By: Don Tassone
Bill Frazier was always drawn to news. By the time he was eight, he was reading his parents’ newspaper, the World-Herald, all the way through. It was the first thing he did when he got home from school. He loved learning about what was happening in Omaha and beyond.
In those days, severe drought and massive dust storms were devastating much of the Great Plains. Bill read the accounts of these natural disasters and the human hardships they caused.
He also read stories that quoted experts on the need for soil conservation. He read editorials calling for legislation to protect the land. He read about Congress creating the Soil Conservation Service.
Bill began to realize the power of newspapers, not just in relaying information, but in shaping opinions and affecting change, and he felt something stir in his heart.
As a freshman at Central High, Bill started writing for the school paper, The Register. He learned how to gather news and develop stories. He learned how to interview people. He learned what it takes to put a newspaper together. He loved every bit of it.
In his sophomore year, Bill began writing editorials. At first, he wrote about issues at school, but those topics bored him. Bill was interested in the larger issues of the day, and he was surprised that many of his classmates didn’t seem to know much about them.
He had read in the World-Herald, for example, about the dramatic changes taking place in Germany. He read about the rise of the Nazi party, its crackdown on Jews and a new law that allowed for the forced sterilization of Germans with “genetic disorders” — from schizophrenia to blindness.
When he read about these things, Bill was outraged. There was nothing he could do about them, of course, but he wanted the students in his school to know about them. He wanted them to know the truth. He didn’t know how many of them read the World-Herald. But he knew a good number read The Register.
So he wrote an editorial entitled “Why Should We Care About What’s Going on in Germany?”
Germany may seem distant and not very relevant to our everyday lives. But it’s not so far away. We trade with Germany. Ford, Coca-Cola and Kodak own and operate plants there. The United States has an embassy in Berlin. Many of our ancestors came here from Germany. Some of our relatives still live there.
What happens when such a country decides to no longer abide by its peace treaties, when it “appoints” a dictator to replace its elected leader, when it begins taking away civil liberties, when it blames Jews for its problems, when it rounds up and arrests its political opponents, when it burns books, when it sterilizes its “imperfect” citizens?
We Americans care deeply about freedom. So how can we do business as usual with a country where freedom is under attack? How can we look the other way when those now in power persecute their fellow countrymen because they bear the “wrong” birthmark? How long can we, the leading light of freedom in the world, sit idly by and not take a stand?
The Register was published on Tuesdays. Copies were available to students on racks throughout the school. Usually, old copies from the previous week had to be removed when a new edition was published. But that Tuesday, every copy was gone by the time school was out.
Everyone read Bill’s editorial. Students began talking about what was going on in Germany. Some wrote letters to the editor of The Register and even the World-Herald. The debate club took up the topic. The civics club wrote Nebraska’s Congressmen, urging them to make a statement against the infringement of human rights in Germany. The valedictorian of the class of 1934 spoke about how events unfolding in Germany represented a threat to freedom everywhere.
The whole experience lit Bill up. He knew he’d done something important. That’s when he felt called to become a journalist.
Six years later, Bill graduated from the University of Nebraska, where he majored in journalism and was editor of the student newspaper. Just before he graduated, he got an interview with Warren Edwards, the editor of the World-Herald. Edwards was so impressed that he offered Bill a job on the spot, even though he didn’t have an open position.
“You might be a copyboy for a while,” Edwards said.
“Sounds good to me,” Bill said.
During his first year at the paper, “copyboy” turned out to be a pretty good job description for Bill. He edited reporters’ copy. He did research for them. He even fetched their coffee.
But Bill didn’t mind. He was working for a big-time newspaper, learning the ropes. What he didn’t know is how he was impressing the reporters there. He made their stories better, and they talked him up with their editors.
“That boy can write,” one said.
When the United States entered the Second World War, Omaha immediately began sending its sons abroad, and the people of Omaha were eager for news about the war. The editorial board of the World-Herald met to discuss how they would cover the conflict.
Of course, the World-Herald ran wire stories like every major newspaper in the country. But the editorial board decided to supplement this coverage with its own dispatches. The editors decided to assign one of their own reporters to cover the action.
When they thought about who could do the job, Bill’s name came up. Though he was young, the editors knew Bill could write well and that he stayed on top of world affairs. Also, Bill still didn’t have a regular beat at the paper. All in all, the editors thought Bill would be a great fit.
So they decided to offer him the assignment. When Warren Edwards approached him with the idea, Bill was thrilled. He knew the war was the biggest story in the world. The opportunity to see it up close and file dispatches to keep his fellow Nebraskans informed once again made Bill feel like he was being called.
In early 1942, Bill left for France, where he was embedded with an Army infantry unit. The plan was that he would stay at least six months. More than two years later, Bill was still in France. He had traveled all over Europe, staying close to the action and sending reports home in a column called “Up Close.”
In June of 1944, Bill was part of the landing at Omaha Beach. He was unarmed, but in the madness, he was shot at, though thankfully not hit.
Bill spent nearly a week at Normandy, filing several dispatches a day. Readers in Nebraska were riveted. Everyone knew this was a turning point in the war. Everyone hoped the end was near.
Unfortunately, the war in Europe would rage on nearly another full year. Bill stayed to cover it. When Germany finally surrendered, Bill was in Berlin to report on the Allied victory.
“Freedom has triumphed,” he wrote, in one of his last dispatches from Europe.
No sooner had Bill returned home when Warren Edwards asked him if he would be open to going to the Pacific and covering the action there.
