Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Other Hoosier Poet

Upon awaking one day in May 1919 at his home at 958 Tecumseh Place near Woodruff Place in Indianapolis, a longtime feature reporter for the Indianapolis News trudged wearily to breakfast. Turning to his wife, Josephine, the journalist complained that he had no idea what to write about for that day’s issue. Unsure of what to do, he picked up his typewriter and traveled out of town, finally ending his sojourn in the countryside at Brandywine Creek in Greenfield, Indiana. At the creek he spied an older man fishing while sitting on a log. When the reporter commented on the area’s beauty, the fisherman responded, “I can’t complain, after all God’s been pretty good to Indiana, ain’t he?”

The offhand remark on this lonely stretch of water inspired the reporter, William Herschell, to write his masterpiece, “Ain’t God Good to Indiana?” The poem proved popular with not only with Hoosiers (the work is inscribed on a bronze plaque in the rotunda of the Indiana Statehouse), but with readers from around the country who clamored for copies. The demand grew so great that Herschell’s wife had to issue special printed facsimiles of the poem.

During his career at the News, which started in 1902 and ended with his death at age sixty-six in 1939, Herschell contributed countless poems and feature articles for the newspaper’s Saturday edition. In addition, his World War I song “Long Boy” contributed the doughboy refrain, “Goodbye Ma! Goodbye Pa! Goodbye mule with your old heehaw!” to the nation’s vocabulary. Herschell, a close companion of famed Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, worked in a corner of the newspaper’s ninth floor that came to be known as the Idle Ward. Along with Herschell, other members of that delightful company included cartoonists Gaar Williams and Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard, creator of the renowned cracker-barrel philosopher Abe Martin. The three men were all quite productive when it came to producing copy and illustrations, but they seemed idle to other newspaper employees because they always seemed to be able to find time to discuss and gossip about the issues of the day.

Born in Spencer, Indiana, on November 17, 1873, Herschell was the eldest of six children born to Scottish immigrants John and Martha (Leitch) Herschell. Trained as a blacksmith in his native Scotland, John worked for the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad and later served as foreman for a quarry near Spencer that supplied limestone for the state capitol in Indianapolis. One of William’s earliest memories involved his father sitting by lamplight to recite to his family the poems of Robert Burns. John’s work with the Evansville, Rockport, and Eastern Railroad took him and his family to a succession of communities in southwestern Indiana, including Rockport, Evansville, Huntingburg, and Princeton.

Although at best an unfocused student, Herschell did display some of the writing talent he later used during his newspaper career. While in the Huntingburg school system he was falsely accused of running away with the teacher’s pet dog. An unabashed Herschell penned the following in reply: “Teacher says I stole his dog / But why should I steal Jim, / When teacher’s with me all day long / And I can look at him?” Herschell’s talent for thumbing his nose at the school’s authorities proved to be his undoing. As a seventh-grader, Herschell, already a solid supporter of the Republican Party, played hooky from school to carry in a political parade a banner that proclaimed, “A Vote for [Grover] Cleveland Means Souphouses.” The school’s principal found out about Herschell’s truancy—and political persuasion—and expelled him from school, noting, “Inasmuch as William Herschell had gone into politics he could not possibly wish further education.”

With the assistance of his father, Herschell found work as an apprentice railroad machinist. In 1894 when Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union told its members to refuse to handle Pullman cars in support of striking workers at the Pullman plants in Illinois, Herschell allied himself closely with the union cause. With the strike’s failure, Herschell found himself out of a job. Leaving the Hoosier State, Herschell toiled at a succession of jobs, including stints in Chicago, Buffalo, and Canada. Returning to the United States, he worked at an electric-light plant in North Tonawanda, New York. He eventually found his way back to his native state, where he worked as a night machinist for the Monon Railroad.

On a visit to his family in Princeton in 1896, Herschell met James McCormick, who just three years before had started the Princeton Evening News, an independent Republican Party daily. McCormick offered Herschell a job, telling him, “I’ll give you $9 a week, if you can get it.” Herschell did not discover what his editor had meant until the end of his first week at the newspaper. After everyone else on the paper had received his wages, there remained only $4.00 left for Herschell. Week after week there never seemed to be enough funds to pay Herschell his full salary. On one occasion, McCormick even had to borrow brown wrapping paper from a local butcher in order to publish his afternoon newspaper. An editorial dedicated the issue as “A Souvenir Edition to Our Creditors.” To supplement his meager income, Herschell served as the Princeton correspondent for several larger newspapers, including the Indianapolis News. Herschell sometimes used his money from other publications to buy enough newsprint for McCormick to print his paper.

Although McCormick and Herschell became close friends, the publisher did not stand in his protégé’s way when, in 1898, Herschell received a job offer from the Evansville Journal. Before Herschell left for his new duties, he found waiting for him in the newspaper’s editorial office a gold watch—a going-away present from McCormick. Later, Herschell dedicated his 1922 book Howdy All: And Other Care-Free Rhymes to McCormick, noting that the editor taught him it was “easier to swing a pencil than a hammer.” A year after starting at the Evansville newspaper, Herschell left to join the staff of the Indianapolis Press as a police reporter. With the folding of the Press after only sixteen months, Herschell moved to the Terre Haute Tribune. He returned to Indianapolis in 1902 for a position with the Indianapolis Journal.
 Herschell’s work at the Journal soon caught the attention of Dick Herrick, secretary to Indianapolis News editor Hilton U. Brown. Herrick told his boss that Herschell was “full of fun, can write rhymes and can make the dullest story read like a novel. He belongs here and ought to make a top feature man.” Taking his secretary’s advice, Brown hired Herschell in April 1902, beginning the reporter’s thirty-seven-year association with the newspaper. 

