Vermont C. Royster (1914-1996)

Written By Will Schultz

Vermont Connecticut Royster (1914-1996) served as editor of the Wall Street Journal from 1958 until 1971. He helped make the Journal’s editorial page a forum for conservative thought. His Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials used folksy, plainspoken language to express his individualist philosophy.

Vermont C. Royster was born April 30, 1914 in Raleigh, North  Carolina. His great-grandfather had started the tradition of naming family members after states in order to tell them apart. In addition to Vermont Connecticut, the Royster family tree featured Arkansas Delaware, Iowa Michigan, Virginia Carolina, and Nathaniel Confederate States. Vermont attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he wrote for the Daily Tar Heel and made Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1936, Royster traveled to New York City with $50 in his pocket and a dream to be a journalist. Between part-time writing jobs, he worked as a busboy, a messenger, and a bank manager. He applied to the Wall Street Journal after seeing a copy on the newsstand. When editor William H. Grimes asked him “And what can you do?” Royster replied “Well, if you will give me a broom I’ll sweep up this office.” Grimes hired him as a part-time writer for $15 a week.

Royster moved to Washington, D.C., to report on agriculture and commerce. He covered issues such as the shipbuilding industry, the debate over sugar quotas, and the reaction of corn farmers to the New Deal. World War II interrupted his career. Royster signed up with the United States Navy and served in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. Even in the service, Royster continued to write for the Journal. When Navy investigators interrogated him about “classified” information in a story concerning armor plating, Royster revealed that his top-secret data came from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

After the war, Royster became chief of the Journal’s D.C. bureau. In 1948 he was promoted again, this time to editorial writer. Royster’s straightforward style earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1953; the Pulitzer committee commended him for his “warmth, simplicity, and understanding of the basic outlooks of the American people.” A year later, Royster persuaded the Journal’s conservative editorial board to support the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954). William Grimes, the man who had hired Royster, retired in 1958, allowing Royster to become the new editor of the Journal.

Royster’s success coincided with the increasing popularity of the Wall Street Journal. The paper had only 35,000 readers when Royster began working there in 1936. But in 1961 its circulation had grown to 774,000. By then the Journal had subscribers in more than 3,000 counties nationwide. Thus, Royster wielded tremendous power as editor. He set the agenda for an editorial page read by hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The editorial page had always had a reputation for conservatism. Harry Truman had once dismissed it as the “Republicans’ Bible.” Royster continued this tradition, but he was no reactionary. Instead, he declared that his editorial page would preach “19th Century Liberalism.” His beliefs often had a libertarian bent. He considered Eisenhower a great president because “he did the least damage.” His editorials celebrated free trade, the gold standard, and low taxes. He was also a strong anti-communist. At the same time, however, he was one of the first conservatives to question the Vietnam War. Asked to describe his philosophy, Royster called himself a radical “who looked conservative because he questioned liberal conventionality.”

Royster served as editor until his 1971 retirement. After leaving the Journal, he became the William Rand Kenan professor of journalism and public affairs at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Even in retirement he continued to write. He published an occasional Journal column, titled “Thinking Things Over.” It ranged over everything from the prospects of the GOP in North Carolina to the joys of his grandchildren. “Thinking Things Over” earned Royster his second Pulitzer in 1984. Two years later, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan. Reagan declared that Royster’s “common sense exploded the pretensions of ‘expert opinion.’ ”

My Own, My Country’s Time: A Journalist’s Journey, Royster’s autobiography, appeared in 1983. Royster retired from UNC in 1979 and ended his column in 1986. He died in Raleigh on July 22, 1996.