Lowell E. Jessen
Turlock Journal

Lowell E. Jessen was a fired-up country editor who took particular offense at government secrecy — and decided to do something about it

He started hammering at people’s “right to know” as the United States emerged from World War II. The theme rang like an anvil through editorials he wrote in the Turlock Daily Journal, and he helped parlay those words into action at first the state, and then the national, level

He displayed a dogged determination, this man who was born March 5, 1898, in a two-room log cabin in the coal hills of Carbon County, Utah. In the American “success story” tradition, he bought his first newspaper on a shoestring. He went on to enlarge his scope of leadership, first as president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association and later as head of the National Editorial Association, now the National Newspaper Association

His high school yearbook sent him off to the Army in 1918 with the observation that he had been a student editor with “fire in each eye and paper in each hand.” But he also took with him from Price, Utah, a deep respect for the common man and a fierce local pride, which he would later lavish on his adopted hometown of Turlock, a small farming community in the San Joaquin Valley

When he died on Sept. 14 in the bicentennial year of 1976, he could count a quarter century there of leadership aimed at community betterment, a goal he considered a newspaper’s duty. His personal efforts also had produced two large historical editions of the paper, chronicling and gathering for the first time the events — and rugged, colorful pioneers — that made up the first 100 years of the area’s history

Through editorials in The Journal, Jessen practiced the philosophy he urged upon fellow publishers:

“We who are privileged to work on daily newspapers are engaged in the worthwhile job of widening the horizons of men’s thinking. We’re engaged in a job of expanding and guarding our liberties. We’re a propelling force in free enterprise, in stimulating the spirits of men toward greater accomplishments.”

Jessen learned about aggressiveness early in his newspaper career as a cub reporter on the San Pedro waterfront for the Los Angeles Express and later the San Pedro News-Pilot, where he spent three years as managing editor. He had graduated from the University of Southern California in 1923, editor of the school paper, The Trojan, and co-founder of the enduring annual football program, the Pigskin Review

He worked his way through college largely by selling advertising for school publications. It was a lot easier, he remembered later, than working in the potato and turnip fields as a young boy to help support his mother and three other children. In high school, he had a job as school janitor, getting to school every morning at 5 a.m. to stoke the coal in the basement furnace.

Excitement he found on the waterfront remained a fond memory throughout his 53-year newspaper career. His first national scoop, sent over the Associated Press wires, was a peacetime Naval disaster that killed 48 men off the San Pedro coast. A turret backfired during a war maneuver, sending flames through the USS Mississippi on June 12, 1924. Even day-to-day reporting had its thrills in the Prohibition era. Jessen once defied a death threat to print another story on a rum runner’s activities

The young reporter had met the girl who would become his wife during a vacation trip to Yosemite National Park. He waited out the year that Margaret McPhetridge of Indiana did Spanish translations for the State Department in Washington, D.C. The letter writing ended when her family moved to Los Angeles. They were married March 6, 1926

By 1929, Jessen felt it was time to get more experience in advertising if he was ever going to own his own newspaper. He was in South Pasadena, briefly, during the 1929 crash. Then he settled down as advertising manager of the Anaheim Gazette until 1935

In the early Depression years, Margaret and Lowell Jessen started rearing their family. A daughter, Diane, was born in Pasadena. Three years later another daughter, Eleanor, completed the family unit at Anaheim

Jessen’s first newspaper was a weekly, the Holtville Tribune, in the Imperial Valley desert. He put up $500 cash and a vacant lot, and borrowed $3,000. Jessen threw himself equally into his paper and community activities. His wife became society editor, bookkeeper and “girl Friday.” At the end of three months, she asked apprehensively when the money was going to stop going out and start coming in. It did, and despite the still-lingering Depression, Jessen made the paper grow

During his 6 1/2 years in Holtville, he also turned the annual Swiss Swing into a nationwide festival by distributing full-page rotogravures to metropolitan papers and writing radio broadcasts. Editorially, he protested bond repayments being made with hard-earned Depression dollars. In 1941, just two months before Pearl Harbor, Jessen moved into the daily field, buying the Turlock Journal. He told townspeople, “Turlock is my home now.”

Although Jessen said after a torpedo attack on a U.S. ship that the nation should “unveil the war,” news of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 reached him aboard the train, homebound from a California Press Association convention in San Francisco. He paced the car like a caged prisoner until he reached the Turlock depot and literally bounded off to print his special edition. It reached subscribers’ doorsteps shortly after dinner

The war years produced headaches of labor and paper shortages. They also produced an ideal time to lead for the editor whom a companion publisher characterized as being “American as the Stars and Stripes.” When high school students were recruited to harvest crops, he hailed it as an opportunity for young people to learn simpler and truer values. While patriotically supporting the war effort, he did not hesitate to criticize incidents he viewed as an abuse of governmental power

The Journal fanned enthusiasm for an E War Bond drive with full pages of pictures of servicemen’s babies and a local service club competition. The community went over the goal with $1.5 million collected. The paper rallied for a salvage drive to help Stanislaus County collect 1,500 tons of scrap metal. Jessen found time to quip in a widely reprinted sentence, “It’s surprising how patriotic people feel about going without luxuries they can’t get.”

