Fall officially arrived Tuesday which means that there’s only 94 days until Christmas. I know, I know, it’s a bit early to be thinking about Christmas but a class discussion about something that happened 112 years ago this week brought up the subject.
I like to ask my students if they can name a single famous editorial. I do it because I enjoy watching them stare at their navels and whimper. Truth is, most people would be hard pressed to name an editorial, period, famous or not, because most editorials are notoriously dull and preachy and have the retention value of a sieve. But that doesn’t mean they have to be. As David Barham, an editorial writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, once wrote, “Who says you can’t quote Father Guido Sarducci (of ‘Saturday Night Live’)?”
And they weren’t always so dull. In the late 1800s, editor Charles Dana of the New York Sun recruited a group of editorial writers who broke the mold of editorials that had the entertainment value of watching two weeks of steady rain. They came to be known as “casual essayists” although most still wrote unsigned editorials so their readers never got to know the people behind the voices.
The story goes that one day the newspaper’s staff lost it’s only telegraphed copy of a presidential speech which it had already hawked to its readers as appearing in that day’s paper. Knowing the readers were expecting it, the casual essayists got together and decided to explain the missing speech by writing an editorial saying the office cat had eaten it.
Now, aside from one minor detail – they didn’t have an office cat – the editorial was a huge hit with readers. Even rival newspapers ran editorial cartoons of the Sun’s “office cat,” usually depicted as scruffy and wearing an eye patch. The editorial was so popular that the Sun’s writers kept resurrecting it in future editorials, usually when they needed to explain why something got messed up.
But it was another editorial by a member of the Sun’s staff that most of us remember today although most people wouldn’t recognize it as a newspaper editorial. It started with a letter the newspaper received in September 1897 from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon seeking an answer to a question because “Papa says if you see it in the Sun it’s so.”
The letter was handed off to Sun editorial writer Francis P. Church for a response. Church, a former Civil War correspondent for the New York Times, was reluctant to take on the assignment. He generally dealt with the more controversial editorial subjects and put off answering the letter until forced to by Dana.
Because they wrote unsigned editorials, no one outside the Sun’s newsroom knew who wrote that famous reply until after Church’s death. But on Sept. 21, 1897, the editorial response appeared in the Sun, the seventh out of seven editorials that day, buried beneath an editorial on chainless bicycles.
It was titled, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS, 38677 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.