Leonard Lowrey: 'A Journalistic Institution'

By DAVID GUSTAFSON,

Other than his stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Hattiesburg’s Leonard Lowrey had but one job for his entire adult life. One job. One company.

Leonard Lowrey was a newspaperman.

Even from an early age, that’s all he ever wanted to do. Perhaps it was because both of his parents were English professors, but Leonard loved writing from an early age and it was no surprise that when his parents moved to Hattiesburg in 1938 when he was a sophomore in high school, he walked into the downtown offices of The Hattiesburg American and convinced its owner, the Rev. Gus Harmon, to hire him as a part-time student reporter.

Lowrey continued to work for The American as sportswriter and editor while enrolled at Mississippi Southern College, where he also wrote for the student newspaper, The Student Printz.

Also on the staff of the college newspaper was Moran Pope, who would remain one of Lowrey’s closest friends for more than 40 years.

Pope, a local attorney who served as mayor of Hattiesburg from 1953 to 1957, was one of many locals who memorialized Lowrey in the Christmas Eve edition of The American that went to press mere hours after he suffered a massive heart attack and died while standing at his desk in the newsroom.

“He had the utmost character and integrity in every phase of his life, including his work at the newspaper,” said Pope. “He always had the interest of the community at heart.”

And Leonard Lowrey always practiced what he preached.

A firm believer in being an active member of the community, he served on numerous committees and boards through the years, including the United Way, American Red Cross, the YMCA, the Forrest County Industrial Board, and the Pat Harrison Waterway District.

At the time of his death, he was a member of the Rotary Club, the USM Big Gold and Hardwood Clubs, the Southern Miss Alumni Association – and the Hattiesburg Chamber of Commerce. 

He was also a faithful Presbyterian and served his church dutifully for decades as an elder and Sunday School teacher. In fact, a men’s Bible Study class that bears his name still meets every week.

But it was his unwavering role as an unbiased and community-minded editor of his hometown newspaper that made him beam with pride.

With his young wife, Emele, at his side, they raised five children together – sons Mark, Bill, Erik, and Perrin, and daughter, Emelie. All five of them would go on to earn advanced college degrees.

His son, Erik, now a prominent and successful local attorney, said his earliest memories are associated with his father’s time at the newspaper.

“I particularly remember spending election nights down there,” he said. “People from all over would gather at the newspaper as the results came in and as kids, we had a ball being right in the middle of everything.”

Erik’s younger brother, Perrin, who spent more than 30 years as an educator with the Hattiesburg Public School District and still works as an educational consultant, has many of the same memories. 

“His work was his joy,” he said. “He thrived in the day-to-day reporting and production of the newspaper.  The sounds of typewriters, the AP teletype machine ‘spitting’ out stories, the typesetting machines rhythmic clatter from the second floor of the Front Street Building, the exchange of comments from reporters and photographers, and the haze of cigarette smoke floating in the air.”

Together, Perrin said all of those elements came together to create a culture of creative tension to “get it right!”

“I always enjoyed going to pick up Dad from work,” he said. “My parents shared a car and since I was the youngest, I often tagged along. I would watch him be the conductor and the composer of the (newspaper) production. He was a leader by example. He expected perfection from himself and he wanted that standard of work for The American.”

That perfection is what drove Lowrey  – and the entire newspaper staff as a whole – to consistently push itself towards excellence.

He won top writing awards from the Associated Press so frequently that AP officials finally asked him not to enter so others could have a chance.

As a journalist, Lowrey had a reputation of being tough, but supportive to his young staff. During the course of his long career, he gave countless people their first newspaper jobs – including Rick Cleveland, widely recognized as one of the best and most-decorated sportswriters in the state’s history.

At the time of Lowrey’s death, Rick had already moved on to The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, but Rick’s brother, Bobby, was working in the newsroom that morning and was one of the first people to reach Lowrey’s side.

The next day, Rick published a column in the Jackson newspaper about his former boss and mentor.

“Leonard Lowrey was a good man,” he wrote. “He was a kind man. And he was the hardest-working man I’ve ever known. 

He was, as his obituary read, “a journalistic institution.”

“Lowrey knew Hattiesburg and its history, its people and their ways – like nobody is ever likely to know it again,” wrote Cleveland. “In a hectic, deadline-filled, stress-inducing business which produces more than its share of alcoholics, Leonard Lowrey was a workaholic.”

In the end, it was probably that work ethic – and stress – that led, in part, to his death.

Although he was healthy as a horse, a few weeks earlier, a deal had been struck for the Hederman brothers, who had owned The American since 1960, to sell the publication to Gannett, an out-of-state newspaper conglomerate.

Erik said his father was concerned about what the sale might mean for his future with the company.

“It was the only job he ever knew,” he said. “Of course he was concerned. I’m not sure what he would have done.”

In many ways, Erik said he was glad his father was spared from having to witness the eventual decline of the newspaper he loved so dearly.

“He gave his heart and soul to that newspaper for a majority of his life. He was a proud newspaperman and he was exceptionally proud to be a Hattiesburg newspaperman.”