Will Zorn, Country Editor
Wed, 04/06/2022 - 11:32am admin
If you have spent much time in downtown West Plains, you may not know him by name but likely by deed. An iconic building he built in 1912, still in use, hasn't changed much in appearance since it was made. For much of the building's existence, it served as the home of his beloved Howell County Gazette and years later as headquarters for Russ Cochran's magazine, the West Plains Gazette.
William Harry Zorn, his friends called him Bill, was born August 24, 1874, in Hermann, Missouri. His father, a well-established businessman, left Hermann for Potosi, Missouri, when Will was a small boy. The Zorn family spoke German in their home, and Will would be fluent in the language for the remainder of his life. At nine, Will accompanied to West Plains. His father, W.J. Zorn, quickly became prominent in business in West Plains and was a founder of the West Plains Bank and owner of several buildings and stock investments in town. Will had four siblings, two brothers, and two sisters; they are another story; all were raised in a Victorian home on East Cleveland Street, known today as "The Yellow House."
Will received an education in the West Plains public schools and was befriended by Professor W.H. Lynch, then principal of the school. Lynch, one of Missouri's prominent educators and a newspaper owner in Howell County, believed that students should be taught by obtaining part of their education by reading local and national newspapers.
Will wrote years later, "Where you find a Lynch student, right there you will find a good man or woman." In a speech delivered in Springfield in March 1932 to the members of the Ozark Press Association and the dedication of a bronze tablet to Lynch's memory, he said, "He taught other things finer than any textbook holds, character, sympathy, kindness, friendship, gentleness and above all, service."
When Will was fifteen years old, he went to work for J.C. Kirby, a prominent pioneer newspaper editor of Southern Missouri and, at the time, owner of the Howell County Gazette. Kirby was a staunch Democrat, and his paper reflected his political views in opposition to a Republican-voiced paper also in West Plains. Young Bill Zorn started his newspaper career as a "printer's devil," setting type with ink-covered hands. He was not given special treatment because of his father's position and, in many respects, became a self-made man by learning reporting and editing.
While home, he attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism. As he grew into adulthood, Zorn left West Plains to become a reporter for the Kansas City Star. After a couple of years, Zorn went into partnership with Henry Smith of Hutton Valley and West Plains to lease, then buy the Lamar Democrat newspaper in Lamar, Missouri. Will served as editor and manager.
In 1900 Zorn sold his interest to Smith, returned to West Plains, and in 1902 purchased the West Plains Gazette from James T. Bradshaw, a Kansas City newspaperman and Democratic leader. At the time, the Howell County Gazette and their competitor, the West Plains Journal, were daily papers with radically opposing political views. In a short amount of time, Zorn and his rival editor Arch T. Hollenbeck agreed that West Plains was too small to support a daily paper, and they decided to cut back to weekly publication. Zorn was twenty-four years old and had no money to buy the paper. He could have asked his father who could have covered the purchase for him; instead, he took out notes from other lenders, and when the first Saturday night arrived, he signed more notes to cover the payroll and buy newsprint.
Zorn and Hollenbeck sharply differed in their political opinions but seemed to have gotten along well. They often traveled together to meetings of the Masonic Lodge and the Missouri State Press and Ozark Press Associations. Both shared a rivalry for a prestigious job in West Plains, that of Postmaster. Will Zorn served as Postmaster during both administrations of President Woodrow Wilson. Zorn's position remained tenuous in the Republican stronghold of Howell County, and President Warren Harding cashiered him in 1922 after making derogatory comments about the President in his newspaper.
Will was an innovator and, in 1910, brought the first power press and type-setting machine to this part of the Ozarks. He traveled to New York and visited the factory of the Merganthaler Linotype Company where the machine was built, learning how to install and operate it, paying $4,500 cash. That is equivalent to almost $135,000 today.
In 1912 Zorn erected what would be known as the home of the Howell County Gazette for the remainder of the paper's existence. Located at the corner of Leyda Street and Aid Avenue, the bottom floor of the building housed his offices and the printing equipment, and the top floor was his home. A few weeks after he completed and moved into the building, Will Zorn married his boyhood sweetheart, Miss Ollie Goacher. Ollie had worked with Will in the Gazette offices when they were young but left with her family to live in California for six years, where she worked for a newspaper. In 1912 Will wrote to Ollie and proposed marriage, and when she arrived surprised her with the new building and home.
Working as editor of a country newspaper was and is a hectic occupation. One is always on call, and when things happen, you have to drop what you're doing and cover the story. For example, of the West Plains Dance Hall Explosion, the editor of the Kansas City Star wrote about Zorn, "April 28, 1928, when forty persons were killed and twenty injured, he worked throughout the fateful night rescuing the injured, and when morning came he had his story prepared and the news pictures ready to place on airplanes for the city papers."
