Dakota Datebook

Eric Sevareid

Friday, July 9, 2004

It was on this date in 1992 that one of the greatest newsmen of the 20th century died. Eric Sevareid’s career spanned 38 years, during which he shared the CBS Evening News with another broadcasting icon, Walter Cronkite.

Sevareid was born in 1912 and grew up in Velva. He wanted to be a journalist and worked as a typesetter for the local paper. After graduating from high school, he wrote what one reviewer called, “a surprisingly good book about his hair-raising 2,000-mile canoe-trip to Hudson Bay.”

While attending the U of M, Sevareid wrote for the school paper and two Minneapolis city papers. At one point he posed as a room-service waiter to get himself an interview with actress Katherine Hepburn. But Sevareid also gained enemies by leading a fight against the “U” for making ROTC compulsory. When Sevareid won that battle, President Lotus Coffman saw to it that the young man lost the editorship of the school’s paper, The Daily.

“For the first time,” Sevareid later wrote, “I tasted the ashes of bitterness.”

In 1936, Sevareid started getting his work on the front page when he wrote a series for the Minneapolis Journal about the SilverShirts, subtitled, “Weird Order Beset by Unbelievable Fears and Hatreds, Claims Six Thousand Members in Minnesota.”

Sevareid wrote, “You probably won’t believe this story. It concerns an organization now active in Minneapolis – known as the SilverShirts. It concerns secret meetings, whispers of dark plots against the nation and the SilverShirts’ incredible credo. Members of this organization talk about ideas and goals so fantastic that anyone who has heard them in meetings, as I have, goes away wondering if he still lives in America in 1936.’”

The group’s founder, William Dudley Pelley, organized the SilverShirts the day after Hitler took power in Germany. The year that Sevareid wrote the series, Pelley ran for president as a candidate of what he called the Christian Party. His intent was to stop Jews and Communists from taking over America. Sevareid wrote, “I was astounded that such childish reasoning could exist in a brain of a man so mature.”

Sevareid was unhappy with how the Journal played the story – as though the SilverShirts were simple whackos rather than dangerous right-wing survivalists. Little did they know that within a few short years, such anti-Semitic reasoning would claim the lives of six million Jews.

After his Silvershirts series ran in Minneapolis, Sevareid’s personal life became a living hell, with many people firing vicious verbal attacks at him. The following year, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. Two years later Edward R.

Murrow recognized Sevareid’s talent and offered him a radio job with CBS. Sevareid was reluctant to switch over to broadcasting, but he had a baby on the way and the pay was good – $250 a month. Good thing he took it. The baby turned out to be twin boys.

When Sevareid later wrote about his boyhood in North Dakota, he said there was “no roof to the sky, no border to the land… Wheat was the sole source and meaning of our lives… it was rarely long outside the conversation.” While remembering the democracy within his hometown, he asked, “Why can’t the rest of the world be like us?”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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