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Remembering Jim Zabel: A former DI editor

BY CODY GOODWIN | JUNE 11, 2013 5:00 AM

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I’ve read many stories about and reflections on the late, great Jim Zabel over the past few weeks. But none are more striking to me, personally, than one that I came across in his autobiography.

Zabel was enrolling for classes at the IMU when he encountered George Bresnahan, Iowa’s track coach from 1921-48. Bresnahan had seen a talented Zabel win four events during a postseason high-school track meet a year earlier and wanted him to come out for the college track team.

But Zabel wasn’t having it. He had been in an auto accident that injured his right leg, and after his recovery, he wrote, his priorities changed. “I no longer had Olympic stars in my eyes,” he wrote. He realized his concentration shifted to his studies and future. Both involved journalism.

This is not a particularly eye-opening anecdote, of course. Most prep athletes do turn away from their sports in time. But this shift in concentration turned the future WHO broadcasting legend away from sports and to this exact student paper, where, you could say, his journey first began.

Zabel worked as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan in 1943. Before that, he was the campus editor and managing editor. As the head man in ’43, Zabel wrote a regular column titled “Editorially Speaking,” which was, according to one survey, the second-most read piece in the paper — a comic strip was the leader.

His column, while sometimes brilliant and consistently well written, didn’t always sit well with his readers. Zabel once wrote an article that described a popular hangout spot in Iowa City named the Central Tap and how alumni would regularly visit there and see the owner, Don Alberhasky, before seeking out their old professors.

A dean from the Graduate College wrote him an angry letter after the piece ran, saying it appealed to the “lowest tastes of the community,” according to the book. A confident Zabel responded the next day by saying, “OK, then why were there 3,000 people spilling on to the street at Central Tap and only a security guard and maintenance man at Schaeffer Hall?”

Zabel made it a point to produce a paper that appealed to the local community. He understood that the DI is a newspaper for readers of Iowa City. This became abundantly clear to me after reading of what he called in his book the “toughest decision as editor.”

It was during the winter of his tenure when the local police reported that bodies of a young man and woman had been found in a Coralville motel. The young woman was “queen of the junior nurse class at Iowa” and the young man was the “president of the junior medical class.”

Here was the trick: The Navy had announced on the same day the sinking of the Yorktown aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Around 1,800 lives had been lost. After talking it over with Jeanne Starr, Zabel made the decision to lead with the local story instead.

It was a decision that sparked plenty of reaction — his publisher, Fred Pownall, wasn’t too thrilled with Zabel’s decision. But Zabel knew that a big local story took precedence over a national story. He knew it was the right thing to do.

His stint at the DI included plenty of other anecdotes — he reviewed plays, covered games, and even interviewed the great Nile Kinnick. Zabel’s legacy is one that will be loved, loved, loved for many decades to come. He is a man that is, without a doubt, impossible to replace.

And we here at the DI know this all too well. On May 24, 1971, Zabel received a letter from Clarence G. Strub of the UI Department of Anatomy. In it, Strub wrote that Zabel’s “Editorially Speaking” column from Dec. 9, 1943, was “one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever read.” Strub sent the piece to the DI a few days earlier, suggesting that the current staff learn to write that well.

The editorial ran, in its entirety and originality, in the paper on May 22, 1971.

And here he is, again, back in the DI after nearly 70 years.


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