherer, was concerned for her safety. He walked alongside her and when she sat down on a bench at Sixteenth and Park Streets, Dhonau and correspondents from Life magazine and The New York Times formed a circle between her and the jeering throng.
Dhonau was easily identified as the reporter for the Gazette, which had become unpopular for the paper’s editorial stand against Faubus and owing to Faubus’s frequent attacks on the paper. Ever polite and nonconfrontational, unlike a few of the national correspondents, Dhonau avoided the violence and threats, although he was often taunted. Bob Considine, a famous correspondent for the International News Service, described the angry people outside the school as “slatternly housewives,” which inflamed the crowd. Dhonau was in a glass phone booth calling in a story when the crowd approached three booths—Considine was on one side and Relman Morin of the Associated Press on the other—and began rocking the booths, trying to turn them over into the street. It was the only time he momentarily feared for his safety.
After the Labor Day bombings of school facilities by white supremacists in September 1958, Dhonau entered Columbia University in New York City and earned a master’s degree in journalism. He would return to the Gazette for a long career reporting and editorial writing.
Dhonau was born Sept. 20, 1934, at Little Rock to Charles Mitchell Dhonau and Lura Hill Dhonau. His father settled damage claims for the Cotton Belt Railroad. An older brother, Charles Mitchell Dhonau Jr., was killed in action in World War II.
Dhonau attended Central High School and as a senior in the fall of 1952 he was editor of the school paper, The Tiger. The school built a new athletic fieldhouse and was casting about to determine who it should be named after. Dhonau thought it should be named after the school’s longtime maintenance man, Riley Johns, an African American who was a father figure to students. He wrote an editorial proposing the name and the journalism teacher rejected the editorial, saying it would inflame the administration and the school board. Dhonau quit as editor.
He got a job at the Gazette writing up Friday night high school football games for Orville Henry, the sports editor. Henry got him to work part-time throughout the school year covering high school and college sports. He enrolled in Little Rock Junior College for two years and continued writing for the Gazette. He transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he became the Gazette’s Arkansas Razorback correspondent. He covered the Razorbacks during the week and helped Henry cover the weekend games.
When he graduated from the university, the Gazette did not have an opening on the sports staff, but the managing editor hired him as a city reporter until a sports opening came along. Then the editor talked him out of accepting the sports job and into continuing as a general-assignment reporter. A few months later, the school crisis fixed his career.
After Dhonau graduated from Columbia, he worked for a period for the Minneapolis Tribune’s Washington bureau and then returned to the Gazette. For four years, he reported from the Little Rock City Hall and the Courthouse.
In 1965, he joined the editorial page staff as an editorial writer. He continued in that job until the Gazette’s closing in October 1991, when the paper’s assets were bought by Wehco Media. Dhonau had become editor of the editorial page in 1985, shortly before the paper was purchased by Gannett, the giant media conglomerate.
In 1991, employees of the paper learned that Gannett had sold the paper’s assets to Wehco but it was subject to the approval of the antitrust section of the U.S. Justice Department. Neither company would talk about the arrangement, even to confirm it.
On October 17, 1991, Dhonau had a hunch that the deal was about to be consummated and wrote a farewell editorial. He showed it to a Gannett executive, who had no comment. Dhonau took it to the composing room and put it into the editorial page for the next morning. The paper was closed at noon the next day.
Dhonau’s editorial reviewed the paper’s history briefly and concluded:
“We will take our leave mindful of the words of St. Paul, who wrote: ‘I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’ We believe the Arkansas Gazette has kept the faith and we are proud to have had the privilege for almost two centuries.” The Gazette was founded in 1819 at Arkansas Post.
Carrick Patterson, the last editor of the Gazette before the Gannett takeover, said this about Dhonau: “Jerry faithfully led the editorial page of the old Arkansas Gazette and was critically important in maintaining its high standards. With his death we lose one more member of the vanishing generation who personified the Gazette as an institution devoted to public service, high standards and, yes, the dream of a democratic, free America for all its citizens.”
Bill Lewis, a colleague all their years at the Gazette, said he had always been envious that the fledgling Dhonau had drawn the assignment to cover the events at Central High School.
“But he did it with absolute evenness and impartiality. I am certain that his own dignity and fairness were a shield that protected him from physical harm. He was the right choice for that job.”
After the paper closed Dhonau briefly wrote a weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette before taking a job as an editorial writer and editor of the Sunday editorial digest for the Daytona (Fla.) Beach News Journal. He taught journalism at the University of South Florida and Stetson University. He also taught journalism for short periods at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Central Arkansas.
He was a longtime member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and its president and editor of its journal, The Masthead.
He is survived by his wife, Norma Joyce Dhonau, whom he married in 1960; a daughter, Stephanie Dhonau; his son-in-law, Patrick Egan; and his beloved granddaughter, Elsa Pearl Dhonau-Egan.