For 125 years, the students of Auburn University have written and produced one of the best student newspapers in the country. This year, we look back through The Auburn Plainsman at some of the most important moments and alumni who contributed to its success.
Plainsman staff at work in 1956. Seated from left to right: Sue Nethery, Sue Landon, Barbara Bradley, Dorena Wallace, Ginger Parris, Terry White, Betty Templeton, Sam Houston. Standing: Tim Ford, Allen Bradford, Hal Morgan, Bill Klemm
THE STORY OF THE AUBURN PLAINSMAN is, in many ways, the story of Auburn itself. Few traditions have lasted as long as the student newspaper, evolving through countless iterations, staffing changes, controversies, national crises, administrative changes and beyond to remain a vital component of student life.
One of the most decorated collegiate newspapers in history, The Plainsman has won 27 Regional and National Pacemaker Awards, collegiate journalism’s version of the Pulitzer Prize. It asked questions others wouldn’t, discussed topics most felt uncomfortable, promoted conversation between diverse groups and, through it all, has survived on the hard work of its young student journalists and designers. Some, like Jack Simms, Carol Robinson and Paul Hemphill, became celebrated journalists in their own right after graduation, while others like Horace Shepard and John C. Godbold found success in a myriad of other fields.
The importance of the paper to Auburn life cannot be overstated, but it can be overlooked. Here are some of its most important moments, each available for digital viewing online at https://aub.ie/Plainsman.
The Literary Societies
First founded in 1859, two societies — one named for Secretary of State Daniel Webster, the other for Attorney General William Wirt — were created to advance students’ intellectual and oratorical development. Rivalries included competitive debates and exercises in rhetoric that became official school events, but the two societies joined together to create the first student newspaper, The Orange and Blue.
“Our Defeat: The First Game of the Season Lost,” was how it all began on Nov. 7, 1894, with a dismal recap of the football team’s 20-to-4 loss to Vanderbilt dominating the entire front page. On page two, however, was an outline of the paper’s intentions: “We launch forth on the uncertain, and often perilous sea of college journalism, to cruise in those waters where our presence will be most beneficial to all that pertains to the interests of our grand old institution.”
By the time it formally changed its name to the Auburn Plainsman on November 18, 1922, the “rag” had reorganized along the styles of the era’s major newspapers, with dedicated sports sections, advertisements, more photographs, new typefaces, a “beat” system of reporting and a managing editor position, while a business manager kept the newspaper financially independent. Dominating its pages (when football was not) were local headlines concerned with local happenings, like “Prizes in Contest Will Be Aeronautical Scholarships” (12-3-1932) and “Classes Excused to See Team Off to Rice Game” (10-27-1937).
Shirley Smith ’44 was the first woman editor of The Plainsman.
Notes from WWII
The Plainsman was a vital source of information during wartime, publishing news from the front, letters from enlisted classmates and notices of support efforts at home. Headlines like “Captain Hoyt Jolly ’38 Wounded in Air Battle” (1-22-1943) reported casualties, while others like “Blackouts Should Mean More to API Students” (12-08-1942) stressed the seriousness of curfews. On Jan. 21, 1944, the Auburn Creed was printed for the first time, rallying the Auburn Family at its bleakest moment.
As their male counterparts entered the military, women took over The Plainsman’s vacancies. Shirley Smith ‘44 was the first female Editor-in-Chief in 1944, followed by Martha Rand ’45, Mimi Simms ’46 and Irene Long ’47.
As war escalated, so did the students’ protests
The Vietnam Debate
Owning a long and storied military tradition, opposition to the war in Vietnam took time to reach the surface. The atmosphere toward military service remained positive (“ROTC Graduates on Vietnam: ‘We’re Ready’” 8-18-1965) but, as the war escalated, student views began to shift. Submitted letters (“Richter Suggests Vietcong Negotiations 8-4-1967) and editorials (“Firm Policy Necessary for Vietnam” 10-5-1967) provided counterviews. By 1969, as more news revealed rising casualties, students became more vocal in their opinions. Campus demonstrations were viewed in a negative light (“Student protests ‘four-hour mob’” 10-16-69) and a positive one (“Vietnam Moratorium Beneficial to Students’ Understanding,” 10-16-1969).
