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Allen Mead, 1916-2012: Geneva First, Last and Always

Those were the priorities of Allen Mead, a community newspaper editor for whom “community” mattered more—much more—than sales figures or winning awards.

  • Editor's Note: Allen Mead died early in the morning Sept. 30, 2012. This remembrance is written by Kurt Wehrmeister, a friend of Allen and former associate editor of the newspaper he owned and published: The Geneva Republican.

 

Allen Fox Mead, who died this weekend, about seven weeks shy of what would have been his 96th birthday, was a community newspaper editor whose time was, sadly, so long ago both chronologically and journalism-wise, that today’s young writers and editors might only barely comprehend how he went about his work, and why.

Allen (and he was “Allen” to absolutely everyone—only grudgingly conceding to “Mr. Mead” from high-school kids) was the editor/publisher of The Geneva Republican from 1950 to 1972, continuing, under the publisher title, as City Hall reporter and sportswriter until his retirement in 1986, when the newspaper was sold to Wayne Woltman.

The weekly newspaper had been his entire professional life for 47 years—beginning in 1939, when he brought home his newly minted M.S. degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin back to the Geneva in which he’d been born on Nov. 23, 1916, and where he’d graduated from Geneva High at the precocious age of 16 in 1933. He went to work with his uncle, editor Cadwell P. Mead, in the compact newspaper office and plant at 121 S. Third St., right across the street from theKane County Courthouse.

“Cad” Mead, and his father, Charles B. Mead, had built the office there in 1923—both for easy coverage of goings-on at the courthouse, and for easy across-the-street delivery of the Legal Notices which were a major source of the newspaper’s revenue. (Today, look up above the door at 121, now owned by Michael Simon and leased both to a retail shop and Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors, and you see the inscription in the concrete: 1847 GENEVA REPUBLICAN 1923; the first date being the founding date of the newspaper, five months before the premier of the Chicago Tribune. The Mead family had bought the newspaper in 1903.)  

But I digress. How was Allen Mead different from most of today’s community journalists? 

For starters, he really never cared all that much about “crafting and honing” a snappy, sparkling lead to dramatize or emphasize the controversy of a given situation. If he wrote a piece on how much Geneva’s electric rates were going to increase, he gave it to you straight—the percentage and the effective date in the first paragraph, because he figured you needed to know that upfront. He didn’t necessarily boil it down to “x” amount of dollars for the “average” user—because he figured you were smart and self-reliant enough to go into your file drawer at home, pull your last bill, and do the math yourself as to how much extra it was going to cost you.

Secondly, the concept of keeping it “short and tight,” a mantra of today’s journalists, wasn’t really a huge priority of Allen’s. Thoroughness and comprehensiveness were more important. Stories on an electric-rate increase, or results of a school-board election, or a road-resurfacing project, all, for the most part, went as long as they needed to go, to give all the pertinent information. He certainly didn’t “pad” with anything superfluous, but as with all journalists until perhaps the 1990s, he was trained in the “inverted pyramid” style: Put the important stuff at the top and report the details of lesser importance in ensuing paragraphs. When a reader had enough for their needs, they would leave that story and go on to another.

Thirdly: Allen Mead really gave not a damn about winning state or national journalism awards ... or about whether a given story or layout was going to entice additional readership. On one hand, because he never cared about “rising in the business,” at least after he took leadership of The Republican in early 1950, at age 33. He figured that running his hometown’s weekly newspaper (and its commercial printing operation, directed by his partner, Dick Marti) was the highest calling there was, or at least the highest calling he cared to answer. He knew how very important The Republican was to Genevans, and how important his work was to his hometown—without having to blow his own horn.

And indeed, as to that point—for much of his career, Allen had a luxury virtually unknown to today’s journalists: no competition. Until the late 1960s when the Beacon-News opened a Tri-Cities office on West State Street, and especially when the St. Charles Chronicle started a Geneva edition in 1973, The Republican was Geneva’s one and only source of news (and also, Geneva businesses’ one and only venue for print advertising). But even a decade into that period of competition, as late as the mid-1980s at the end of Allen’s career, nearly 90 percent of Geneva’s 4,200 or so households held a paid weekly subscription to The Republican! Let that sink in for a moment: Ninety percent market penetration, with paid subscriptions! (That statistic is about as foreign to today’s newspaper managers as the planet Pluto.)

