By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
GREENFIELD, Iowa, March 5, 2014 — Iowa Public Television tonight premieres an hour-long documentary telling the story of one of the state’s most remarkable journalism families and their newspaper. They are the Sideys, of Greenfield, and the weekly newspaper they’ve owned and operated with love and professionalism for 125 years, the Adair County Free Press. For me, it’s kind of a “told you so” moment, because way back in 1984, I publicly ranked it as the best newspaper in Iowa. (That caused considerable chirping among my colleagues at the Des Moines Register, which I ranked second-best).
The documentary “The Sidey Report: Life and Times of an Iowa Icon” airs tonight, March 5, at 8:30 p.m. on IPTV stations as part of the network’s “Festival 2014” appeal for financial support. It will be shown three more times before the festival ends March 16, and you can get the schedule and other details by clicking here. IPTV will have the program available online later.
In it, I’m one of a half-dozen journalists interviewed about the Sideys and the Free Press, so consider my bias in my critique here. But writer-producer Laurel Bower Burgmaier has told the story in a compelling way that captures the essence of what a great community newspaper should be. And besides interesting interviews with Sidey family members, friends and journalists, she and her IPTV colleagues weaved together some of the best still-life photographs of Iowa rural community life that I’ve ever seen. Those came from the “Sidey Collection,” which are the photographs that four generations of Sideys have taken, published and saved from about the early 1920s to today. That collection, obviously, is a state treasure, maybe a national one.
Brothers Hugh Sidey (left) and Ed Sidey became two of Iowa’s most respected journalists, Hugh writing “The Presidency” column for Time magazine and Ed as editor and publisher of their family’s hometown paper, the Adair County Free Press in Greenfield. (Photo is from the Sidey Collection and is used here with permission.)
I got to see the documentary early because, in an inspired piece of hometown marketing, IPTV decided to show it first to the people who will love it most — an audience of 300-plus Adair Countians and Greenfielders on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 22, at the Grand Theatre here in this town of 1,930 located 60 miles southwest of Des Moines. That was followed by receptions at the Greenfield Public Library and the Warren Cultural Center and Opera House, with Sidey memorabilia on display at both places, and then a party at the Hotel Greenfield. At that party, tunes were provided by retired editor and publisher Rick Morain of the Jefferson Bee & Herald on piano and Belle Plaine Star Press Union editor Jim Magdefrau on guitar, both of them wearing fedoras with “press cards” stuck in the brims. It was about as grand event as I’ve ever seen a newspaper in Iowa throw for its readers and patrons.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier (left), producer for Iowa Public Television’s documentary about the Sidey family of Greenfield and their Adair County Free Press newspaper, is shown here with the paper’s editor and publisher Linda Sidey. On the wall behind them are photos from the Sidey Collection, used in the newspaper over the decades.
The Sideys began newspapering in Greenfield in 1889, and have been at it ever since. Five generations have been involved.
The way I became a fan of their Adair County Free Press is a bit unusual. I received a gift subscription to Time magazine when I graduated from Shenandoah High School in 1965, and I’m still subscribing and reading it. In that magazine, I began reading the almost weekly column called “The Presidency,” in which Hugh Sidey would give inside looks at how the Presidents of the U.S. were doing. I instantly admired his solid reporting, his smooth writing and his unpretentious manner that seemed to me to always have kind of an Iowa brand of common sense to it. I can even remember him quoting the White House barber a time or two. Sidey began writing that column when Eisenhower was president, and he continued it into the Clinton presidency. Simply put, he became one of the best and most influential reporters in the world.
It took a while for me to realize he was a native of Greenfield and Iowa. Maybe it was when he wrote a column from Greenfield, on one of his many visits back home, and talked about the political discernment he picked up by sitting in with the morning coffee group at the old Ideal Café on the square. Hmmm, I thought, “the Ideal Café” in a “Greenfield, Iowa” — a perfect place to base a story on the Midwestern perspective!
In 1972, I went to work as a general assignment reporter for the Des Moines Register. From the beginning, I spent a lot of time roaming Iowa for news and feature stories. One way we’d get story ideas at the Register back then was from Iowa’s weekly newspapers — I think the Register subscribed to nearly all of them. Often when I wasn’t busy, I’d grab a big stack of the weeklies, pour a tall cup of coffee and start reading. When I’d do that, one newspaper that always seemed full of solid news, interesting stories, columns and editorials was the Adair County Free Press. The editor and publisher was Ed Sidey, author of a column “Thoughts at Random by EJS,” and in fact author of nearly everything in the paper. Sometimes he might be writing about the Cold War, or farm economics, and other times he might be writing about the dandelion which for years hid at the edge of his sidewalk, constantly sending up blossoms in different places. And in every edition, Ed Sidey would take the time to write an editorial that stated the newspaper’s position on the public issues of that time.
When I traveled Iowa back then, I would stop in many small town newspapers, sometimes borrowing a desk and a typewriter where I could write a column to send to Des Moines — or later on I was looking for a place to plug-in my laptop computers. I became a frequent visitor at the Free Press, and eventually a friend of all the Sideys, including Hugh when he’d be back home from his globetrotting for Time.
At various times, they told me about their almost idyllic boyhoods in Greenfield. Later, Hugh Sidey once wrote in Time: “When I think back to my childhood in Greenfield, Iowa, I cannot recall ever being bored, not a single time.” Wow, I thought, that should be up on a billboard for people to see as they drive into town.
