Former News-Press executive editor Paul Veblen, a key factor in owner T.M. Storke’s 1962 Pulitzer Prize for his “tar and feathers” stand against a right-wing extremist group, died this morning at his Santa Barbara home. Veblen, 88 and editor for 20 years until the mid-1970s, was a distant relative of economist Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class.
In the early 1960s, Storke and Veblen found that local leaders of the John Birch Society were operating in the shadows, making anonymous threats by letter and phone against local residents. The Birch Society national leader Robert Welch considered President Dwight D. Eisenhower treasonous and “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Welch also described former Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as tools of international communism, along with other high government officials, including former California Governor Earl Warren, then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and a close friend of Storke.
After the News-Press published a series detailing the threats by local Birchers, Storke printed a Page One editorial on Feb. 26, 1961, largely drafted by Veblen, condemning “the destructive campaign of hate and vilification that the John Birch Society is waging against national leaders who deserve our respect and confidence. “Among victims of such anonymous telephone calls of denunciation to Santa Barbarans in recent weeks from members of the John Birch Society or their sympathizers have been educational leaders, including faculty members of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and even ministers of the Gospel,” the editorial read in part.
In an editor’s note, Storke wrote that in earlier era of the West, “Such slanders often called for a visit from a courageous and irate group which brought with them a barrel of tar and a few feathers.”
Storke, then 84, was a gruff, no-nonsense man who went through editors like a knife through warm butter. But Veblen, who arrived in 1957 from the Minneapolis Tribune, was a cool customer who had the quiet diplomacy to handle Storke, who was used to having his own way.
The News-Press came close to winning a second Pulitzer for spot reporting on the 1964 Coyote wildfire. ‘When the Pulitzer judges met in 1965, I was one of them,” Veblen wrote a friend. After helping judge the public service category, he wandered into the room where the news judges had met. “On the table was a yellow pad whose scribblings showed how the committee had reduced the entries from 48 to five finalists - including the News-Press.” But the nod went to an Alasksan weekly that crusaded about the economic and medical plight of the Eskimos, Veblen said.
Bob Ponce, retired News-Press photo chief, called Veblen “one of the good guys. The thing I liked about him is that you always know where you stood, unlike some people I’ve worked with.”
Veblen is survived by his wife, Utta, and six children; Alosha, of Santa Barbara; Eric, of Dallas; David, of Baltimore; Carl, of Arkansas; Louise McCloskey of Baimbridge Island, Washington; and Krista Dodson, of Sonoma County.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at email@example.com or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.