The end of summer 1916 was a fine and peaceful introduction to the oncoming fall weather. The hot days of July were cooling to an agreeable 78 degrees in the August afternoon, and while corn farmers struggled with poor returns in the dry weather, the city folk breathed a sigh of relief as the temperature finally became livable.
Of course, none of these concerns or comforts were shared by 1916 Chicago-Kent graduate and former public speaking instructor, Lowell Thomas. The August 1, 1916 issue of the Chicago-Kent Bulletin reported that Thomas was spending the summer in Alaska, collecting material for his travelogues.
Lowell Jackson Thomas, born in 1892 in Ohio, was never one to rest after a major accomplishment. At the age of 17, he was already a budding journalist, and had interviewed statesman and orator William Jennings Bryan, as well as Clarence Darrow, one of America’s leading labor attorneys, before even finishing high school. By 1911, he had graduated from Valparaiso University with degrees in education and science.
Upon the encouragement of his father, who tutored him in elocution, he pursued a position as an instructor in public speaking at Chicago-Kent, which he held from 1912-1914, while also working as a reporter for the Chicago Journal. In 1914, still a young reporter, Thomas interviewed Booker T. Washington and covered the sinking of the Eastland in the Chicago River, but became known for publishing an exposé on con man Carlton Hudson, who skipped bail in New York years earlier only to set himself up as a reputable businessman in Chicago to reprise his swindling ways.
Upon receiving a law degree from Chicago-Kent in 1916, one might assume that Thomas would take some time off before beginning his new position as public speaking instructor at Princeton. Instead, he headed to Alaska to exercise his creative mind by putting together a film about the Klondike Gold Rush, and financed the trip and the filming with a series of articles on the wonders of rail travel.
By the time he wrapped up filming and began his new job (and the pursuit of another degree) at Princeton, Thomas had caught the eye of many important people. It was no wonder: at the age of 23, Thomas had already worked as an editor or reporter on six major newspapers, collected five university degrees, and taught at Princeton in a role he helped to create.
The December 1916 issue of the Chicago-Kent Bulletin announced with pride that Thomas had been tapped to direct the speakers’ bureau for Mayor Mitchell of New York’s re-election campaign. Another job offer came swiftly, in early 1917, and this one from higher up: Franklin Lane, President Wilson’s Secretary of the Interior, hired Thomas to direct a national program, “See America First.” It was an offer that was rescinded just as quickly as it materialized, however. A month after the program began, the United States declared war on Germany.
The cancellation of the promotional campaign saw the birth of a new opportunity, and it was decided that there was no one better than Lowell Thomas to run the campaign to change the minds of Americans toward support of the United States’ involvement in the war. Thomas insisted that the campaign would be a greater success if it was filmed, rather than produced in written format for the American people. The government, however, did not agree, and refused to provide a filming budget.
Fortunately, Thomas was able to raise the $100,000 himself (the equivalent of over $1 million today) with the help of the many Chicago businessmen who benefited from his exposé on Hudson. With his new bride Frances Ryan, cameraman Harry Chase, and filming equipment, Lowell Thomas headed for Europe. He formed a company, Thomas Travelogues, and began to sign his letters “Lowell Thomas, Propagandist.”
The trenches of the Western Front were a dismal, uninspiring place, where Thomas and Chase found nothing to show the American public that would win any enthusiasm. The pair then visited Italy, where Thomas became interested in the campaign against Palestine.
He obtained the permission of the British Foreign Office to travel to Jerusalem, and arrived just in time for the British to take control of the area from the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after, he met T.E. Lawrence, an Irish-English officer and former archaeologist who donned Arab robes and led Arab irregulars and forces in a revolt against the Turks.
Thomas and Chase spent weeks following the dashing and photogenic Lawrence through the desert, and collected hundreds of still images and miles of 35mm films of Lawrence and the Arab forces. These images and films would become part of a multimedia show titled “With Lawrence in Arabia,” which traveled across America and Britain. The show was unique in that it featured Lawrence standing in front of a screen, narrating the events depicted in photos and short films.
Though it is now considered to be the first of its kind, the documentary was widely panned, as the war had just ended and not only was Thomas’ job as propagandist at an end, nobody seemed interested in talking about the war in any capacity. There seemed to be something, however, in the part of the story about that gallant blue-eyed Oxford graduate, the gentleman who had led a revolt in the desert, and Lowell Thomas was there to tell it.
By 1923, Thomas and Chase were perhaps the two best known international journalists, and were permitted to film in Afghanistan. In 1924, Thomas wrote the first of more than 50 books he would write in his lifetime, With Lawrence in Arabia.
Silent footage filmed by Thomas and Chase in 1917.
