By the close of the twenties, William Allen White was no typical small- town newspaper editor, but he had become America's archetypical Small- Town Editor. Shrewd yet kindly, courageously individualistic yet deeply rooted in his community, White's national image symbolized a humane native American tradition that, by the Depression, even urban intellectuals had begun to search for. Fittingly, it was the national media, which had undermined the small-town newspaper's real influence, that disseminated and shaped this image of White. Urban newspapers and mass-circulation magazines told and retold the story of his career. Teachers of journalism compiled anthologies of his editorials. Fellow Emporians wrote biographies of their most famous citizen. This clebration of White climaxed in 1938, when his seventieth birthday prompted an outpouring of attention in media ranging from the venerable Atlantic and Christian Century to journalistic upstarts Life and Look. 1
Announcing "An American Institution is 70," Life's commemoration of the event was also a nostalgic salute to small-town America. Its five-page spread opened with a large photograph of a kindly, white-haired old man, who was, simply, "The Country Editor." A short text framed the succeeding photographs by establishing White as a multifaceted archetype: "He is the small-town boy who made good at home. To the small-town man who envies the glamour of the city, he is living assurance that small-town life may be preferable. To the city man who looks back with nostalgia on a small-town youth, he is a living symbol of small-town simplicity and kindliness and common sense."
The following photographs celebrated the community as well as the man. One showed White being serenaded outside the Gazette building by "a thousand Emporians led by Mayor Lostutter and the 161st Field Artillery band." In another, White greeted the massed membership of the Rotary Club outside his home, to which they had "marched in a body" to give him a basket of roses. Others depicted White alighting from his car on his way to work, greeting "almost everybody" on his way down busy Commercial Street "on his daily round," and self-consciously sipping a Coke at Warren Morris's drugstore. One page was devoted to photographs of the Gazette newsroom and four of his most dedicated employees. The final page was filled with a single large photograph. It showed White, his ample back to the camera, working at his battered rolltop desk, oblivious to the moun-