I also remember when I realized just how big a deal Hugh had become as a journalist. That was when a story somehow broke, and then he confirmed, that for years the old Soviet Union had a spy assigned to follow him all over the world. “The Soviets just couldn’t understand how the free press worked in America,” he told me, and I’m quoting him as closely as I can remember. “They thought I would surely know many secrets, with the close access I had to the presidents. They didn’t relate to the notion that I’d be writing every interesting fact I could discover, so that the readers would know as much as possible.” The Soviet spy, as I recall, had a first name of Boris and indeed would frequently send drinks over to Hugh’s table at restaurants, or try to pay for his meals.
Meanwhile, back home in Greenfield, Ed Sidey would be using the same skills and diligence in turning up the news of Adair County. He also served on the school board and directed his church choir. I loved watching him do all that.
He and Hugh told me how, after their World War II service, they came home to get college degrees at Iowa State, then both worked at the Omaha World-Herald. When their father took ill, the brothers talked whether one would like to go home and run the Free Press, with the support of the other. In the documentary, Ed tells an IPTV interviewer years ago, “I was the older one and got first choice.”
Hugh indeed was always very supportive, and totally respectful of the work Ed was doing in Greenfield. In fact, Hugh once told me that if I was going to pick the better journalist of the two, it’d be Ed.
Photos of the Free Press staff in action over the years, are now displayed on the south wall of the newsroom.
Which brings us to the story of how I picked the Adair County Free Press as the best newspaper in the state in 1984. Time magazine decided then it was going to pick the top ten newspapers in America. I can’t recall which Time writer or writers did the story, but I don’t believe Hugh Sidey was involved, except possibly as one of their own who was a keen observer of many newspapers across the nation. Time picked the Des Moines Register as one of the 10 best, and again, consider my bias, but I thought that was a fair and accurate rating back then. The Register in those years really was that good. We were all thrilled in the newsroom in Des Moines, as you can probably imagine.
Soon after that Time magazine came out, I wrote in one of my columns how exciting that honor was for us at the Register, and it made me start thinking that perhaps we should pick the top ten newspapers in Iowa. I proposed that I would do the rankings, since I read more Iowa newspapers than anybody else on the staff. Our editor-in-chief James P. Gannon gave me the O.K., and I spent a week or two talking to veteran newspaper people across the state, comparing their ideas with my own, and ultimately coming up with my top ten — and I numbered them 1 thru 10 and gave honorable mentions, too.
I released the rankings in a Sunday Register column, with the Adair County Free Press ranked first, the Des Moines Register second, and on I went through the top ten. When the editors saw my column on Friday or Saturday before publication, they all started buzzing. Gannon called me in and, as best I remember, said, “How can you possibly think that little weekly newspaper in Greenfield — no matter how good it might be — is a better newspaper than we are here at the Register?”
I pointed out to him that my answer was right up in the top paragraphs in the column, that the most critical measurement in my mind was how any newspaper served its primary audience. I told the boss that as good as we at the Register were, we still were not serving the whole state of Iowa, which was our audience then, as well as the Free Press was serving Adair County. I don’t think I actually convinced him, but God bless him, he said, “Well, it’s your column and we’ll run with it.” And we did.
Needlesss to say, there was a grand celebration in Greenfield — I think Ed Sidey may have bought coffee and cinnamon rolls for all comers at the Ideal Café. And my reception at small town newspapers across the state became even warmer after that than it had already been.
Hugh Sidey died in 2005. Ed Sidey died in 2008. Ed’s widow Linda Sidey took over as editor and publisher in 2008. It is still one fine small town Iowa newspaper, with a print circulation of 2,000, and many far-flung followers on the Free Press site on the Internet. She oversaw the move of the newspaper office from its original quarters next door to the hotel, around the corner to a location just south of the Warren Cultural Center and Opera House.
Brian Duffy, the well-known Iowa artist from Des Moines, is shown here with Adair County Free Press editor and publisher Linda Sidey out front of the newspaper office in Greenfield. Sidey commissioned Duffy to do drawings of the original Free Press building and of this newer headquarters. Beside the sidewalk are two benches where people are invited to sit and read the newspaper. One bench is dedicated in Hugh Sidey’s name, the other is dedicated in Ed Sidey’s name.
Two of Ed’s sons have been involved, David Sidey still helping with newspaper production, and Ken Sidey, who has worked in reporting and editing in past years, is now managing the opera house and cultural center. His cousin Ted Sidey, one of Hugh Sidey’s three children, also has spent time working at the Free Press in past years. So there are fifth generation Sideys who certainly know the operation should Linda Sidey at some point opt for retirement.
Laurel Bower Bower Burgmaier, who did such an outstanding job in researching, writing and producing the documentary for IPTV, grew up hearing about the fine newspaper in Greenfield and Adair County. She was raised on a farm near Thayer, went to Drake University and, in her senior year, she had an internship at IPTV and has stayed there as a career. She and her husband live outside Creston, and she commutes to IPTV headquarters in Johnston.
She has become a respected producer of significant Iowa stories for IPTV, having in past years produced documentaries on six-on-six girls basketball; the Midwestern 20th century farm photography of Pete Wettach; on tractor collectors and restorers, and last year a 90-minute special looking back at the Farm Crisis of the early 1980s.
Here’s the crowd leaving the Grand Theatre in Greenfield after Iowa Public Television screened its new documentary for the first time on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 22. The documentary covers the history of the Sidey family and their weekly Adair County Free Press newspaper.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.