J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation wrote to thank him for his editorial “Losing War on the Home Front,” placing blame for rising juvenile delinquency squarely on parents. But probably the most reprinted editorial of the war years was his spiritual article “No Atheists in Foxholes.”

At war’s end, Jessen spearheaded a drive for action on a Living War Memorial, asking “How Long Is Memory?” It was built with donated money, labor and materials, and Turlock dedicated its city auditorium in 1951. It remained the largest meeting place for three decades and became the cornerstone of a Civic Center

A news scoop spawned in The Journal office two years into the war stayed on Jessen’s mind. A sailor home on leave told the newspaper that his convoy had sighted units that might have been the Japanese approaching Pearl Harbor a few days before the attack. Radio silence had been ordered in the Pacific, and it was observed. No warning wasgiven

Jessen questioned the cover-up and complacent attitude of military officials in the prewar months. He declared that once again the American people had been denied information. If they had known more, he reasoned, circumstances that permitted the surprise attack might have been altered

He struck a key theme that was to dominate his editorials from then on. “The right to know is the key to all other liberties,” he told a group in 1948

That same year, he won the John S. Herrick national award for the best editorial in the public interest. It was described by the judges as a “well-reasoned, persuasive and effectively presented editorial,” snuffing the fuse on a threatened recall election of directors in the Turlock Irrigation District. The city editor recalled the squelched movement as headed by “a bunch of hotheads” who were sidetracked by the editorial series

In 1949, Jessen became president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, giving him a widened audience. As head of the organization, he demanded, and got, an FBI investigation to refute rumors that California newspapers had “sold out” to the medical association in editorial opposition to a proposed state health insurance plan. Investigators confirmed there was no trade of editorial support in return for advertising inches. Jessen labeled the charge “preposterous” on its face

“Self-respect of a newspaper,” he said, “is its most priceless possession.”

As a member of the CNPA Freedom of Information Committee, Jessen began to get back to the battle for “the right to know.” On his home grounds, he won a skirmish with the Stanislaus County unit of the California Highway Patrol to stop a practice effectively shielding information from reporters. The office finally agreed to stop stapling a blank piece of paper to the back of accident reports.

He was a forceful backer when state publishers in 1952 passed a resolution calling for unlocking public information. The resolution, together with individual pressure by publishers, called attention to abuses by state and local agencies

Jessen had long been bothered by the casual meeting practices of school boards and other public bodies in the valley. They met regularly enough, often in private homes, never with an agenda. A reporter might or might not find out what really happened. Where the meeting procedures were more formalized, reporters still found big gaps in discussion of important issues as councilmen and others agreed on some decisions out of earshot

Assemblyman Ralph Brown from Stanislaus County, Jessen’s own stomping ground, introduced legislation that was to end “star chamber” sessions in the state. The Brown Act, as it became known, required deliberations be conducted openly and 24-hour notice of meetings be given to media. It limited closed sessions to personnel and legal matters. It acquired later amendments, but it was the foundation ending secrecy in public meetings

When Jessen became president of the National Editorial Association in 1957, much of his effort was concentrated on beginning the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri at Columbia. With 19 other representatives from concerned national organizations, he worked to establish the national watchdog of government and nurtured it through its early years

In 1958, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, on its 50th anniversary, honored him as a leader in the profession. Jessen told an audience there, “Today we have a legal right to know, in California. We as newspapermen must make it effective.”

He strongly recommended a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., noting one had proved invaluable with the California legislature. “California,” he reminded the group, “has had more crackpot attempts to seize tax money, and more heinous schemes to trap the unwary voter, than all the other states of the Union put together.”

The Amos Award of Merit was presented to Jessen by the NEA in 1960 for service to the industry and “leadership in exemplifying the highest ethical newspaper standards.”