And fourthly, Allen was utterly ego-free as a journalist (and as a human being, for that matter). You could count the number of “bylines” he took in his long career on one hand—and most of those, in the early ’80s, only because I talked him into it. He placed his name as “Editor and Publisher,” and later just “Publisher,” in the masthead, because the Post Office required it. He figured, for the most part, that that was enough.

What mattered, first, last, and solely, to Allen Mead, on a professional level, was covering Geneva and its citizens—period. It would be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one, to assert that if in, say, 1958, a meteor had struck in the middle of Main Street in St. Charles or Wilson Avenue in Batavia, it might get only a few lines in The Geneva Republican—unless, of course, a visiting Genevan had been present and injured by the meteor strike, or it somehow otherwise affected Genevans. Allen figured that St. Charles had the Chronicle and Batavia had its Herald. His job was to cover Geneva and Genevans. 

Take an hour or two with the Geneva Public Library’s microfilm copies (if the microfilm reader is working) of Allen Mead’s Geneva Republican in the 1950s or ’60s—or, for that matter, the iteration of the paper under David Rogers and Dianne Herschelman and me in the 1970s and early ’80s (for we learned under his tutelage). What would strike you is a look at a considerably smaller town, admittedly, perhaps, more insular.

The Republican of that era was an unabashed and unapologetic cheerleader for local business and industry. Granted, it generally did not harshly criticize the public actions of elected officials, and certainly not their private actions. It—or, he (for the 22 years between 1950 and 1972 The Republican’s editorial voice was Allen’s and Allen’s alone)—figured that the proper course was to fully describe the actions of local government ... and to let people decide for themselves whether that was satisfactory, or if they instead wanted to elect new leaders, or to run for office themselves.

Not that Allen Mead didn’t lead public opinion, and quite effectively.

It was only under him that, in 1950, a regular Editor’s Column was instituted. And it was there where, gently but persistently, he argued, in the 1950s, for the consolidation of Geneva’s elementary and high school districts into one unit district; for the need to raise funds to build the community’s first public swimming pool; for the development of Swedish Days; for the need to build a new and modern Geneva High School on Logan Avenue.

In the 1960s, he pushed editorially to clean up and develop the community’s decrepit, formerly industrial riverfront; and for more traffic signals on State Street on both sides of the river so that pedestrians and kids on bikes could cross the busy road safely. And in the 1970s he wrote, along with David Rogers, for the need to keep local control of DuPage Airport (a battle first won, then lost); for the need to get the former Illinois State School for Girls onto the real-estate tax rolls (a battle only partly won); for the need for more clean industry to relieve the residential real-estate tax burden; and in support of numerous School District referenda.

But what mostly strikes one, looking at year after year of The Republican under Allen Mead, was how very lucky Geneva’s young people were; really what a doting father figure they had in the editor’s office at 17 N. First St. (where he moved The Republican and Republic Printing to larger quarters in 1959 until ’86). 

To be sure, it was under Allen, beginning in 1947 (his uncle Cad named him managing editor that year, when he returned from stateside service in World War II), that for the first time The Republican had a legitimate, regular, prominent sports section, giving lavish and comprehensive coverage to Geneva High athletics.

He faithfully covered football, basketball, wrestling and especially one of his favorite sports, track and field. Hundreds upon hundreds of former GHS athletes, now in their 40s to their 70s, fondly recall a smiling Allen Mead circulating around the locker room, notebook in hand, after a win, doling out his trademark lemon drops. And on the relatively rare occasions when little Geneva’s Vikings kicked the “big boys”—to get into the state basketball Elite Eight in 1963, or to the state football championship in 1975, or beating East Aurora’s arrogant basketball Tomcats on their home floor in 1981—there wasn’t a happier guy in the world than Allen Mead.  

But it wasn’t just the jocks. From elementary school on, whether their interests and achievements were in the arts, or science, or the humanities, or civic service, Allen made sure that items and pictures of Geneva’s teens and preteens and their accomplishments got prominent play in the 12 or 16 weekly broadsheet pages of The Republican. And for several years in the 1960s, with tight school funding evidently precluding a student newspaper for a time, he devoted a weekly full page to items written and edited by GHS journalists.  Every June he would run a separate section with generous-sized portraits of Geneva High’s graduating seniors—but, with many dozens of the 100 or 150 graduating seniors, you already felt you knew them and their accomplishments; so often had their smiling faces appeared in The Republican during preceding months and years.

