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Pulitzer winning journalist continues to influence Daily Mail philosophy

By Samuel Speciale, Education reporter
Jack Maurice was West Virginia's only Pulitzer Prize winner. He was awarded journalism's highest honor for a series of editorials about the Kanawha County textbook controversy.

His full name was John Daniell Maurice, but most people just called him Jack.

For nearly 40 years, he was the voice of the Charleston Daily Mail, speaking through its editorials on controversial topics like censorship, political corruption and the Vietnam War.

The longtime Daily Mail writer and editor died in 1999, but his legacy and editorial philosophy continue to influence the newsroom.

Before he retired, Maurice would play tennis and tend to his garden after work each day, but that’s not what he did on May 5, 1975, after learning he would be bestowed American journalism’s highest honor — the Pulitzer Prize.

To this day, no West Virginian working on a West Virginia newspaper has received such an honor.

Maurice won the prestigious award for writing a series of editorials about protests over what some considered to be “obscene and un-American” textbooks used by Kanawha County public schools.

The protest significantly affected the county as classes and businesses were boycotted, coal miners walked off the job and schools, buses and people were bombed or shot at.

Instead of sensationalizing people’s fear and anger, Maurice armed himself with facts and logic and served as the valley’s voice of reason amidst a controversy that attracted national attention and scrutiny.

In his own words, Maurice said, “I’m not one of those who looked at this as primarily a book burning.”

At the time, and even to this day, many believe the 1974 textbook controversy was an overreaction of religious fundamentalists who lived in the hollows of rural Kanawha County.

Maurice and the Daily Mail editorial board dug deeper to address the real issues at hand with a determination to be “even-handed, fair to both sides, always urging compromise but quick to condemn excess on either side.”

Maurice’s writing reflected that ideology.

“There were lots of thrusts to the editorials,” Maurice said in an interview with the Associated Press on the day he won the award. “One was a very determined effort to understand the roots of the controversy. How did this arise in a community that had no previous problems?”

In a Sept. 4, 1974, editorial, Maurice said the uprising was not an isolated “happening,” and pointed to similar protests in Texas. He went on to say textbooks were not the prime cause of the disturbance and were just the “tip of the iceberg.”

For Maurice, abrupt social change was the root of the problem, not the schools. He said shifting the blame onto schools was “loosely and badly overdrawn and in many ways unfair.”

“Like the larger society which they reflect, the schools, too, are laboring under the tensions of accelerated social changes,” Maurice wrote. “But we can understand the unrest and the vague sense that everything is coming apart at the seems, and it will take some doing to put it back together again.”

Later, in a profile published in the spring 1979 issue of the Marshall University alumni magazine, Maurice discussed the editorials at length.

“I tried to get across to both sides in the issue that nothing was to be gained by fighting or by bombing schools,” he said. “Feelings on both sides had polarized, but I pointed out there was something to be said for the points of view of each side. I told them to think it out, not fight it out. The fighting stopped. I would like to think my editorials helped.”

Russ Isaacs, who served on the school board during the textbook controversy, said Maurice’s editorials were “scholarly and fair,” and “undoubtedly had an impact.”

Sam Hindman, a former Daily Mail publisher, said Maurice was “reasoned and courageous” and the “most intelligent and compassionate individual” he ever met.

While many spoke highly of Maurice, he didn’t seek to bring attention to himself, said Bob Adams, the author of the Marshall alumni magazine profile.

“Maurice may well qualify as the most modest newspaperman ever to win a Pulitzer,” he said.

Humility was Maurice’s strong suit, and writing editorials was something he said was “a fun job.”

“It’s a job I have enjoyed doing,” he told the Associated Press.

By his own estimate, Maurice wrote at least 50 editorials concerning the textbook controversy. He submitted 10 of those, but only after the insistence of Charlie Connor, managing editor at the time.

Connor said it was difficult to get Maurice to even enter the competition.

“It took considerable nagging to nudge him in the direction of assembling his material for submission,” he said. “Even so, he made the deadline for the contest by only a few hours.”

In addition to winning the Pulitzer, Maurice also received a $1,000 cash award, which he donated to Marshall’s W. Page Pitt School of Journalism, his alma mater.

While winning a Pulitzer is a career-defining moment, receiving honors was not a foreign concept to Maurice.

In 1959, Sigma Delta Chi, a national journalism fraternity, honored him with the top editorial writing award for his commentary on a Charleston city official’s attempt to censor movies and books, specifically the novel “Peyton Place.”

Acknowledging Maurice’s work, the Sigma Delta Chi board wrote, “Mr. Maurice’s clear thinking and excellent exposition of the problem, resulting in a retreat from censorship, entitles him to this award.”

Connor described Maurice’s editorials as being intended for “the thinking person.”

“They invite one to examine issues carefully, to weigh both sides of an argument and to think,” he said.

And that was the heart of Maurice’s writing. He believed that editorials are the one area where a newspaper can “throw its weight around” and play an active role in public opinion, for better or for worse.

Hanna Maurice, a former Daily Mail reporter and editor and one of Maurice’s daughters, said winning the Pulitzer was a great honor, but does not define her father’s entire body of work.

She said he received many other noteworthy honors, which included a national transportation award in 1960 for his role in helping develop the interstate highway system; an honorary doctorate from Marshall in 1963; the university’s Distinguished Alumnus award in 1977; and the Adam R. Kelly Premier Journalist Award from the West Virginia Press Association in 1992.

Maurice’s influence extended beyond the world of journalism. He also was an active member of the community and started the Neediest Cases Fund, which is an annual charitable drive that fills needs unmet by government and social service agencies.

He served on the West Virginia Commission on Constitutional Revision and the West Virginia Citizens’ Committee on Crime and Delinquency. He was a board member and vice president of Family Service and a board member of the Kanawha County Public Library. He was president of both the Greater Charleston Swim Association and the Charleston Tennis Club.

“West Virginians were what was interesting to him,” Johanna Maurice said.

In his interview with the Associated Press after winning the Pulitzer, Maurice expressed that sentiment.

“I do think I understand West Virginians better than most of the roving correspondents who come in, and under very short acquaintance, misunderstand them,” he said. “I’m more proud and more pleased with them than most people who don’t see them from my special spot.”

Maurice cared for West Virginians because he was a West Virginian.

He was born in 1913 in the McDowell County town of Vivian and grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky during some of the coal industry’s most trying times. He attended Huntington High School and Marshall, where he served as editor of the campus paper, The Parthenon. There, he studied under Page Pitt, the founder of Marshall’s school of journalism, and graduated magna cum laude in 1935.

After graduation, Maurice started his journalism career in Huntington as a reporter for the Herald-Dispatch. In 1938, he joined the Daily Mail as a courts, Statehouse and general assignment reporter. He also served as music and drama critic.

Maurice put his career on hiatus during World War II, and served three years in the U.S. Navy Reserve, where he became a lieutenant.

War couldn’t keep Maurice away from newspapers, and he returned to the Daily Mail in 1946 as the chief editorial writer. He became editor in 1950 and editor-in-chief in 1969. He retired and became contributing editor and columnist in 1979 before leaving the newspaper altogether in 1984.

When former Daily Mail publisher Lyell Clay found out Maurice had died, he said, “What can you say when a latter-day Moses has completed his time on earth and has come home?”

“He was a great man.”

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886.


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