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William L. Shirer

One of the most influential journalists of our time, William Shirer began his reporting career in the Coe College Cosmos. A well-liked and involved student on the campus (his senior yearbook lists him in four honorary societies, as well as the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity), Shirer worked on the Cosmos for three years and served as the editor-in-chief his senior year.

Shirer demonstrated his dedication in his weekly editorials, many of which took on traditional ideas at the college. For example, his article “Chapel: A Good Place to Snooze,” challenged the established program of the required daily chapel services, and his March 26, 1925, editorial “Thousands for Athletics; Why Not a Few Shekels for Literature?” argued for support of a student literary publication.  However, not all of Shirer’s work was so serious. In addition to his editorials, Shirer produced the ‘Patter’ column, a space for Shirer and others to share silly poetry, campus gossip, and imaginary faculty interviews.

During his time at Coe, Shirer developed close relationships with several important figures in Coe’s history. In his autobiography, A 20th Century Journey, Shirer discusses conversations he had with Dr. Edward R. Burkhalter, who happened to be a neighbor: “Over the back fence which separated his garden from ours, we talked for hours over the years…to widen my reading, he did succeed at least in making me take note of some of the subjects of his scholarly pursuits. To my untutored mind they were formidable. Like all great scholars, he carried his learning easily, and he was tolerant of my intellectual limitations.” In regards to one particular discussion, Shirer notes, “It was the first time, I think, that I had heard anyone in Cedar Rapids excited about a poet. Or about Augustine. Or about dozens of other old authors. Or about history.” This shared love of knowledge, as well as Burkhalter’s stories about living and studying in Europe would influence Shirer for the rest of his life. Another important acquaintance Shirer made was with Harry Morehouse Gage, president of the college throughout Shirer’s undergraduate studies. The two became rather close, Gage always supporting Shirer’s strongly worded editorials. According to Shirer, Gage once told him, “You’re critical, but you base your criticism on facts and intelligence. Keep it up. But don’t quote me.” After Shirer’s graduation, Gage loaned Shirer 100 dollars to help finance his trip to Europe.

It was on this trip, in the summer of 1925, that Shirer began his professional career in Paris as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. During the next twelve years, he worked for the Tribune, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Universal News Service. Shirer also had the opportunity to travel throughout India and conduct a series of interviews with Mahatma Gandhi; in fact, the journalist in the film Gandhi is based on him. In 1937, Shirer moved to radio news and while living in Berlin at the beginning of World War II he was a radio broadcaster for CBS news and the Mutual Broadcasting Network. Millions of Americans depended on Shirer for information on Hitler and Germany’s efforts to dominate Europe.

Using his first-hand knowledge of recent European history, Shirer wrote several books about the critical period he witnessed in Europe. His books include his autobiographical Berlin Diary, his narrative on the fall of France, The Collapse of the Third Republic, and his monumental best seller, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The original manuscripts are housed in the Coe archives. His many honors include the George Peabody Award, the National Headliner’s Club Award, and the National Book Award.

In his autobiography, Shirer sums up his time at Coe best when he describes leaving the campus in 1925: “I took a last look at the little campus where I had spent the past four years. The buildings, sidewalks, and lawns were deserted and the loneliness of the place which for so long had been the bustling center of my life brought a tinge of sadness at the leaving. They had been pretty exciting years, I thought, as I looked back. For the first time, I had loved passionately, been rejected, suffered agony over it, and loved again. I had learned a little, or at least had learned the most important thing of all: that college was but a step in an education that I was determined to pursue all the rest of my life.”

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