Enterprising polymath saved Daily Mail from bankruptcy in 1914
By ZACK HAROLD
DAILY MAIL LIFE EDITOR
One hundred years ago this Sunday, a former Alaskan governor purchased a small bankrupt newspaper in Charleston, W.Va.
The publication, known at the time as “The News-Mail,” had spent decades in and out of financial difficulties.
But Gov. Walter E. Clark was a man of unique experience, having spent years as a Washington correspondent for some of the country’s biggest newspapers.
He also had spent time as a gold prospector, so he knew buried treasure when he saw it.
Clark changed the paper’s name and spent the rest of his life helping it thrive and grow into the newspaper you read today.
This Sunday marks the Charleston Daily Mail’s 100th birthday, and this is the story of the man who started it all.
TEACHER, NEWSPAPERMAN, PROSPECTOR
Walter Eli Clark was born Jan. 7, 1869 in Ashford, Conn., the son of a farmer. He attended the local public schools before heading to the Connecticut State Normal School, where he graduated in 1887.
He spent the next year working as a schoolteacher in Waterville, Conn., before, at age 19, becoming principal of the Manchester, Conn., grade schools.
Clark quickly left the education world behind, however, returning to school at Williston Seminary and then Wesleyan University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1895.
After graduation, Clark got into the newspaper business.
He became a reporter at the Hartford Post in Hartford, Conn. but left that position for a job in the nation’s capital, working as a telegraph editor at the Washington Times.
He then became Washington correspondent for the New York Commercial Advertiser and, in 1897, the New York Sun.
In 1900, he took a yearlong leave of absence from the newspaper to travel to Alaska and prospect for gold. He didn’t find his fortune, but contributed articles to several papers during his time in the Final Frontier.
He returned to Washington in 1901 and, over the next few years, worked for the Sun, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Toronto Globe.
In 1909, Clark again left the newspaper business for Alaska... but this time at the request of President William Howard Taft.
Clark never sought political office but had developed a reputation as a man “unusually well-informed on Alaskan affairs,” according to a front page New York Times story on May 19, 1909.
Taft and Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger asked Clark to become the first territorial governor of Alaska.
Local newspapers criticized Clark as a “carpetbagger” but Taft believed putting an outsider in charge would help resolve political squabbles that were hampering efforts to establish a territorial government in the district.
Indeed, it was Clark who oversaw the establishment of Alaska’s first legislature. But after four years he grew tired of the job and in early 1913 submitted a letter of resignation to President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson asked Clark to stay in Alaska until the legislature completed its session. Clark relented and stayed until May 21.
Although some might have expected Clark would return to Washington once back in the continental United States, he chose instead to relocate to Charleston.
And although he never again held (or even sought) political office, friends and colleagues would affectionately call him “Governor” for the rest of his life.
THE CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Upon arriving in West Virginia, Clark received several offers from state Republicans to run for office. But he wasn’t interested.
His only ambition, he said, was to “publish a good newspaper.”
It was a crowded business.
Publications popped up and disappeared all the time in Charleston, almost as quickly as their daily editions. One writer called the Kanawha Valley “the graveyard of newspapers.”
In the late 1800s, there were nine newspapers being published in the area. One of those was The Evening Mail, founded in 1893 by F.R. Swann.
That paper lasted only until 1894, when it was sold to John B. Floyd and John W. Jarrett.
Floyd and Jarrett changed The Evening Mail into a morning publication -- renaming it “The Charleston Mail” -- because they figured morning trains offered faster service through the state. That would improve the newspaper’s coverage and allow for a wider distribution.
The plan didn’t work, however.
Financial troubles forced The Charleston Mail out of business after only a few years. The newspaper was purchased by another company and consolidated with other publications to form the Star-Tribune.
It would not reemerge until 1899, this time with “Charleston Gazette” owner Moses Donally at the helm.
He changed the name back to The Charleston Mail but allowed it to remain a morning newspaper, since the Gazette was an evening paper at the time.
Donally sold the Gazette in 1900, however, and in 1901 switched the Charleston Mail to an evening paper so the two could compete head-to-head.
He also brought in five prominent Republicans to serve as editors while he handled the business side of the operation.
It was a disastrous decision.
The politicos found it difficult to agree on anything. The newspaper would pick a candidate to endorse, then switch sides and back another candidate in the very next day’s edition.
Readers found it difficult to trust a publication that couldn’t even agree with its own editorials.
Donally eventually fired the editors, but financial difficulties forced him to sell the newspaper in 1910.
It was merged with another local paper, The News, to become The News-Mail. This newspaper, too, was doomed and wound up on the auction block in April 1914.
And that’s where Gov. Clark found it.
He purchased the News-Mail, returned its name to The Charleston Mail and installed himself as editor and publisher. He would hold the position for more than 30 years.
