William Allen White was born on February 10, 1868, in Emporia, KS. He was the son of Allen White, a country merchant and doctor, and Mary A. Hatten White, pioneer Kansas teacher. White grew up in El Dorado, attended the College of Emporia and later the University of Kansas. Though the future “Sage of Emporia” attended both colleges, he never earned a degree. In later years, White would receive honorary degrees from at least eight leading universities.
Though he never received a degree, White got a job in El Dorado where he learned the printing and newspaper business.
“Sheer luck put me into the newspaper business,” he wrote in 1885. While a student in college, White sent three letters asking for a job – one to a grocer, one to a merchant and the third to the editor of the El Dorado paper. The grocer and merchant “knew my desultory ways and rejected me on suggestion. T.P. Fulton knew my father and took a chance.”
White was later a reporter in Lawrence and in 1892 went to work for Tthe Kansas City Star as an editorial writer. Then, on June 1, 1895, he borrowed $3,000 to purchase The Emporia Gazette, where he remained for the remainder of his life.
Around the Gazette office, everyone knew William Allen White affectionately as “The Boss.” He, in turn, referred to his employees as “The Gazette family.” White’s office was located between the editorial and business departments. The employees tended to use the office as a short cut, which White encouraged. He did have a private office in the building but rarely used it, preferring instead to be closer to his employees.
White was a local figure in Emporia until 1896, when he wrote a sarcastic editorial, “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” The editorial was written after White engaged in a street corner debate with a local populist while waiting on a train bound for Colorado. The argument centered around the McKinley-Bryan campaign. The young editor took the Republican side and the Populist, reinforced by bystanders, the Bryan cause.
In the midst of the argument, White remembered he had some editorials to write before it was time to board the train. He dashed to the office and, still “boiling mad,” sat down and wrote “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” It was a scathing piece, flaying the Democratic leaders.
White didn’t publish the editorial, but it somehow made its way to Chicago and New York. “Boss” Mark Hanna, Republican national chairman, liked it and, had it reprinted and distributed throughout the country. When White returned home from his vacation in Colorado, he found himself famous. Many years later, White said that perhaps he had been too harsh in that editorial – when at another time he might have spoken more softly.
After McKinley’s election in 1896, White made many national contacts, which kept him in touch with leaders and current affairs. He was also called on to aid in drafting Republican national platforms. In 1936, White laid down his editorial pen and worked for the presidential nomination of Alf Landon, a fellow Kansan, who was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. That year, White was also chairman of the Republican Party’s resolutions committee.
Not only did White participate in national politics, he once sought public office in Kansas. In 1924, White ran independently for governor of Kansas because the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed two other candidates for that office. During the fight, he was branded un-American and cowardly and finished third in the race.
White was not just a businessman, he was also a family man. On April 27, 1893, he was married to Miss Sallie Lindsay of Kansas City. The couple had two children, Mary and William Lindsay White.
Tragedy struck the family in 1921 when, at age 16, Mary was killed when she was brushed from a horse by a low-hanging limb of a tree. White later poured out his grief in an editorial in the Gazette. “A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.”
William L. White followed his father’s footsteps as a writer. He was a war correspondent in Europe, wrote best-selling books such as a “A Journey for Margaret” and wrote Hollywood screenplays. Once when “Young Bill” was in Europe during the war, his picture appeared briefly in a newsreel in Emporia. His father and mother went every day to the theater, sometimes twice, just to catch a fleeting glimpse of him.