Tag Archives: History

From Journalism and Politics to Political Philosophy: 1957-1969

Part Three of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

The exception was writing—and it was more a pledge than a practice. About two years into an enrollment at Ohio State that had yet to yield a pattern of progress toward a degree in any subject, and to meet one of the University’s general-education requirements, I signed up for a Journalism class. It was by a wide margin the most enjoyable experience of my academic career. It was experiential rather than theoretic; practical rather than abstract. Suddenly, writing became the noblest profession. The “muckrakers” were my heroes. Heywood Broun’s columns, and later Mike Royko’s, became my favorite reading. The newspapers in Mississippi and Georgia that were pointing out the civil rights inequities in the South became the employers of my dreams.

Almost immediately, my classroom and “field” writing performance seemed to the Ohio State faculty to warrant my designation as campus political and governance reporter and then columnist for the university’s Daily Lantern. (In those days, the Lantern published 15,500 tabloid copies a day, 5-days a week.) I dropped everything else to indulge this new passion.  I ended the year-long run of my dance band, The Bill Vern Quintet, and cancelled its remaining “gigs”; withdrew from the ROTC intercollegiate rifle team;  resigned as “social director” of the Scioto Club, one of a dozen residential units built into the Ohio State Football Stadium “horseshoe”; stopped doing the home work for my other courses and organized what remained of my life around the publishing schedule of The Lantern.


Within a year of almost daily front-page bylines and bi-weekly columns (during which my sympathy was solicited by every one of the conspiratorial revolutionary and reform groups that were vying with each other to lead the University into the ferment of the ‘sixties, the dean of the School of Journalism noticed that I had become “dogmatic” in my published criticism of the University—its Woody Hayes-protected and coddled athletes, the “white bars” in several of its fraternity constitutions, its hesitation to embrace the lunch counter sit-ins that marked the infancy of the civil rights movement, and the refusal of the Fawcett Administration to grant even the least of the petitions made by campus governance in behalf of students.


He was right. The notoriety of my reporting, the interest in my column “Framework”, and the lionization by the cabals had conspired to create of me a self-important ideologue loyal to the ideas of those whose association I cherished. And I knew it—but I could neither confess nor repent of it. As soon as my reports and columns were no longer acceptable to the The Lantern editors,  I sold everything I owned and started my own weekly news magazine, The Spokesman, to publish “alternative” opinions on public life—such as the Castro and Che Guevara insurgency in Cuba, the “fact” (as I saw it then) of American “imperialism” in Latin America and Asia, the “rabid” conservatism of the Republican Party,  etc. I hoped these public “positions” would sustain the standing I had acquired through my Lantern reportage and “Framework”.


Publishing the 8-page magazine—and distributing it after dark without license on the University campus to the applause of those who thought as it did, and the bitter criticism of those who leaned as it did but who preferred a harsher language, an even more radical stance, and—above all!—their own sole proprietorship—exhausted me. Each week of The Spokesman’s 12-week life span consisted of four days of research, composition and design culminating in thirty-six hours of printing, collating, stapling, and circulation and a day and a half of physical and psychic recovery. Topics for upcoming issues were selected willy-nilly. Not enough attention was paid to soliciting advertisements or sponsors, and in three-months The Spokesman was out of money and I was out of anima. I had abandoned the Christian persuasions of my youth upon entering college and had not yet found an alternative philosophy for sustainably rebalancing life and ambition, for reconciling success and failure, and for shrinking the psychic distance between mania and depression. At the end, I was entirely exhausted and utterly alone.

The Future Lost—and Found: 1953-1962

Part Two of the Essay Professor Without Portfolio.

The discovery of capabilities fundamental to a promising life in academe also punctuated—with a semicolon rather than a period—the search beginning in my 15th year for the future that was to replace the one lost in my father’s death. His passing shattered a prospect constructed more by circumstance than imagination. It was to carry me away from the farm after high school to university and return me with knowledge of agriculture superior to my father’s. That would transform our relationship from disappointed father and failed son to competent son and proud father, from master-servant combine to full equity partnership—and to a solid place in a world of my own.   

In loving honor of this prospect, rather than embrace of it, mother granted me a year to see if I could manage the farm while keeping up my studies. I couldn’t. Too many school days were spent chasing the beef cows that we had purchased to replace the dairy herd. They were to help finance my sister’s and my schooling, but the cost of containing, feeding, and doctoring the Herefords made them a liability rather than an asset. They simply strode through fences that had by their very appearance restrained the docile Holsteins.

Bill Frame and his sister Polly near their childhood home.

Within a year of Dad’s death, Mom sold the farm, thus administering the coup de grace to my family-farming prospect. We moved into the second floor of the principal mortuary in the half-dozen towns within 20 or so miles of the farm. The house had been the natal residence of a leading family in Amsterdam, already at 1,500 a town half its traditional size, retracting along with the Bituminous coal mining and iron ore smelting that had given it birth. It was offered to us because a new regulation stipulated that cadavers awaiting interment could not be left unattended. Restoring the mortuary as a residence met the letter of the law and produced an hospitable offer to the Widow Frame just when the three of us needed it most.

The Frame Farmhouse which was home until after the death of Bill’s father.

The new home gave me and sister Polly, two years my junior, immediate distinction. We embellished it with tales of bumping into cadaver-laden gurneys when returning home after late dates or fetching new business in the mortuary’s big Cadillac hearses from the morgue in Steubenville, 30 miles away. When we went off to college with no more than a handful of classmates from our shrinking classes of 50-60 each, we carried an inventory of stories from our life in the mortuary—playing hide-and-seek in the casket showroom, for example, or being denied the use of our bathroom during “viewings” by the steady stream of rustics that had never known anything other than a two or three “holer” out back and a galvanized bath tub in the kitchen.


(Even now, I enjoy telling of soliciting the help of a local bully to help me retrieve from the hospital morgue the body of a very large neighbor. As we lifted the sagging body from the “slab”, the bully at his shoulders and I at his feet, the air compressed in the lungs by the maneuver made the corpse moan. The bully dropped (threw down?) his burden well short of the gurney and fled the morgue, bug-eyed and white-faced. He “thumbed” his way back to Amsterdam, refusing to come into the hearse or even to apply for his pay. Thereafter, he exempted me entirely from his bullying—and the funeral home from his list of acceptable employment.)


Mom lived in the Funeral Home for 40 years, became a pillar of her new church in her new community, taught for three years at The American School, Tangier, Morocco, and spent the last 10 years of her 98-year life in a nearby retirement center arranging the weekly programs of its education fora.


And I went off in search of a place in the world which I could call my own—a place, as I increasingly imagined it. in which morality and ethics, faith and reason, my private and the public interest were compatible if not fully reconciled. Obviously, the cataclysm of my father’s death destroyed the graphic prospect of a commercially viable and communal family farm, and forced me to cast the search for its replacement in abstract and generic terms. Until the McIlwain Experience, I had in mind a dozen such replacement prospects, each of which required post-graduate education—in theology, music, journalism, among others. With one exception, I turned away from each of them after a brief dabble.