October 7, 2019 — It was on this date in 1996 that a journalism legend died in New York. He was Edward K. Thompson, who was awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award in 1968.
Thompson was born in 1907 and grew up in St. Thomas, ND, where his father had a dry goods store and, later, a banking business. Thompson’s mother was an art lover, and she shared with her son her enthusiasm for artists and fine paintings. The family also traveled a lot, including a trip to Europe, so Thompson grew up with a wider view of the world than many of his peers.
Thompson finished high school at age 15 and moved to Grand Forks to attend UND. As editor of the Dakota Student during his senior year, Thompson got in trouble with UND officials. The local Ku Klux Klan controlled the Grand Forks school board and City Council during that period, and Thompson had published a story from one of his writers that criticized Wesley Ambrose – Presbyterian pastor and leader of the local KKK.
After graduation, Thompson began his journalism career as editor of Carrington’s Foster County Independent. Two months later, he moved to Fargo, where he became the night editor of the Fargo Forum. A few months after that, he moved again, this time to Wisconsin, where he worked as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal.
Eventually, Thompson moved into the arena that would define his legendary career; he became the newspaper’s picture editor. The position allowed his love of art to flourish, and he was, in fact, credited with being the first journalist to use large-scale photos in newspapers.
Thompson’s gift for finding “just the write photo” came to the attention of Henry Luce, the owner of Time Magazine. It so happened that Luce’s missionary father had raised him with tales of Teddy Roosevelt and his adventures in western North Dakota. Luce wanted to start a national picture magazine, and North Dakotan Edward Thompson quickly rose to the top of his list. In 1937, Luce offered Thompson a hefty raise, and Thompson accepted. Their creation was to become a smash hit – a luxurious publication called Life Magazine.
Thompson served in the Army during World War II, during which he edited a highly regarded magazine for the air force. By 1944, he was in charge of German Air Force intelligence. Afterwards, he returned to Life Magazine, where he stayed until retiring in 1968.
Retirement or not, Thompson was far from finished with his career. For two years, he served as special assistant to the Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. Then, he went back into the magazine business, founding the Smithsonian, one of the largest monthly magazines in the United States. He often wore a Stetson in honor of his western roots.
Thompson retired – again – in 1980, at age 72. As he reflected on his accomplishments, he began another project; he wrote a book called A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian. In it, he talks about writers, of wars, photographers and Presidents... and of his extraordinary life in journalism. And here’s another little something, Thompson’s son grew up to become editor of the Readers Digest.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.