RHETA GRIMSLEY ’75
Syndicated newspaper columnist for over three decades
What I remember most:
The camaraderie. Plainsman staffers did not need a sorority or fraternity, didn’t have time for long debates about what color to paint the chapter room or other matters of Greek life and death importance. The newspaper was our life, social and professional; the only folks who seemed to keep longer or stranger hours were the architectural students across the way in Biggin Hall.
SUSAN COUNTS GAST ’78
Assistant Director, Public Relations & Marketing Communications, Georgia State University’s Perimeter College
How The Plainsman influenced my career:
As a freshman, I had no news experience, no declared major and I was shy talking to people. The Plainsman changed all of that. After graduation, I continued in newspapers, later moving to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where my roles ranged from bureau chief to deputy metro editor to associate editor overseeing the suburban opinion pages. Being a journalist opened doors to experiences I will always remember.
TIM DORSEY ’83
What I remember most:
Catching catnaps on that ratty couch in the editor’s office in the Foy Union basement, and putting out the paper in 1982 after the “Bo over the top” Iron Bowl victory that ended our drought against Bama. The Plainsman didn’t just influence my career, it totally made it possible and created it.
CHRIS ROUSH ’87
Journalism Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill
What I remember most:
The Plainsman was a transformative experience for me. It turned my casual interest in journalism into a full-fledged career and resulted in life-long friends I keep in touch with today. More importantly, I sent my son Tyler to Auburn to be a journalism student and he is currently an assistant sports editor at The Plainsman. That shows how much the paper meant to me and my family.
ROBERT LEE ’13
Sales & Marketing Director, Omaha Brewing Company
My favorite assignment:
In the summer of 2012, Desmonte Leonard was convicted of killing three Auburn football players. Our staff spent close to week in The Plainsman office nonstop, making sure every detail was in place and that we covered this story as accurately as possible. It was a trying time, but I’ve never been prouder of any other moment during my time on staff.
ANNE DAWSON ’18
Digital Editor, Starnes Publishing
How The Plainsman influenced my career:
The Plainsman will always be a huge part of who I am. I made so many friends, met so many new people and learned hundreds of new skills. The biggest way I see it still influencing me, even after graduation, is that it taught me how to be a good reporter and a good writer. Not just how to do it, but how to do it well.
Auburn’s first African-American student walks alone to class.
Tired of waiting for change, students in the 1970s took complaints directly to the president.
“On integration: it is coming,” wrote Jim Dinsmore ’64 in an editorial titled “Cluttered Heart Cries for Expression on Issues” (5-9-1962). “Auburn will be integrated into the near future; and while the act of integration will hurt us momentarily, the final outcome will mean a better America.” The editorial prompted the administration to suspend summer publication, disqualify Dinsmore for the editorship and threaten to permanently discontinue the paper, so incendiary did they consider his assertion.
The Plainsman became a way for students and faculty to communicate their views, facilitating a marketplace of ideas from all sides. Pro-integration columns (“While the White Rooster Crows, the Mule Bows Its Many Heads” 10-23-1963) were submitted, as were pro-segregation letters to the editor (“Student Suggests Refusal to Integrate” (12-4-1963), both contributing to the growing debate.
One of the last headlines to run in 1963, barely a month removed from Harold Franklin’s arrival in 1964, was “Auburn to Appeal Edict Admitting Student” (11-11-1963). Despite all the drama, the day of integration was, as the third-page headline read, “Just Another Day on the Plains” (1-8-1964).
Auburn felt the effects of the Female Empowerment movement like most colleges, but a long history of coed rules and regulations provided plenty to dispute. Stories like “Evictions Threaten Unmarried Lakeview Students” (11-27-1968) and “Dismissal Refused in Curfew Suit” (7-10-1970) appeared regularly, while questions of unequal rights (“Women’s Lib Group Works to Raise Consciousness” 2-17-1972), resources for unplanned pregnancies (“Counseling Service Gives Coeds Alternatives” 2-24-1972), and coed visitation rights (“Pres. Philpott Rejects Open Building Proposal” 4-6-1972) were a constant aspect of the paper throughout the 1970s.
