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Jerry Franklin Dhonau, a longtime newspaper reporter and editor, contributed to the Arkansas Gazette’s winning of a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting and commentary on the historic desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957. Later, he served as an editorial writer at the newspaper for twenty-seven years and was chief of the opinion section when the Gazette closed on October 18, 1991.
Jerry Dhonau was born on September 20, 1934, in Little Rock to Charles Mitchell Dhonau and Lura Hill Dhonau. His father settled damage claims for the Cotton Belt Railroad. An older brother, Charles Mitchell Dhonau Jr., was killed in combat in World War II.
While he was a student at Little Rock High School (later renamed Central High School), Dhonau became a copy boy at the Gazette and also a part-time sportswriter. As the editor of the high school’s newspaper in 1952, he quit when the journalism teacher and supervisor removed his editorial recommending that the school name its new athletic fieldhouse for longtime manager of the athletic facilities Riley “Doc” Johns, an African-American man adored by students; the teacher said the editorial would offend school officials and the community. After graduation from high school, he attended Little Rock Junior College (which later became the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) and continued to be a daily but part-time sportswriter, covering high school and collegiate athletic events. He transferred to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he became the Gazette’s correspondent covering Razorback athletic teams during the week and helping cover the team’s big weekend games. After graduation in January 1957, he joined the newspaper in Little Rock as a general-assignment reporter.
He married Norma Joyce Robinson in 1960, and they had a daughter, Stephanie Dhonau.
Although his painstaking reporting and evenhanded writing had gotten the attention of the paper’s city editor, it was almost by accident that the young reporter was given the crucial assignment of covering events at Central High School on September 4, 1957. Governor Orval E. Faubus sent National Guard soldiers to the high school the night of September 2, Labor Day, to prevent the attendance of nine African-American students who were to integrate classes under the orders of federal courts. Faubus said his purpose was to prevent bloodshed at the school.
Dhonau was helping his father build a cabin on Labor Day when the Gazette’s city editor telephoned him and asked him to go to Central High School that evening, because there were rumors the Ku Klux Klan would stage an event there the night before integration was to occur. He sat in his car outside the school for a couple of hours and went to the office to report that nothing was happening. Faubus then went on television and announced he was dispatching National Guard soldiers to the school to prevent violence. Dhonau returned to the school that night as the soldiers arrived and again the next morning. School officials advised the African-American students not to go to the high school that morning because it was dangerous, but Judge Ronald Davies, a U.S. district judge from North Dakota who was assigned to preside over the desegregation case, ordered the school to open the next morning, September 4, on an integrated basis in spite of the governor’s order. A few of the black students showed up at one corner of the campus and were turned away by the soldiers. One student, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived alone at another corner of the campus and, followed by a taunting and threatening crowd, tried repeatedly to go into the school but was turned away by rifle-bearing soldiers. Dhonau, forsaking his role as an objective observer, stayed between her and part of the jeering crowd and, along with several reporters from national news organizations, formed a semicircle around her when she sat on a bench outside the school. Photos of Eckford, the mob, and the reporters became iconic pictures of the civil rights movement.
Confronting the first major challenge to federal authority since Reconstruction, President Dwight Eisenhower eventually federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard, removing it from Faubus’s control, and sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to carry out court orders and protect the students. With order finally restored and the school running peacefully, Dhonau’s daily reporting from the campus ended.
In 1958, the Gazette received two Pulitzer Prizes, one given to Harry S. Ashmore, the newspaper’s executive editor, for editorials that condemned the governor’s defiance and called for obedience to the law, and another to the newspaper for exceptional community service for its extraordinarily comprehensive coverage of the crisis and for its influence in encouraging the community to abide by the rule of law.
That fall, Dhonau enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, receiving a master’s degree in journalism in 1959. He worked briefly in the Washington DC bureau of the Minneapolis Tribune before returning to the Gazette. He covered the Little Rock city government for four years and then joined the newspaper’s editorial page in 1965. In 1985, he became editor of the newspaper’s daily opinion sections. While the newspaper’s stance in 1957–58 was simply obedience to the law, it progressed over the years to a more morally focused and liberal stance on civil rights and social justice. By its end in 1991, under Dhonau, the paper’s editorials were considered the most liberal in the South.
For a few years after the Gazette closed, Dhonau was an editorial writer for the Daytona Beach News Journal in Florida and taught journalism at several colleges in Florida and Arkansas. After retiring, Dhonau and his wife split their time between Little Rock and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Dhonau died on August 17, 2018, in Albuquerque. His ashes are interred at Pinecrest Cemetery in Alexander (Pulaski and Saline counties).
For additional information:
Bowden, Bill. “Gazette Reporter in ’57 Crisis Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 19, 2018, pp. 1B, 9B.
“Interview with Jerry Dhonau.” David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, March 3, 2000. http://pryorcenter.uark.edu/projects/Arkansas%20Gazette/DHONAU-Jerry/transcripts/dhonau.pdf (accessed January 31, 2019).
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 1/31/2019
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