Upon Will Zorn's sudden death at age fifty-eight from influenza in 1932, his wife Ollie took over the management and editing of the Howell County Gazette. She was familiar with all parts of publishing the paper, and the Williams sisters of Quill fame worked in what had previously been solely a man's game. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt also appointed her to displace Republican Arch Hollenbeck and fill a term that would have gone to her husband Will.
Will's funeral was held in the Gazette building. A large attendance of prominent business people, editors of newspapers across the state, and leadership of the Democratic Party were present. Will was eulogized in all area papers and hundreds across Missouri and the nation.
Less than a year after Will's death, the Howell County Gazette celebrated its fifty-second anniversary as the first Democratic newspaper in Howell County. The paper was founded in 1881 by Mills Williams, who sold the paper to J.C. Kerby in 1885. Williams then went on to found another newspaper, the West Plains Quill. Kerby operated the paper for six years and sold it to a corporation consisting of four West Plains business people. Their partnership was short, and the paper was sold to J.T. Bradshaw, who sold it to Will Zorn in 1902. In October 1933, Will's widow Ollie Zorn sold the Howell County Gazette to Champ Clark Buckner, a staunch Pike County, Missouri Democrat.
In January of 1933, J.K. Hutsell wrote in his magazine "The American Press" a eulogy to Will Zorn under the title, "Militant Editor Dies." He wrote, "After a generation of editing and publishing the paper for which at 15 he had set his first stick of type, Will H. Zorn of the Howell County Gazette is dead. But in those thirty years of ownership, he had made the Gazette into one of Missouri's best-known weeklies, had himself become one of the most widely-known men and editors in his section of the country, and given his town, West Plains, three full decades of unstinted service. In short, he was just another country editor - albeit a good one - but that as an epitaph, I imagine, would have pleased Will Zorn as well as any other. West Plains had been in the habit of depending greatly upon Will Zorn, its militant editor, and not alone as a newspaperman. He was President of the West Plains Wholesale Grocer Company and the Southern Serum Company. He was a stockholder in the (milk) Condensery and in the Building and Loan Association. (Will was a major stockholder in the West Plains Creamery) He was a fighting Democrat in a normally Republican county. Two weeks before his death, his paper was celebrating a Democratic landslide."
"If, in his opinion, it served the public interest to attack the public actions of a public official, no thought of libel suits deterred him. When action was brought, always was he ready; when victory was finally won, it would be announced in a streamer across page one. And Zorn libel case decisions were often recognized as important."
In 1924, J.B. Aldridge, the Sheriff of Howell County, sued Zorn for libel and, in Howell County Circuit Court, won a verdict of $800 for an article he published. The Springfield News reported, "The article declared moonshine liquor and intoxicated persons were making an appearance at a religious revival and picnic in the county and asserted if the officials did not investigate and take action 'the people of Howell County would get a change in November. The article did not directly name the sheriff or other officials.'
Zorn appealed and lost again in the appellate court in Springfield. In 1927, the Missouri Supreme Court heard the case and ruled in Zorn's favor. The judges ruled "the free comment and criticism of the public policy of a public official is justified when it relates to a matter of public interest, subject to its substantial truth and the want of malice; second, that as to the qualified privlege, plaintiff bears the burden to show the falsity of the article, and the presence of express malice; and third, that there must be good faith on the part of the utterer in publishing the article, with reason to believe and believing in its truth." The court stated that rumors of the violations of the prohibition law were abroad in Howell County and the newspaper could be expected to print the news related to it. Zorn established a precedence that continues to apply to the press today.
J.K. Hutsell in his magazine, continued, "Prominent in his party in Missouri, he nevertheless was first a good newspaperman when election years came around. 'The successful newspaper publisher of today,' he once declared, 'is not one who puts over the entire Democratic or Republican ticket every two or four years. Neither is he the editor who gets business that constantly swells his bank account. He is the man who stands for something in his community. He must have a principle and never sell it.'"
Will maintained strong friendships with several German-Americans living in Howell County. When the First World War broke out, he and others were eyed with suspicion of their true loyalty. Will advised his friends eligible for the draft to sign up and buy war bonds, and though he was too old to enlist, he served as Food Commissioner for Howell County when rationing was implemented in 1918.
Just before his death Zorn was filled with optimism for the future of his beloved hills, though still, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. He wrote, "We are looking for a rapid revival of agricultural prosperity in the Ozarks, especially through the continued development of the dairy industry. Nearly every farmer in our section owns a herd of cows or is planning to buy some. They have come to realize that the Ozark uplands are the best grass country in the world. The old-time Ozark Hillbilly, the one-gallus fellow who lived back in the hills, is fast disappearing, and his place taken by the progressive, wideawake farmer, who is transforming the Ozarks into the Switzerland of America."
Bill and Ollie Zorn are buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in West Plains and had no children except the newspaper they nurtured for thirty years.