Chester Harvey Rowell edited a newspaper for only 25 of his 80 years, but even though he took on a superhuman number of important non-journalistic tasks, it was first and, basically, as a journalist that he was known.
Rowell was born Nov. 1, 1867, in Bloomington, III. Until he was 30 years old, Rowell had no serious experience as a journalist. An academic prodigy, he graduated from the University of Michigan and then took a patronage job as a clerk in the House of Representatives. He spent two years studying at European universities and returned to the United States and spent a year teaching at a small college in Kansas.
Up until this time, Rowell’s only journalistic work had been writing a few stories from Washington for the New York Tribune when the Tribune’s regular correspondent was not available.
In 1876, Rowell’s uncle, also named Chester Rowell, had founded the Fresno Republican, but by 1898 the paper had 3,000 subscribers and $9,000 in debts. Rowell’s uncle found other employment for the previous editor and turned the paper over to his nephew from Kansas. When Rowell quit as editor of The Republican in 1920, the paper had 35,000 subscribers, was a major political force and was worth more than $1 million.
Rowell’s first job as editor was to clean up the brawling and uninhibited Fresno, in which gambling, prostitution and political corruption were the major industries.
He eventually won his fight to make the city respectable, even though many of those who were in Fresno when Rowell arrived worked hard to keep things the way they had been. By 1902, he had convinced the citizens of Fresno to adopt a workable charter form of government.
Rowell moved into politics in 1902, winning the Republican nomination for the mayor of Fresno, This was part of his campaign to clean up the city, since a Republican had no chance of winning in overwhelmingly Democratic Fresno. But Rowell hoped to frighten Democrats into nominating a relatively honest, if not particularly able man. The upshot was that the new Democratic mayor was forced to introduce a few reforms.
Having started Fresno on the right track politically, Rowell turned his attention to the commercial interests of the city. He was one of the founders of the Raisin Association and waged furious battles with its chief executive, M. Theo Kearney, who resented Rowell’s demand that the salaries of association officials and the terms of the basic contracts be published. Kearney tried to organize a boycott of Republican subscribers and advertisers, but he failed completely and was eventually driven out of town.
By 1907, Rowell was a well-known political figure throughout California. He founded and led the Lincoln-Roosevelt Republican League — the progressive group that battled the politically dominant Southern Pacific Railroad. Rowell sold The Republican in 1920. By then the newspaper was a highly successful publication.
From 1920 until 1932, when he became editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, he kept busy during what he called “retirement” by serving on the U.S. Shipping Board, the California Railroad Commission, the California Constitutional Commission, the Presidential Commission on Railroad Strikes and as president of the California Conference of Social Work, as well as keeping up his activity in both state and national Republican politics.
In the late 1920s, and early 1930s, Rowell wrote a newspaper column, and from 1932 to 1935 he was editor of The Chronicle, where he admittedly paid less attention to the day-to-day news issues than he had in Fresno, but where he was nonetheless a constant crusader for his ideas of honesty and justice.
He gave up the editor’s job on The Chronicle in 1935, when he was 68, but he continued writing a column for the paper until 1947, only a year before his death.
Rowell was a perfect image of the traditional fighting editor for 22 years in Fresno, as he almost single-handedly brought order and civic virtue out of the chaos and corruption that had existed when he arrived.
He used his Fresno Republican as a platform from which he moved into the highest circles of state Republican Progressive politics. He died in 1948.
Perhaps the tribute that Rowell appreciated most came in 1940, when he received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal. The citation simply read: “A fighting editor who has wrestled with the powers of darkness in behalf of the things that T.R. wrestled for.”