OLD NEWS: 100 years ago, Arkansas Democrat let teens run paper for the day

Ruth Ellen Zeisler was valedictorian of Little Rock High School’s Class of 1918 and worked on the Arkansas Democrat’s high school edition.
Ruth Ellen Zeisler was valedictorian of Little Rock High School’s Class of 1918 and worked on the Arkansas Democrat’s high school edition.

One hundred and one years ago, Little Rock High School added journalism to the curriculum for its 1,200 students. Thanking the district, the Arkansas Democrat hired "the boys and girls" to manage and edit one day's regular edition of the paper.

Editorial jobs as well as business, advertising and circulation posts were filled by seniors. The usual adults were on hand, but the students were their bosses. Or so a front-page announcement promised.

Unlike adult reporters, students were allowed bylines, in parentheses. The resulting edition, a keepsake for all time, was not a noticeable disaster.

And so the Democrat did it again, producing another high school edition May 20, 1918. This time, 191 seniors were involved and many more bylines appeared in parentheses.

On the same Monday, the front page of the competing Arkansas Gazette suggests a slow news day:

• An "iron hand" policy in Ireland, with dragnets sweeping up Sinn Fein;

• The first airmail flight from Washington to New York;

• Arrests of three men in the murder of a storekeeper at Pine Bluff;

• Federal approval for billions of dollars of railroad construction;

• German bombing in London;

• Germans possibly about to do this or that;

• Two reports about the American forces poised to join combat;

• Red Cross preparations for a big local fund drive.

The Democrat offered decidedly different news.

Topping the page was a list of the 34 boys and 58 girls who would graduate June 4 from Little Rock High School; photos of their lovely valedictorian Ruth Ellen Zeisler and salutatorian Miss Lola Dunnavant, who worked on the edition; and student interviews with:

• Principal J.A. Larson about the courses planned for 1919, which he said would emphasize anything that might help win the war, including typing for girls; four years of French and Spanish; more American history; possibly a school bank;

• Maj. Gen. Samuel Sturgis, commander at Camp Pike, about the civilian support for the Army and the wonderful patriotism of French boys and girls;

• Superintendent R.C. Hall, about girls' graduation garb.

Page one in both papers included many other items; and the Democrat did have international and national news. But throughout the paper, school interests and bylines prevailed.

Zeisler was state news editor for the edition. She was also, as voted by her classmates, class musician. Dunnavant was class historian. Those labels must have felt terrific beside the one given to Frances Vinsonhaler -- class prima dona (maybe she did ballet). Miss Luella Woods was class poet.

Hubert Latlin was class prophet. John Ricks was class lawyer.

One Page 3, student Jennie Reyes reported on senior plans after graduation: Zeisler would remain at Little Rock High School for post-graduate work. On Page 14 she was listed among officers of the Girls Patriotic Service Club, leading the glee club division. On Page 16 she and Coro Lee Reed would play "Edith and Pauline, high school girls" in Fun on the Bingville Line, a one-act railroad comedy.

On Page 10, with a typo in her byline, Zeisler contributed an interview with Mrs. Hugh D. Hart, about her recollections of a visit to Berlin on Aug. 1, 1914 -- a date that used to live in infamy:

Several German women in a hotel in Berlin threw up their hands in horror and cried that "all is lost," when they learned that England was in the war. That, according to Mrs. Hart, contradicts the boasted confidence of the German people.

...

Robert Cleveland Hall was superintendent of schools in Little Rock from 1909 to 1941. He's remembered in the name of today's Hall High School. His delightful opinions about girly clothing deserve attention.

On the one hand, war-supporting clubwomen were making the same argument -- against frivolous expenditures on fabric and clothes. On the other hand -- wow, he sounds like Grandpa.

"Let me see, there is a dress for commencement, one for class day and still another for the baccalaureate sermon, and then hats and shoes, I believe. Why, this is ridiculous," Hall told student reporter Loree Banks.

He didn't blame the girls so much as their mothers, who really ought to agree on limits to the garments.

To his credit, his argument was less against fashion and more against economic injustice.

"Many good, deserving girls are never able to attend or finish high school," Mr. Hall continued, "because they cannot dress as well as the others."

Today it's hard to imagine that fear of fashion failure would cause parents to deny their child an education, but education for girls was less valued in 1918; clothing was much -- much -- more expensive; and it advertised a family's wealth. Also, poverty was not respectable.

One mother had told Hall she saved for months to get her daughter ready for graduation. And a neighbor said it would take him several months to recover from the expense.

"I find it is the poor fellow who overdoes it, to keep the other fellow from knowing or to save his child from humiliation," Hall said.

He did not believe in uniforms but feared they might be necessary if "the constant interviews and articles in the papers have no effect on the clothes problem."

I am glad to say, however, that this past year the girls were nearly all converted to the middy blouse and skirt movement which was instigated and pushed so successfully by the girls of the household arts department. Any girl can attend school and feel at ease in a simple gingham dress and they look more suitable.

The middy blouse and skirt had been made mandatory at grammar school graduations -- and there had been outrage at first, he said. But now --

"Everyone seems to be pleased. For high school graduates there is an additional expense of flowers and invitations, and it seems none of them care to wear anything but strictly new dresses because of rivalry."

Short for "midshipman," the middy blouse outfit is better know today as a sailor suit.

In 1918 the student body was white, of course: 1957 was decades away. Little Rock High was at 1401 S. Scott St., and the building still is. If you take Daisy Gatson Bates Drive, you pass the old auditorium at the corner of Cumberland Street. The campus is larger than it appears from that corner.

After Little Rock Central High School was erected in 1927, Little Rock High became East Side Junior High. Today its red brick, grand scale and neoclassical touches, including tall Corinthian columns, adorn SoMa Lofts, with apartments for rent.

Ruth Ellen Zeisler, the valedictorian, became a music teacher with her own business. In 1926, she married Bernard Edward Jansen, a veterinarian. He rose to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture's laboratory here charged with combating the cattle disease brucellosis.

Ruth outlived him by 26 years, dying in 1979. They are buried at Calvary Cemetery in Little Rock.

photo

In this excerpt from art published in the Arkansas Gazette in 1912, the left-hand girl wears a middy blouse and skirt — “appropriate attire” for girls.

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ActiveStyle on 05/21/2018