“This will be the final chapter in the war,” he said. “It’s going to be brutal. I know what you’ve been through, and if you’ve had enough, I’ll certainly understand. But people here hang on your every word. They trust you …”
“Yes,” Bill said, interrupting. “I’ll do it.”
Bill was on the island of Saipan, getting ready to cover the US invasion of the Japanese home islands, when the first atomic bombs were dropped.
Less than a month later, Bill was on the USS Missouri to cover the formal surrender.
“Today, on the deck of this battleship,” he wrote, “I witnessed a new birth of freedom.”
Bill returned to Omaha a kind of hero. To everyone there, he’d become a most trusted source of news about the war. Friends, neighbors and even strangers welcomed him home warmly. Most of them hadn’t seen him in nearly four years. He’d become a man of the world — and a handsome young man.
One morning, grabbing coffee at a shop down the street from the World-Herald, Bill bumped into a former classmate at Central High, Marie Garnier. She was working there. Bill and Marie hadn’t seen each other since high school.
She had blossomed into a beautiful woman. With her blue eyes, black hair and soft facial features, Marie reminded Bill of the lovely young women he’d seen in France. Until then, he hadn’t really thought about her name.
“Is Garnier French?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “My parents were born in France.”
“Je savais par ta beauté.”
Marie blushed and smiled, and Bill saw something beyond beauty in her eyes.
He asked her to dinner. They fell in love. Six months later, they were married.
In the meantime, the World-Herald made Bill its city editor. At 28, he was the youngest editor in the newspaper’s history.
But as accomplished as Bill was as a reporter, he found the transition challenging. Not because of his new editorial responsibilities, but because his world had suddenly shrunk and grown tame.
Bill was used to observing life and death drama in the fields, forests and jungles of faraway lands. Now his biggest challenge was navigating traffic in downtown Omaha.
It wasn’t just the physical differences, though. Bill was struggling to make sense of the everyday practices he saw in Omaha that seemed at odds with what he had seen American soldiers fighting and dying for overseas.
He saw ”separate but equal” facilities for Blacks. He saw books like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Grapes of Wrath banned by the school board. He saw restrictive hiring practices by local businesses.
None of these things was new in Omaha. But Bill’s experiences had given him new eyes. He now viewed things through the lens of the basic freedoms that had been under attack. What he had once considered normal, he now felt was wrong. As an editor for the most influential medium in the region, he now had a chance to expose common practices in his community that he now considered unfair and unjust.
And so under Bill’s leadership, the city desk began running hard-hitting stories. Bill also wrote editorials. The World-Herald took heat from some community leaders, but Warren Edwards was a brave man who knew good journalism, and he always had Bill’s back.
By 1952, Edwards was ready to retire. He recommended to his publisher that Bill succeed him. By then, Bill had distinguished himself as an award-winning journalist and editor. He’d even been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials denouncing Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against alleged Communists in the US as anti-American.
Edwards’ publisher readily agreed with his recommendation, and Bill soon took over as editor of the newspaper he’d begun reading as a boy.
By then, Bill and Marie had started a family. Bill loved being a father. He often thought of all the young men he had seen overseas who would never know the joy of becoming a father.
With Bill now at the helm of the World-Herald, the paper took a sharp left turn, championing social causes such as civil rights and even questioning America’s involvement in Korea.
Many in Omaha appreciated the paper’s more progressive approach. Some, though, took umbrage. Local business leaders and government officials demanded to meet with the editorial board. Bill and his editors listened to their concerns, but there was no let-up in what they saw as their professional responsibility.
Bill wasn’t put off by the flak. He’d seen much worse, and he knew he was doing the right thing.
“People here can disagree,” he said. “That’s vital in a democracy.”
Not all of Bill’s critics, though, were civil. Some wrote letters to the editor, calling Bill a Communist, a socialist or worse. Many letters were filled with vulgarities.
Bill also got personal letters, including death threats. He turned those over to the police.
Marie was beside herself. Bill tried to reassure her he would be okay, that critics come with the territory.
“They’re idle threats,” he said. “They’re just trying to back me off.”
This only made Marie more anxious because she knew her husband would not back off.
One gray November evening, after Bill had parked his car in his garage, he walked down his driveway to his mailbox, as he did when he got home from work.
A pickup truck came down the street and rolled to a stop behind him. Just as he was reaching in to get his mail, someone reached through the open window and shot Bill in the back of the head.
The shocking murder was front-page news across the country. Condolences and tributes poured in from journalists around the world. The Sunday edition of the World-Herald featured a special section devoted to remembrances of Bill and his work. In Sunday services across the country, clergymen praised Bill as “an apostle for the truth.”
Warren Edwards sounded that theme in his eulogy.
“Bill Frazier had a calling,” he said. “It was to reveal the truth. He was struck down by an enemy of the truth, but the truth lives on. It is and always will be our guiding light, just as Bill was and always will be our inspiration.”
The Army posted a color guard at the burial. The soldiers there carried rifles. They would have given Bill a three-volley salute, but they didn’t fire their guns out of respect for Marie.
That summer, Central High was renamed William Frazier High School, and a journalism scholarship was established in Bill’s honor. The University of Nebraska named its college of journalism for Bill. And Bill was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.
But what would have been most meaningful to Bill happened quietly, if gradually, in Omaha. “Separate but equal” signs were removed. Public schools were integrated. Local companies began hiring more women and minorities.
It was the kind of positive change Bill had hoped could happen if people only understood, the kind of change he believed he could help bring about if he stayed true to his calling.
Don Tassone is the author of two novels and seven short story collections. He lives in Loveland, Ohio.