By: Barbara Bedway
When “The War,” Ken Burns’ 14-hour documentary on the American experience of World War II, airs this September, viewers will meet Al McIntosh, editor and publisher of the weekly Rock County Star Herald, in every episode. The filmmaker has said that McIntosh’s columns in some ways might turn out to be “the single greatest archival discovery we have ever made.” Excerpts are read by Tom Hanks, who was so impressed by them he inspired Burns and his researchers to go back to the paper’s archives to find more.
Using passages from McIntosh’s column, “More or Less Personal Chaff,” which chronicled life in the prairie town of Luverne, Minn. (population 3,100), Burns has used the editor ? who died in 1979 ? as a kind of “one-man Greek chorus,” as he has put it.
The discovery was pure serendipity. “We chose the town for other reasons?it was the hometown of a famous pilot [Quentin C. Aanenson] who wrote a memoir, then came upon his writing on microfilm,” says Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the script for this and most of the previous Burns productions. The forthcoming Knopf book (The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945) by Ward, with an intro by Burns, features McIntosh’s writing in every chapter.
McIntosh had just purchased the paper in 1940, but “somehow got his finger on the pulses of life in his town,” marvels Ward. “He’s an amazing writer; he manages to make drama out of the daily events in a really interesting way. [His column] is the most modest look at what happened that week, but there’s something about hearing him describe the telegrams getting delivered, saying that someone had died or was missing ? or watching someone get off the bus when they came home, a father sneaking in the back door to surprise his children ? those are the ones that get to me.”
The documentary examines WWII through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four American towns. They are, besides Luverne: Waterbury, Conn. (known then as the brass capital of the world, with a large immigrant population); Mobile, Ala. (a major shipbuilding center); and Sacramento, Calif., site of a large Japanese-American population, many of whom were interned during the war after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.
The focus throughout is on people who lived through the period and soldiers who saw serious combat ? no historians or generals were interviewed. The narrative, the result of two years of research involving submissions by historical societies and material that came to light through newspaper stories about the project, includes home movies as well as combat footage. Woven throughout the series (E&P was sent a one-hour collection of excerpts) are McIntosh’s reporting and reflections, an Our Town of families trying to maintain farms and businesses and everyday lives, set against the backdrop of global catastrophe.
Of D-Day, McIntosh wrote (and is quoted in the series): “When we stumbled sleepily down the hall to answer the ringing telephone, we made a mental note that it was shortly before 3 a.m. We picked up the receiver, thinking it was Sheriff Roberts calling to say there had been an accident. Instead, it was Mrs. Lloyd Long, playing the feminine counterpart of Paul Revere, saying, ‘Get up, Al, and listen to the radio. The invasion has started.’ We sat by the radio for over an hour, listening to the breathtaking announcement. And then we went to bed, to lie there for a long time, wide-eyed and in the darkness, thinking, ‘What Rock County boys are landing on French soil tonight?'”
Speaking of the entire series, Ward reveals, “One thing you learn is how terribly important newspapers were. People really spent time with papers, and the paper was mailed overseas to everybody in the Armed Forces. McIntosh was sort of a clearing house for the town about the war, and about the home front for the boys. Sometimes he writes letters to the boys overseas, telling them how the crops are coming in, how the seasons are changing. Soldiers wrote home, and the families would pass on the letters and say, ‘Please give them to Mr. McIntosh to publish in the paper.'”
Early in 1942, he wrote about watching the newly minted soldiers on the eve of their departure following a church service: “We will never forget the sight as the men marched away from the high school after the service. There was a feeble winter sun and its slanting rays on the frosty day played funny tricks in making almost individual halos, it seemed, about the heads of the men as the outfit swung down the street. A year has passed and many things have happened since. When newspapermen get to suggesting things, they are out on dangerous ground, but it would seem to me that it might be fitting and proper for this community to hold another union church service at the same place.”
McIntosh was born a preacher’s son in South Dakota, and worked at newspapers while still a student in college. As a reporter and photographer for the Lincoln (Neb.) Star and then the rival Lincoln Journal, he “fit the times like a glove,” noted one colleague, who described him as a “dapper, redheaded Scotsman with a matching thermal point of indignation.”
He covered bank robbers’ trials and hauled his four-by-five Speed Graphic camera on police raids. He also used it to photograph Amelia Earhart, the Queen of England, and the spectacular Lincoln bank robbery of 1930. Eventually job offers arrived from such big-city papers as The Kansas City Star and The Washington Post, but McIntosh was determined to own his own newspaper.
“Al was quite the reporter and man about town,” recalls his only child, Jean Vickstrom. She acknowledges she was shocked when the Burns people contacted her: “I was especially surprised when they told me they were giving Al so much coverage.” She notes that her father promised the Lincoln businessman who loaned him the money to buy the weekly Rock County Star in 1940 (he bought the Rock County Herald in 1942 and merged it with the Star) that “he would go on to do greater things than own a rural paper in Minnesota.”
It never happened. Vickstrom notes, “Of course, my mother happened to be there when he walked through the door on his first day.” McIntosh married her in 1948, and remained as editor and publisher for almost 30 years.
“In this office, we have always looked back at Al as a good, solid newspaperman who was also very good at business,” says Sarah Quam, the Star Herald’s assistant editor. “We never thought he’d bring us attention, but we knew he was worthy of it.” McIntosh gained national prominence in his later years as president of the National Newspaper Association and as the winner of four Freedom Foundation medals. The Al McIntosh Distinguished Service to Journalism Award is presented annually by the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
In 1966, McIntosh spoke to E&P (which Vickstrom says was “always at the top of his mail pile when he would walk through the door”) about his controversial, widely reprinted editorial “A Tired American Gets Angry.” It decried sit-ins, lax morality, and anti-Americanism abroad. Vickstrom says the overwhelming response the editorial generated and all the ensuing publicity contributed to the massive heart attack he suffered that year: “He survived, but lost much of his vigor, setting his eventual departure from newspapering.”
For Ward, who believes that piece “was not his finest hour,” the columns deserve a lasting place in American cultural history. In September, Minnesota-based MBI Publishing Company will bring out McIntosh’s wartime columns in a book titled Selected Chaff.
In his farewell column in 1968, McIntosh wrote: “You seldom see a good community without a good newspaper. The Star Herald has tried to be a good newspaper ? an honest newspaper ? that mirrored truthfully the happenings of this tri-state area, the moving finger of history.”