This history of the Louisville professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (formerly Sigma Delta Chi) was compiled by John G. Dietrich, Floyd B. Edwards, Don Towles and Ed Staats.
The Louisville Professional Chapter sprang to life Feb. 6, 1953, when 39 members of the society met at the River Valley Club for dinner and installation ceremonies. The charter listed 14 names. Edgar E. Easterly was elected first president, serving for two terms, and represented the new Louisville chapter at the national convention.
A great deal of the impetus, support and groundwork had come from publisher Barry Bingham Sr. (now deceased) and editors Mark Ethridge, Jim Pope and Norman E. Isaacs, and from Easterly, who was Associated Press Kentucky bureau chief. Bingham had been active in the national organization. Isaacs and Easterly had been members of professional chapters elsewhere.
The Louisville chapter was healthy from birth and has been active and vigorous for most of its life. Chapter membership grew rapidly, bolstered by the induction of many active journalists from other places in Kentucky and southern Indiana. By 1956 the chapter was strong enough to play host to the national convention, with the help of the Bingham-owned newspapers.
In these three decades few political figures have been elected to, or even run for, high office in Kentucky, Jefferson County or Louisville without appearing singly or in a panel session before the chapter. Some of them even said something newsworthy. The most serious controversy arose when U.S. Dist. Judge Stanley Gordon, apparently unaware that all chapter meetings are considered open to press and public, found his 1973 remarks in the local newspapers. The ensuing flap resulted in adoption of a chapter by-law stating that all meetings are open, and that all speakers must be so informed in advance. One of the best-attended (about 200 were there), liveliest and surely most-remembered meeting took place at Mastersons in September 1972 when Pauline, long-time madam of a famed Bowling Green bordello, went well beyond the memoirs she had recently published.
Through the years the chapter has actively furthered the society’s work and aspirations. Besides the national convention being held in Louisville, the chapter was host to the 1966 Regional 5 conference, at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park. Its members were among the moving figures in re-establishing the undergraduate chapter at the University of Kentucky after World War II, and in establishing the Western Kentucky University undergraduate chapter. It has actively supported the rights of campus publications threatened with suppression. A team from the chapter conducted the ceremonies marking establishment of the Tri-State Cardinal professional chapter at Evansville, Ind.
An outstanding project since 1981 has been the annual Metro Louisville Journalism Awards, under the initial leadership of John Long, and the banquets honoring the winners. A highlight of this program was awarding in 1984 of “The First” Prize to Barry Bingham Sr. Not to be forgotten, either, is the major role played by the Louisville chapter in the 1970s in gaining for Kentucky a model “sunshine” statute requiring that public business be publicly conducted.
In 1990, the Louisville chapter took on its largest challenge since 1956 – organizing a national convention. In addition to enlisting support from numerous chapter members, they turned to the one person remaining who had been closely involved with the 1956 national meeting in Louisville of Sigma Delta Chi – Donald B. Towles of The Courier-Journal. Barry Bingham Sr. had been named honorary president of the national organization. In 1990 Towles was the convention chairman and George N. Gill, Courier-Journal publisher, was the honorary chairman. U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, grandson of Sigma Delta Chi founder Eugene Pulliam of Indianapolis, spoke at the conference. The meeting was one of the most highly attended conferences in history and made a respectable profit for the national office.
In 1991, the chapter honored former Louisville mayor and Kentucky lieutenant governor Wilson Wyatt with The First Prize for his contributions to the advancement of freedom of the press under the First Amendment. Others who have received the award in addition to Barry Bingham Sr. are John S. Palmore, former chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court; Barry Bingham Jr., former editor and publisher of The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times; and George N. Gill, former president and publisher of The Courier-Journal.
The years of 1992 and 1993 were busy ones for the growing chapter. The First Mike Award was given to WHAS’ Fred Wiche, and the Distinguished Kentucky Journalist Award was presented to Richard Harwood, editorial columnist for The Washington Post and former political writer for The Louisville Times.
SPJ’s Region Five conference was held in Louisville in 1998, and chapter president Larry Muhammad recruited CBS news legend Mike Wallace to participate. The conference was part of a three-day event, culminating in a black-tie charity benefiting Bridgehaven, a local halfway house for the severely mentally ill. The event raised $200,000 to help Bridgehaven build a new facility.
Over its 50-year history the Louisville chapter has attracted some of the nation’s best-known and most-respected journalists as guest speakers. They include Turner Catledge, The New York Times; Katherine Graham, The Washington Post; Carl Lindstrom, The Hartford Courant; broadcasters Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Bob Edwards and Cokie Roberts; columnist George Will; John Seigenthaler, The Tennessean of Nashville and USA Today; Howard Fineman, Newsweek; Jim Hagerty, President Eisenhower’s press secretary; Herb Klein, President Nixon’s; and Fred Friendly, Ed Murrow’s TV producer.