Jessen had hoped The Journal would be the test case the CNPA would take to court fighting city business license taxes on newspapers. Publishers maintained the right to license in advance implied the power to deny the right to publish. They raised a $20,000 legal defense fund. For three years, Jessen refused to pay the Turlock tax. In August 1950, the city council demanded payment. Jessen wrote his “We May Go To Jail” editorial and packed his suitcase. In May, the council ordered a court suit filed,and the next meeting rescinded the action. Another newspaper became the test case

A man with a friendly smile and mild manner, Jessen also had non-fighting causes. He enjoyed helping young people enter journalism. His activities ranged from board member of the California Newspaperboy Foundation to giving old press equipment to the printing lab at Modesto Junior College. He received San Jose State University’s “Big Red Apple” for meritorious achievement, and he also served on journalism advisory boards at Fresno State University and his own alma mater, USC. He was on the national advisory council of the American Society of Journalism School Administrators

“Liberty must be taught over and over again to each generation,” he declared. “If acts about a single death are withheld successfully, it is a step toward a police state.”

His own family started careers at The Journal. Eleanor Jessen worked on newspapers in Nevada, California and Oklahoma before becoming a psychologist in Oklahoma City. Diane Chittock later returned to spend 15 years as a Journal reporter. A third generation became part of the staff when Nanette Foster began writing features for the paper while still in college

Jessen left “his town” for 10 years in 1953, bringing Stanley Wilson of Mill Valley into The Journal as a partner to run it while he formed an alliance with San Rafael publishers Roy Brown and Justus Craemer in a southland venture. The team bought the semi-weekly Beverly Hills Citizen from Will Rogers Jr. and turned it into the daily NewsLife seven months later. The home of Hollywood stars now had its own daily newspaper. Pacific Printer named Jessen as Publisher of the Month in January 1954, noting that he started from zero to a paid circulation of 15,000 in time for the NewsLife launching

The paper was sold in 1955, and the Jessens took a trip abroad. Their travels eventually covered much of the globe. By October 1956, Jessen was back in harness, as partner in the Livermore Herald-News with Maitland Henry. Two weeklies were joined into a semi-weekly newspaper for the town, where scientists soon made it one of the first communities in the United States to be powered with nuclear energy

The only “retirement” Jessen had began in 1960 with sale of the Livermore paper, and he was itching to get back to work by the time he returned to Turlock in 1963. He did not leave The Journal again. When his partner, Wilson, wanted to retire in November 1965, the newspaper was purchased by Freedom Newspapers of Santa Ana

Jessen remained as publisher until 1971, when the California Press Association gave him a special tribute for “long and conspicuous services to the Association and to the citizens of California and the nation.” He was editor of The Journal until three months before his death at the age of 78

He continued to be involved in community activities. A member of the city planning commission for 11 years, he later served on the Town Hall Forum, aimed at providing closer relations between Turlock residents and the new California State College, Stanislaus, at the north edge of town. Rotary honored him with its Paul Harris award for community service and promoting better understanding among nations

Jessen began his role as a preserver of history with the California Press Association as chairman of the first Hall of Fame Committee. In December 1957, the committee announced the first three pioneer newsmen selected to launch the collection, preserving significant contributions of the press to communities and the state. Four years later, Jessen announced arrangements to permanently house the collection at the State Library in Sacramento

His activities with CPA continued on other fronts. He served as president from 1964 to 1967, and he initiated a limited-term concept for the post

Soon after returning to Turlock, Jessen launched his personal campaign to record the town’s history. It was on a comprehensive scale, and required yearlong efforts of monumental proportion by the small Journal staff. Facts were gathered from old maps and meeting minutes, pioneers and their offspring were interviewed, attics were searched for old photographs. On Nov. 10, 1964, on the occasion of its 60th birthday, The Journal published its largest-ever edition to date. It contained 48 pages, the first in-depth compilation on the small grain settlement by the railroad track that grew into a rich agricultural center

As the decade of the 1970s began, Jessen saw more early settlers and their children dying off. Hewanted to capture stories not yet printed, pictures not yet published, before the opportunity disappeared forever

line">This time he rallied the town behind him in a Turlock Centennial Celebration, which lasted a year and a half. Public dinners heralded the thrifty Swedish farmers, the Portuguese dairymen, the Japanese peach growers, the Assyrian grape ranchers and the Mexican workers. All had made their distinctive contributions to the Turlock area. Another Journal historical edition line"> — updated and enlarged line"> — was published in 1972, this time numbering 92 pages. From the Centennial also came a history book, produced under the critical eye of a college history professor. “Streams in a Thirsty Land’’ is the story of Turlock. In a larger sense, it is part of the saga of the American West

Jessen saw the historical editions as part of the civic pride he always championed in “his town.” He saw his comments on national affairs as a trigger to let the active-minded reader proceed under his own steam to his own conclusions. He saw the dozens of articles he wrote on his travels — his portable typewriter propped on a hotel bed — as enriching and expanding the thoughts of his readers

For he firmly believed, as humorist Will Rogers said: “Any person that don’t read at least one well-written country newspaper is not truly informed.”

Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.