A NEW ERA BEGINS
President Funderburk shortly before resignation in 1983
Proration Hits Hard
The land-grant institution was hit hard by state funding decreases, putting newly-appointed Auburn President Hanley Funderburk in a difficult position (Funderburk hits hard on efficiency theme” 5-22-80). When it happened again (“AU Budget Prorated A Second Time For Year” 10-2-80), fears of about the future of education studies at Auburn spread (“Departments cut courses, faculties’ loads increase,” 1-15-81). After multiple votes of ‘no-confidence’ from the faculty, Funderburk resigned in 1983 (“Funderburk give up fight, resigns post” (3-3-83).
The parade in Confederate Army regalia ended after 77 years.
The End of ‘Old South’
The Kappa Alpha Order’s longstanding “Old South” parade formally ended in 1993 (“KA Ends Old South Parade” 1-28-93) to praise (“Thanks KA” 2-4-93) and condemnation (“KA Shouldn’t Bow Down to Special Interests” 2-4-93). Even the commentary published by The Plainsman provoked a response (“Parade Shows Dark Side” (2-11-93), but many who felt it was time were ready to move on (“Forget the Old South Parade, Let’s Get to Real Issues” 2-11-93).
Clip from 05-26-1995 Plainsman promoting the Birmingham Jam
More Than A Paper
The Auburn Plainsman by the mid-90s was a weekly directory of Auburn’s multitude of events and bulletins. In the pre-internet era, classifieds and calendars foretold the weeks ahead, local and national sports were covered regularly, cartoons got a whole page. An enormous amount of space was devoted to the area’s vast music scene, with reviews (“Touring bands give fans the boot” 3-9-95) and weekly listings for shows as far away as Atlanta and Birmingham (“The Auburn Plainsman Marquee” 10-5-95). At one point, the paper totaled nearly 30 pages a week.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001 reverberated across newspapers around the world, and The Plainsman was no different. “Blasts felt close to home; Auburn looks to help” (9-13-01) read headlines, while “Varied Carols of Hope” (9-20-01) detailed the experiences of alumni living in New York City.
THE PLAINSMAN GOES ONLINE
In 1997, The Plainsman went online for the first time, years before Auburn’s campus had internet access (“Schools to have internet by 2003” 12-7-00). Initially, only main features were available, but the website would later include the whole newspaper, digital content and social media, earning a Pacemaker Award in 2003. Today, www.theplainsman.com averages over 200,000 page views a month.
The Poisoning of the Toomer’s Oaks
The joy that carried over from Auburn’s victory in the 2010 National Championship turned to shock hardly a month later when The Plainsman confirmed the rumors: “Toomer’s Oaks Poisoned” (2-17-2011).
The event sent shockwaves not only around Auburn, but throughout the collegiate football world (“Toomer’s Fallout Unites Rivals” 2-24-11). The Plainsman published letters from all over, even from Oregon fans recently vanquished in the title game (“Condolences from a Duck Fan” 2-24-11). A ‘Tree Hug’ was scheduled for fans to pay their respects to the local landmark, while the editorial board urged the community to not lose hope (“Battered, but not broken” 2-17-11).
Police named Harvey Updyke as the prime suspect and his subsequent trial was closely followed by the community (“Arraignments held today for local high-profile cases” 5-26-11).
Updyke entered a ‘not-guilty’ plea by reason of insanity, (“Does loving Alabama football make me crazy?” 6-2-11), but the results of a Plainsman poll yielded results stating that students overwhelmingly believed ‘He’s just playing games in the media’ (6-2-11).
Despite consistent declarations of innocence, on June 21, 2012 The Plainsman published as a headline a single, exclusive statement obtained from Updyke as he left the Lee County Courthouse: “’Did I do it? Yes’ (6-21-12).
In its 125th year, The Auburn Plainsman is still delivering the same hard-hitting news written, edited and distributed by students, as it has since 1894. Most recently, The Plainsman took home three first-place awards at the 2018 Alabama Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest for Best Spot News Story (Chip Brownlee ’18), Best Spot News Photo (Matthew Bishop ’18) and Best Editorial Column or Commentary.
As the anniversary celebrations continue throughout 2019, the traditions and values embodied by The Plainsman remain stronger than ever. Competing views are still granted equal space, while topics are covered accurately, fairly and without bias. As long as there are still students attending Auburn University, there will be a paper published each Thursday to keep them informed.