By Stephen Rynkiewicz
Long before it became the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi was a professional society. And Chicago was its touchstone.
The college students who started SDX at a Methodist liberal-arts school in Indiana found journalism their calling. The few fraternal trappings were there to raise journalism to the professional status of medicine and law.
“In the course of years,” Eugene Pulliam wrote at SDX’s 1909 founding, “it is hoped that the roll of alumni will contain the names of many prominent journalists and authors.” And within 15 years, SDX counted 3,750 members, 88 percent of them alumni.
Chicago SDX alumni were meeting as a group by 1920, the year the fraternity renounced the secret handshake. On Nov. 21, 1921, the Chicago Headline Club was chartered with 17 members. Des Moines, Detroit, Milwaukee and Seattle clubs were established the same year.
The Chicago Headline Club’s first president was Frank Thayer. He was a graduate of Willard Bleyer’s progressive University of Wisconsin journalism school, which taught social-science and analytical skills. Thayer had just landed a teaching job at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Chicago was a web-printing capital in the 1920s, and journalism school graduates found jobs producing trade magazines such as American Builder, Modern Hospital, Prairie Farmer, Railway Age and Power Plant Engineering. Early chapter presidents included Leland Case of the Rotarian and Elmo Scott Watson of Publisher’s Auxiliary. While high-profile news executives took lead roles throughout the years, Chicago trade-paper journalists would continue to fill the Headline Club rank-and-file.
They played key roles in the fraternity’s first years. Charles Snyder of the Daily Drovers Journal and George Brandenburg of Editor and Publisher became SDX presidents in the 1930s. Pages of the Quill were filled by essays such as Evanston News-Index editor Curtis MacDougall’s 1936 defense of a bold innovation: signed editorials. “Objective writing is an impossibility and many attempts to achieve it mean a greater distortion of the truth than a frankly opinionate account,” he wrote.
Ward Neff of Corn Belt Farm Daily, an early SDX president, installed the fraternity’s headquarters at his Drovers Journal building at the Stock Yards in 1928. Charles Cleveland was the volunteer editor of the fraternity magazine, the Quill. In 1934 SDX administrator Albert Bates doubled back from the office after quitting time to watch a fire at the stockyard pens, only to see the flames spread toward the Drovers building. He dashed in to save the enrollment records. The fraternity in 1936 relocated to the Pure Oil Building at 35 E. Wacker and stayed there until 1981, at which time it was the building’s oldest tenant.
A small group of Headline Club members, led by Chicago Daily News assistant city editor Carl Kesler, kept SDX headquarters running throughout World War II. As men returned from the war, Kesler traded his role as Headline Club president for the Quill editorship, and Brandenburg led the planning of the fraternity’s first postwar convention.
SDXs (not SDX-ers, the Quill noted) assembled in 1946 across from Grant Park at the Stevens Hotel to consider the possibilities of television as a news medium. The Chicago Tribune demonstrated a facsimile device that broadcast over WGNB-FM to Col. Robert McCormick’s home at Cantigny.
Kesler held the Quill editorship for a decade, through a succession of Daily News posts. He drove fraternity chat to the back of the book and nearly singlehandedly won the magazine its reputation for press criticism, much of it in his own editorials.
“Kindly and tolerant toward the shortcomings of others, he drove himself to make certain that those shortcomings were never reflected in its pages,” wrote his successor, Charles Clayton of Southern Illinois University.
In 1950 Kesler doubled as SDX president and in 1955 presided over another Chicago convention, featuring the exiled editor of La Prensa of Buenos Aires. All this took a toll on Kesler. He died at his desk after writing the lead editorial for the July 2, 1956 Daily News.
Next year, the chapter started a Kesler memorial fund, and since then scores of scholarships have been presented in memory of Kesler, MacDougall, Sun-Times editor Millburn Akers, and Daily News editor Larry Fanning in one of the first minority scholarships. The 1964 Kesler scholarship went to the 22-year-old editor of the University of Illinois Daily Illini, Roger Ebert of Urbana, Ill.
Headline Club leaders of the 1950s led early calls for state “right to know laws.” They included NBC correspondent Sam Saran and the courtly Daily News copy chief Merritt Johnson. Albert Jenner, the young state investigator in the Auditor Orville Hodge embezzlement scandal, took to a Headline Club lectern to defend his sealed files. Criminal Court Judge Thomas E. Kluczynski voiced his belief that coverage of juvenile delinquency brought on more teen crime.
The social club’s political tilt grew more pronounced in the 1960s under WIND news director Jerry Udwin and Sun-Times editor Ralph Otwell, later an SDX president. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a hotel-ballroom crowd of SDXs during his 1966 Chicago open-housing campaign. A 1967 trial coverage task force enlisted Jenner, now a rainmaker in private law practice, to help draft press-bar guidelines. The panel included Daily News reporter Ed Rooney and law professor James R. Thompson.
CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham came to the Palmer House for the 1970 SDX convention, the first women attended as members. In the decade’s course the chapter’s orientation shifted from social to service. It created workshops for high school and college newspaper advisers and editors, and produced “The Big Story,” a national campaign to promote journalism careers.
The Headline Club distributed “palm card” summaries of the new state open meetings law, formed a panel to mediate press-public disputes, marked the Tribune, Daily News and Defender as historic sites in journalism, and launched a local awards contest to honor the passing of Chicago Daily News Washington bureau chief Peter Lisagor.
State appeals-court judges in the 1980s began quoting the amicus curiae briefs of Headline Club attorney Jon Duncan. The chapter founded an state press coalition. Its annual Second City-style gridiron revue began modestly in 1986, on an improvised stage at the Ambassador Hotel. Only a scrim separated the audience from actors making costume changes.
Another Chicago convention in 1987 retired the Greek letters, and the group became simply the Society of Professional Journalists under national president Paul Davis of WGN-Channel 9. The Chicago Tribune’s Casey Bukro sported a lapel button, “Let’s Do Ethics,” as delegates debated revisions in the ethics code he authored 14 years earlier. And they noshed at a reception in the State of Illinois Center, soon to be named for Gov. James R. Thompson.
Continuing-education workshops, annual jobs fairs for minorities, a monthly media review and a website have been Headline Club initiatives of the past decade. The 500-member chapter is second only to Washington D.C. in size. It continues to attract journalists in all media who share the goals of the SDX constitution: “a more intimately organized unit of good fellowship [and] a higher ethical code, thus increasing [journalism’s] value as an uplifting social agency.”
Stephen Rynkiewicz was Headline Club president in 1991-92. This history of the Headline Club appeared in the November 1996 Chicago Journalist newsletter.