Born in Independence, Missouri, on November 9, 1885, Charles G. Ross attended his town’s public schools and graduated with the high school class of 1901, first among forty-one seniors including Harry S. Truman. That autumn young “Charlie” Ross—he was only sixteen—enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1905. In college he interested himself in social science and English, the latter with some attention to writing. A few of his compositions have survived, including a long poem about a young lady who needed encouragement, perhaps exaggeration, from a suitor:
All the concentrated blisses
of a life are in your kisses.
(So it ran for several pages
Gaining eloquence by stages.)
This the maiden comprehended,
Then her former note amended.
Getting daft and ever dafter,
they were married shortly after.
Upon graduation, Ross went to work full-time on the weekly Columbia Herald, and the next year joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with which (save for two intervals) he associated himself until near the end of his life. The first of the intervals occurred when he was dismissed during the economic recession of 1906, after which he was rehired. The second, for a much longer time, began when he was offered a higher salary at a rival paper, the St. Louis Republic, where he was a copyreader, and then in 1908 he joined the new School of Journalism at the University of Missouri; he was the second faculty member engaged for the opening of the school in the fall. Rising to the rank of full professor, he seems to have enjoyed his work and went so far as to publish a textbook, The Writing of News, that enjoyed modest sales in journalism schools around the country. At the end of World War I in 1918, apparently because he had tired of teaching the wartime journalism students, who were mostly women, he again returned to the Post-Dispatch, this time as its Washington bureau chief.
Ross’s professional life with the Post-Dispatch beginning with the Washington assignment brought him prominence nationally, in part because his paper was one of the best in the country, having been brought to a high level by Joseph Pulitzer, who died in 1911, and by his son, Joseph Pulitzer II, and partly because the owners gathered an extraordinary group of reporters and editors, possibly the best in the nation. In Washington, Ross reported on the presidency and became well acquainted with Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He met many members of Congress. As he made his way around the reportorial circuit, it was perhaps his fair-mindedness that made him stand out. When he secured a laudatory two-thousand-word statement from President Coolidge on his paper’s fiftieth anniversary, and other members of the White House press corps protested this favoritism, the president explained it to them. “I know where the Post-Dispatch stands,” Coolidge snapped. “They don’t praise me one day and stick a knife in me the next.”
When the younger Pulitzer in 1934 decided to bring the Post-Dispatch into a more central, perhaps less Democratic, editorial position, he called Ross back to St. Louis to take charge of the editorial page. That year the paper opposed the Democratic candidate for US senator, Truman, “an obscure man scarcely known outside the confines of Jackson County.” The paper editorialized acidulously about Truman’s connection to Boss Tom Pendergast of Kansas City. In 1936 it came out for Alf Landon of Kansas as the better candidate for president of the United States. When the New Deal’s initiatives diminished during the next years, Pulitzer, reassured, sent Ross back to Washington in 1939, where he reported until 1945.
Upon the death of Roosevelt, the new Missouri president of the United States overlooked the editorials of preceding years and insisted that Ross become his press secretary. Unfortunately, this new appointment was to mark an anticlimax to Ross’s career, which had reached its height in 1931 when he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles titled “The Country’s Plight: What Can Be Done About It?” As press secretary he was close to the president, but ventured opinions only when asked, notably during the dismissal of secretary of commerce Henry A. Wallace in 1946. During these years Ross’s physical condition deteriorated rapidly; he suffered two mild heart attacks, and in 1948 his personal physician gave him at best four years to live. On December 5, 1950, he died at his White House desk.
This article was first published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), and appears here by permission of the author and original publisher.
Farrar, Ronald T. Reluctant Servant: The Story of Charles G. Ross. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969.
Mitchell, Franklin D. Harry S. Truman and the News Media: Contentious Relations, Belated Respect. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
Pfaff, Daniel W. Joseph Pulitzer II and the Post-Dispatch: A Newspaperman’s Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Ross, Charles G. Papers. Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Mo.
———. The Writing of News. New York: Henry Holt, 1911.
Published September 20, 2021; Last updated September 22, 2021
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