From the AJHA vault: Fifth Annual Convention Marked Coming of Age

24 Jan 2017 9:46 PM | Dane Claussen

Michael Murray, right, interviewed Sidney Kobre about his AJHA award at St. Louis NPR affiliate KWMU during the 1986 convention. They discussed the impact of Kobre’s work and the influence of Joseph Pulitzer in the Midwest and nationally. (Credit: University of Missouri)


By Erika J. Pribanic-Smith
, University of Texas-Arlington

AJHA’s fifth annual convention was pivotal for the young organization. Preeminent scholars Walter Ong and James Carey delivered speeches, the women’s luncheon became institutionalized, and the organization presented the first distinguished service award to its eventual namesake, Sidney Kobre.

Maurine Beasley, who served on the Board of Directors at the time, remarked on the outstanding intellectual content of the 1986 St. Louis convention.

“It marked AJHA really coming of age in the academy by drawing in leading figures as speakers and inspirations to all of us,” Beasley said.

Michael Murray was president of AJHA in 1986 and chief organizer of the St. Louis convention. Murray cited Ong as a major influence during his undergraduate and master’s programs at St. Louis University, and he thought members would enjoy hearing Ong speak. Then-board member John Pauly had been Carey’s student at the University of Illinois and suggested inviting him.

Murray transported Ong to the Clarion Hotel, where the conference took place.

“Once we got to the hotel, it appeared that everyone attending the meeting was right there in that conference room, packed to the rafters,” Murray said.

Beasley said that the two speakers were part of AJHA’s drive to bring fresh ideas into journalism history. 

“It was an extremely scholarly speech—mind expanding and provocative, moving us beyond the usual consideration of the roles played by outstanding figures in journalism history,” Beasley said of Ong’s address.

Alf Pratte summarized Carey’s talk in the Winter 1986/87 Intelligencer. Carey told the group that modern journalism disrupts collective memory by stressing speed over meaning and called upon journalists to encourage oral culture in everyday communities.

Convention attendees also heard from James Lawrence, long-time editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Murray initially invited Joseph Pulitzer Jr., but Pulitzer suggested Lawrence could provide better insights on local journalism history. Lawrence began working for Pulitzer Publishing in 1938 under Pulitzer’s father, Joseph Pulitzer II.

Another highlight of the convention was the presentation of the first distinguished service award at the Old Courthouse—site of the Dred Scott trials. AJHA co-founder David Sloan suggested presenting the new award to Kobre because of his impressive scholarly resumé in history and commitment to AJHA since its beginnings. 

Startt, a board member at the time, said that Kobre probably did more to establish the field than any other scholar. He also recalled Kobre engaging AJHA members in many “lively corridor discussions.”

 “There was so much to learn from him, for he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the press,” Startt said.

Upon receiving the award, Kobre delivered remarks drawing parallels between the journalist and historian. According to an article in the Winter 1986/87 Intelligencer, Kobre also discussed the benefits of studying media history and emphasized the importance of AJHA to create a network among journalism historians.

In the early days of the organization, AJHA provided a venue specifically for women historians to network. The Women’s Lunch—the precursor of the Donna Allen Luncheon—first appeared on the program as an official event in 1986. Beasley said that Barbara Cloud, AJHA president in 1984-85, began the lunch because the men typically went off by themselves to have meals at conventions and did not invite the women. Beasley noted that the men resented the formal listing of a luncheon for women, so the Donna Allen Lunch eventually was open to all convention attendees.

Paulette Kilmer counts the Women’s Lunch among her favorite memories from her first AJHA convention—in 1986. She met Beasley as she was heading out for the luncheon and tagged along. 

“I recall that moment because it changed my life as a scholar and probably as a person,” Kilmer said. “I can’t remember who was there very clearly, but I can still hear the laughter, feel the goodwill, and appreciate the practical advice from those who already had run the doctoral gauntlet.”

Carol Sue Humphrey also attended her first AJHA convention in 1986, and she said her fantastic experience there was why she fell in love with the organization. She said she enjoyed the combination of research and a field trip—the group visited the St. Louis Arch.

For the full 1986 convention program, visit It recently has been digitized as part of an effort to electronically preserve all of the convention programs.   

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