In his early years on the News, Herschell served as a police and court reporter and won the lasting respect of the Indianapolis police department. At slack times, members of the department and local media conducted mock trials at an old bicycle barn. Conducted by the newspapermen, these trials often concluded with the officers having to pay a cigar or two in fines. Herschell presided over the proceedings as judge. His wife, Josephine, who also worked at the News, noted that her husband acted like “a regular roughneck when he came home at night after hanging around the police station all day. But he changed a lot after he became a feature writer.” Josephine also noted that her husband used to jokingly scold a clock that he had been given as a boy, especially when he arrived home at a later time than he had told her to expect him. “We had a lovely life together,” she said.

In 1911 News editor Richard Smith, impressed with Herschell’s poetry, assigned him to write poems and feature articles for the newspaper’s Saturday edition. Herschell’s poems about such staples of city life as policemen, firemen, street urchins, and other characters appeared in a series titled “Songs of the City Streets.” Later, his paeans to rural life were highlighted in the series “Ballads of the Byways.” A fellow News employee noted that Herschell was a true democrat, a friend to everyone from bank presidents to truckers, and a person who could “rub elbows with prominent men at some important banquet, and the next day revel in a picnic at [Indianapolis’s] Douglass park.” 

The poetry Herschell wrote for the newspaper was collected and published in a number of books during his lifetime, including Songs of the Streets and Byways (1915), The Kid Has Gone to the Colors and Other Verse (1917), The Smile Bringer and Other Bits of Cheer (1919), Meet the Folks (1924), and Hitch and Come In (1928). A posthumous collection, Song of the Morning and Other Poems, which was put together by his widow, appeared in 1940.

Known simply as Bill to his friends inside and outside the newspaper, Herschell won the esteem of readers through his simple verses, flavored as they were with the dialect style pioneered so successfully by Riley. “There was no dullness where he was and there were no dead lines in what he wrote,” Brown said of Herschell, who became well known for his laugh, described by Brown as a “musical roar” and which “preceded him wherever he appeared.” Profiling Herschell for a biographical pamphlet produced by the News in 1926, B. Wallace Lewis described Herschell as looking “more like the manager of a successful retail store than a poet. He is big, with the kind of bigness that goes clear through. A round head, hair trimmed close, joins to a massive trunk with a powerful neck. The hands that once wielded a machinist’s hammer are strong and grip yours as if they meant it.”

With America’s entry into World War I, the subject of Herschell’s writing began to turn more and more to wartime matters. He produced for the News such poems as “The Service Flag” and “The Kid Has Gone to the Colors.” His most successful effort, however, came after he spent time at Indianapolis’s Fort Benjamin Harrison, which then served as an officers’ training camp. Herschell became close friends with the camp’s commander, Major General Edwin F. Glenn. The two men often spent a part of each morning discussing news about the war and what was going on at the camp. During one meeting on May 18, 1917, Glenn asked Herschell to use his talents to write a war song. “These boys out here,” Glenn said, “are sick of singing about ‘Mother Dear’ and ‘Broken Hearts’ and ‘Gentle Eyes of Blue.’ Give us something that will keep down homesickness, the curse of an army camp.”

As he crossed the parade ground on his way to return to the office, Herschell spied a company of tall soldiers passing by, which gave him the inspiration to write about the army’s “long boys.” Driving back to downtown Indianapolis, he began to formulate the song’s words and sang them to News photographer Paul Schideler. Charles Dennis, who worked just a few desks down from Herschell at the newspaper, remembered the day the reporter came back from Fort Harrison to work on the song “with pursed lips and corrugated brow, his blue eyes in a fine frenzy rolling.” After seeing Herschell finish his writing, Dennis slipped into a chair next to the poet to view and hear the final result. “As he voiced the verses the workers in this hive of industry gathered about him,” said Dennis. “Other workers from various parts of the building came in. He was obliged to sing it over and over again and though his throat became raw and raucous he kept his good humor through seventeen recalls, and the curtain went down amid the most appreciative applause.”

The next day, Herschell submitted his work, titled “Long Boy,” for Glenn’s review. The general took an immediate liking to the song, especially the chorus line “I may not know what th’ war’s about, / But you bet, by gosh, I’ll soon find out.” Several members of Glenn’s staff also expressed their satisfaction with the song, and the general asked Herschell to find someone to set the words to music so his troops could sing it on parade. Herschell responded by turning the lyrics over to Bradley Walker, an Indianapolis composer, who produced the music for the song. Just a week later, the troops at Fort Harrison sang “Long Boy” as they passed in review before Ohio governor James M. Cox. The song became an instant success, selling more than a million copies. Wabash College honored Herschell for his war verse by awarding him an honorary degree.

Herschell died on December 2, 1939, at his Indianapolis home. His last words to his wife were: “I’ll whip it yet, Jo.” Reminiscing about Herschell’s life, the newspaper he served for so many years said that he had been a part of Indianapolis as much as the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument. “He loved writing,” said the News, “he loved to compose his sincere verse, but most of all he loved people. Otherwise he could not have written so inspiringly of their lives.”     

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