In 1925, Lowell Thomas tried his hand at radio broadcasting, and found yet another medium in which he could excel. By 1930, he was the host of the nation’s first nightly news program, “Lowell Thomas and the News” (or “Nightly News”). As the United States struggled through the Great Depression, Thomas thought it important to begin and end his broadcast on a light note by stating a friendly “Good evening, everybody” at the beginning of the newscast, and closing with “So long until tomorrow.” Since much of the broadcast was bad news, Thomas ended each episode with a light human interest story.
The practices of trademark opening and closing lines, and of ending segments on a lighter note, began with Thomas and continue in broadcast news today.
With his background in reporting and public speaking, Thomas seemed made for the role of the nation’s first broadcast news reporter, but he didn’t stop there. He also applied his experience in narrating on-screen images to rapt American audiences by lending his voice to Fox Movietone and American Newsreel Company newsreels.
Movietone newsreel, “The Battle of Britain,” narrated by Lowell Thomas, 1940.
In the 1930s, Thomas wrote, produced, narrated, and even appeared in news summaries twice each week, which were then broadcast in theaters across America. In 1939, he began the first televised nightly news broadcast, which was cancelled only a year later due to World War II.
Thomas declined other offers to do television news with the hopes of traveling to Europe to cover the events of the war in person. However, he was refused a passport by President Franklin Roosevelt, who considered the front too dangerous to risk the loss of America’s most trusted news anchor. It’s possible that he also did not want to put his friend and neighbor at risk: Thomas’ baseball club, “The Nine Old Men”, which played benefit games to support causes across the country, annually defeated the President’s team of White House correspondents, “The Purgers.” Thomas was not allowed to travel until February of 1945, when he visited Berlin, India, China, and the Pacific in a matter of months, reporting riveting an interesting stories on what he found along the way.
Ever an adventurer and documentarian, Thomas traveled to Tibet with his son, Lowell, Jr., in 1949, where they met the Dalai Lama and produced the first ever remote battery-powered broadcasts for CBS.
He produced travel films for his own production company, Cinerama Productions. He established himself as an independent contractor and became a media tycoon in short order by forming several broadcast stations, Capital Cities, which acquired ABC in 1980. From 1955 to 1958, he produced the series “High Adventure” for CBS, and in 1963 took such advantage of jet travel that he crossed all 24 time zones twice, continued radio and television writing and producing, and kept speaking engagements and ski trips around the world for nearly eight weeks, before finally collapsing from jet lag.
In April of the following year, Thomas continued to multi-task when he wrote to Chicago-Kent President Douglas Schwantes and Dean William Zacharias to kindly thank them and accept the honorary Doctor of Laws he was to receive at the convocation ceremony later that year, including that he “might have another engagement that I thought I might as well take care of at the same time.” He returned to visit Chicago-Kent once more, for the IIT Annual Reunion in 1974, where he received a professional achievement award. He told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune “I’m planning to retire at the age of 100. I’ve always worked around the clock, ever since my days in Chicago. I’m on a merry-go-round that I don’t think I’ll ever get off.”
Lowell Thomas bid his final on-air “so long” on May 14, 1976, at the age of 84. Though it was to be his last broadcast, he insisted that he would not retire, and changed his parting line to “So long…for now.”
Five years later, in 1981, Thomas passed away in his home in Pawling, New York, after returning from a trip to Colorado, where he had given a speech and attended a corporate board meeting. After 46 years in broadcasting, countless firsts, and a life that can only be described as both hectic and spectacular, Lowell Thomas left the world he so loved to travel and experience.
His outlook on life was best captured in his response to an interview question in 1976 posed by a Chicago Tribune reporter, who asked him which had been the best years of his life. “The best years of my life,” he said, “have been all of my years.”
The Chicago-Kent Bulletin, No. 1, Issue 3 (August 1916). The Chicago-Kent Bulletin, AC025, Box 1. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives, Chicago, Illinois.
The Chicago-Kent Bulletin, No. 1, Issue 6 (December 1916). The Chicago-Kent Bulletin, AC025, Box 1. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives, Chicago, Illinois.
Convocation Program, 1964. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives, Chicago, Illinois.
Holmberg, David. “Thomas Returns to Alma Mater.” Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1974: 7.
Gorner, Peter. “84 is only a number if you happen to be Lowell Thomas.” Chicago Tribune, 8 December 1976: A1.
Letter from Lowell Thomas to E. Douglas Schwantes and William F. Zacharias. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives, Chicago, Illinois.
Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History. CLIO online exhibit: http://www.cliohistory.org/thomas-lawrence/
“Lowell Thomas Dies at 89.” Chicago Tribune, 30 August 1981: B1.
Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections: http://library.marist.edu/archives/LTP/LTP.xml