the persistence to keep digging
By Joe Hight, 2013 Inductee
WEWOKA—Keep digging. Keep asking questions.
Those words could be good advice for any journalist. But they were among the hallmarks of Vance H. Trimble’s journalism and writing career that spanned for more than 85 years. A career that included a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting; bestselling books, including one about Sam Walton that sold nearly 700,000 copies; a few million words published in true detective stories and newspapers; and being honored among the first journalists to be inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.
Those words are also what can be expected when you call the 106-year-old Trimble.
After introducing myself on the phone, he immediately asked me, “What do you know about me?”
I promised him I would do my research before meeting him at his home, a brown brick amid other single-story homes in a Wewoka neighborhood, not far from the two-story “Singing Tower” that he commissioned at Oakwood Cemetery in memory of his beloved wife of 67 years, Elzene, who died in 1999. And, not far from where he began his storied career at 14 for $1.50 a week. He would work for other Hall of Famers, such as Paul Miller, his mentor, who was inducted in 1972, and Walker Stone, inducted in 1973. Trimble followed in 1974.
When I knocked on the front screen door, with a list of well-researched questions, he motioned for me to come inside. He looked like he was ready to go to work. His full head of white hair was combed neatly back and he was wearing a light-blue sweater, blue shirt, and navy dress pants. He sat in the middle of his living room next to his walker and between two couches. He asked me to sit next to him because he can’t see and can hardly hear.
One living room wall was filled with paintings by Elzene, whom he met when he was editor and she was business manager of the Wewoka High School’s The Little Tiger. By that time, he had already started working for community newspapers. He would work for at least 10 in Oklahoma.
“I got fired from two or three,” including on his wedding day during the Great Depression, he said. One firing, however, may have contributed to his Pulitzer Prize.
He recalls how Jenkin Lloyd Jones fired him from The Tulsa Tribune because he was part of an effort to form a newspaper union there. Jones, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, told Trimble later that he would not have fired him if he had known Trimble would win the Pulitzer in 1960.
Trimble replied, “I wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer if you hadn’t fired me.”
The Pulitzer was for his series of stories in 1959 about nepotism in Congress, which caused the U.S. Senate to change its rules. The changes also caused his name to appear in headlines, such as The Washington Daily News’ “A Victory for the Taxpayers and Vance Trimble.”
He wrote the series on his off time when he was working the night desk for Scripps-Howard in Washington, where he worked for Walker Stone. However, Washington was “very slow” as compared to his previous jobs, including a “hell of a record” as Houston Press managing editor.
As a “product of the Great Depression,” Trimble experienced hunger that spurred him to develop a work ethic that carried him through life, along with a “no fear” attitude. His newspaper career also included being the Kentucky Post’s top editor where he was credited with turning the paper around and balancing its coverage.
“I knew I had the stuff to be editor. I was imaginative, creative, I got stuff done, and I was a good people person,” he said. When the qualities were repeated back to him, he included “integrity” while admitting he overcame making “a lot of mistakes in the newspaper business.”
Those qualities came along with reading thousands of books, his persistence to keep digging, his love of research, and asking questions. That’s what he demanded of himself and now of those who interview him. Having exhausted my questions, I told him he may not only be the oldest living journalist, but also the dean of journalism today.
He shook his head no and waved a hand at me. “I was just lucky enough to go past one hundred,” he said.