Things started small -- Clark and managing editor Grady Damron were the paper’s entire editorial staff for a time -- but the business began to grow almost immediately.
Clark added a Sunday edition on April 4, 1920 and changed the name of the newspaper to the Charleston Daily Mail. The publication soon outgrew its headquarters at 1002 Virginia St. East. It moved into a brand new building across the street in April 1927, where it remains today.
A NEWSPAPER FOR THE “WHOLE PEOPLE”
Clark came to the Charleston Daily Mail with a wealth of experience, having worked in Washington as a political journalist for several different newspapers.
His experience as a territorial governor also gave him a unique insight into politics on both the state and national level.
But in spite of his background -- or maybe because of it -- Clark came to the Daily Mail with somewhat of an aversion to politics.
He styled himself an “independent Republican.”
One of the first editorials he wrote for The Charleston Mail declared the publication would be “a Republican newspaper -- mighty positively so -- but not a factional opponent.”
“It will be a political or personal organ of no individual, not even the owner,” he wrote.
Instead, Clark assured readers his newspaper “will serve no interests except the interests of the whole people.”
Clark’s commitment to fairness also extended to his staff.
Columnist Adrian Gwin recalled a time when, as a young reporter, Clark summoned him to his office.
“To my knock on his door he said ‘come,’ and then ‘sit down sir,’ offering a chair beside him. He handed me a three-paragraph story clipped from a previous edition, asking if I wrote it,” Gwin remembered in a 1996 column.
It was short article about an unruly drunk who had been arrested. The story listed the man’s address, which Gwin had copied from an official report at the police station.
The drunk had lied to police, however, and gave them someone else’s address.
“Mr. Gwin... The family at the address has notified us that they will sue the newspaper and the writer of the article for a million dollars.
“I just want you to know, Mr. Gwin, that the newspaper will stand behind you 100 percent, regardless of what happens.”
No suit was ever filed, but Gwin said the experience was a perfect example of Clark’s character.
“He was courteous, crafty, industrious, gentlemanly, hard shelled, soft-hearted, aspiring, considerate and willing to give more than he demanded,” he wrote.
Former lifestyles editor Julie Kemp began working in the Daily Mail newsroom about a year before Clark’s death.
Although he was 80 at the time, Kemp remembers Clark was very hands-on with his staff.
“He was just quite a presence in the newsroom,” Kemp said. “He didn’t sit in his little office. He roamed around.”
One day he hand-delivered a copy of one of Kemp’s stories, clipped from the newspaper.
“He had written on it ‘good yarn.’”
Even as he became head honcho of a successful newspaper, Clark’s love of writing never waned.
He regularly wrote for the newspaper, mostly in his front-page editorial “At This Hour.” But he still occasionally turned in news stories, too.
“Just to keep in touch with the news,” he would say.
A LASTING LEGACY
Clark remained an active presence in the newsroom even as his health began to fail. He had suffered recurring heart attacks but, by early 1950, appeared to be in comparatively good health.
But about 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, he suffered another heart attack.
He was admitted to the hospital, where he died at 1:27 p.m.
Clark requested no elaborate obituary, commanding the staff to only write “a few words at the top of the editorial column, and that is all.”
Editorial writer Jack Maurice respectfully disobeyed his final wishes, however.
Maurice remembered his boss and friend as a man of keen wit, “a student’s understanding of history,” and a “deep and abiding concern for what he felt right and proper.”
“If one word can suffice to characterize him it is ‘integrity’ -- both personal in his life and publicly in his conduct of a newspaper,” Maurice wrote in the Sunday newspaper.
Clark’s funeral was held the following Monday at the Kanawha Presbyterian Church, right next door to the Daily Mail building.
Maurice and nine other Daily Mail employees served as pallbearers.
Clark’s widow took over operation of the paper when he died, appointing her brother Fred Staunton as publisher.
Her son Lyell eventually took ownership of the newspaper and continued operating the publication until 1987, when the family sold The Daily Mail to Thomson Newspapers.
“WITHOUT, OR WITH, OFFENSE TO FRIENDS OR FOES”
When Clark began the difficult task of revamping the Charleston Daily Mail, he sought a motto to convey his guiding ideals for the newspaper.
He found what he was looking for in the eighth canto of Lord Byron’s epic poem “Don Juan.”
“Without, or with, offence to friends or foes,” the poet wrote. “I sketch your world exactly as it goes.”
The slogan began appearing in each edition of the newspaper, but Clark also had the line emblazoned on a plaque to hang in the newsroom.
The Daily Mail has seen many changes over the last century, but that plaque still hangs in the newsroom, right behind the copy desk.
It serves as a daily reminder of our forebears, as well as the principles we still espouse.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.