And, he didn’t think any of this was all that special. He just thought this is how you were supposed to operate, as a responsible small-town newspaper editor.

It is a brand of community journalism that we simply don’t see anymore. Economics, and the fractionalization of the communications business, preclude it. 

Some of what’s replaced Allen Mead’s sort of journalism is improved—in immediacy, certainly, in incorporation of video and sound on the Web.

But there is much, so much to miss, as well.

So long, old friend. You’ve richly earned your final “30.”

Derek October 01, 2012 at 12:36 PM
I remember Allen at all of my sporting events in high school. He was known as the "Lemon Drop Kid", even though he wasn't a kid - he had the enthusiasm of one of us. He would always find you when you were just kind of hanging out and come up to talk with you while handing out his signature hard lemon candy. It was a welcomed break in the action of the intensity that was going on that day. He was very positive in his comments and even gave some advice on improving our particular event. He knew a lot about sports and he knew even more about people. He will be missed. God bless him and his family.
Sarah Marcheschi October 01, 2012 at 12:40 PM
When I was a kid growing up in Geneva, The Republican was the paper- as in, "I saw in the paper yesterday" or "Did you bring in the paper yet?" I know each of my brothers and I had our pictures in it (likely on more than one occasion), and it was the go-to reference for anything school related. Other papers may have focused more on world news, but The Republican reported the news that was so important in our world, and its pages are the ones that were routinely cut out and stuck into scrapbooks and photo albums. This was a nicely done tribute to someone whose life's work meant so much to so many in our community.
Lynn Landberg October 01, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Kurt, a great tribute to a Geneva icon. With Allen, almost any happening, even if a bit trivial, would see print in the Republican if it was happening in Geneva. The Republican was small-town America at its best. Allen was a journalistic Norman Rockwell and the Republican was his canvas. My sympathy to his family.
Kurt Wehrmeister October 01, 2012 at 02:20 PM
"Allen was a journalistic Norman Rockwell and the Republican was his canvas." Lynn, how right you are, and leave it to a fellow Illini J-school grad to come up with that great line. (Yes, Allen, you Badger partisan forever, that was a tweak.)
Rick Nagel (Editor) October 01, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Allen Mead was a terrific man, and this was a terrific tribute by Kurt. With the passing of Joe Radovich, Geneva lost two pillars of the community in September 2012.
bob cagney October 01, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Kurt, very well done. Great tribute to a great man. It's funny, we will all remember Mr. Mead in our own way. Especially, as mentioned, after having played a sporting event, with lemon drop in hand, he would roam around the locker room saying hello and offering congratulations about a game just played.
Christine Donovan October 02, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Very well written tribute to Allen Mead, Kurt. I am grateful for having grown up in Geneva. And the one thing I ALWAYS looked forward to in High School was getting home first, and running to the mailbox after school on Thursdays! ( I always wanted to read it FIRST, before my other family members!) The Geneva Republican was definitely a small town newspaper filled with "towny" news; city, education, community events, local merchant advertisements, obituaries, births, police reports, and LOTS of pictures! If you wanted to find out about someone, or what was going ON in Geneva, you could always turn to The Geneva Republican. Geneva has lost another wonderful pillar of our community. But in return, we have been blessed to have had Mr. Allen Mead a part of our community for 95 years. He LOVED Geneva, and shared his love for our community through The Geneva Republican Newspaper. Thank you Allen, I am grateful to have been able to read and enjoy The Geneva Republican in my youth. My sympathy to your family.
Bruce R. Johnson October 02, 2012 at 11:39 PM
I lived in Geneva from 1948 until 1966 and nearby (either Elburn or Wheaton) until 1991. When I was in junior high school (in those days it was on Sixth Street), Allen allowed me to write reports on junior high athletic competitions, and he actually published them! Imagine the encouragement that was to an adolescent seeking to discover what talents he had. Then in the early 1970's when I served as city attorney, I felt that only Allen understood my frustrations in that position. Maybe they were similar to his because they grew out of the effort to develop the riverfront property. A quiet man . . . a big footprint.

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