|Will Bagley, History Matters|
"With this issue of the Salt Lake Tribune," this newspaper announced on Oct. 19, 1901, "its stock, good will, franchises, machinery, clientele and all its appurtenances pass from the control of its former owners, into the hands of new management."
The same statement could run in Thursday's edition of a newspaper that has been the conscience and independent voice of Utah for 131 years. Sometimes history is what happens when historians aren't looking, but few Utahns can ignore the significance of this July 31, when control of The Salt Lake Tribune conceivably could pass from the family of Thomas Kearns after a century of ownership.
When you say Tribune in these parts, people think newspaper. (When you say Deseret, they think Jell-O.) A tribune was an ancient Roman official whose duty was to protect ordinary citizens from abuses by patrician magistrates. Hence, as Webster's once said, "any defender of the people's rights." Since Perry S. Heath, acting as a front man, bought the Tribune for about $200,000 in 1901, Sen. Thomas Kearns and his family have played that role in Utah. Some legendary journalists have helped.
Former U.S. Marshal William Nelson was a survivor of Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison. He oversaw the execution of mass murderer John D. Lee at Mountain Meadows and signed some of the documents recently "discovered" in Beaver County by sleuths from the LDS church's Family and Church History Department. (Which makes this columnist feel like Leif Erikson to their Christopher Columbus, since I "discovered" the same stuff, most of it boring, in 1995.)
William Nelson's career as a writer and editor for the Tribune spanned 32 years. He took his job seriously. "His first act upon arriving at the Tribune editorial offices in the morning," wrote historian O.M. Malmquist, "was to remove a revolver from a pocket and place it on his desk within easy reach. He was then ready to go to work."
In 1913, Kearns hired 26-year-old John F. Fitzpatrick as his secretary. When the senator died five years later, Fitzpatrick knew the business so well he began managing the Kearns family finances. He became the paper's publisher in 1924, a post he held until his death on Sept. 11, 1960.
A demanding perfectionist who could be "baffling, exasperating and endearing all at the same time," during those 36 years Fitzpatrick became "Mr. Tribune." Along with John W. Gallivan, Kearns' nephew, he crafted the joint-operating agreement that formed the Newspaper Agency Corp. in 1952 and ended a ruinous five-year circulation war with the News.
For years, Fitzpatrick had lunch every week with David O. McKay, the Mormon prophet who appreciated the perspective of someone outside the circle of the church bureaucrats who surrounded him. Once upon a time, even the LDS church could appreciate the importance of an independent voice in Utah.
During most of the past century, the ownership of the Tribune has never been in dispute, but it has been a subject of great interest to Mormon leaders. Mormon Apostle Anthon Lund visited the Church Historian's Office in December 1908 and learned railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman had asked Thomas Kearns about buying the Tribune. Kearns told him, "I will sell my mine, my house and any property I have except the Tribune. I will not sell the Tribune!"
It has been an honor to be part of the journalistic tradition Thomas Kearns began in 1901.