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A daily reminder of the MT's journalistic splash from 1934

Hanging under a protective glass case in the office of Mail Tribune publisher Grady Singletary is a gleaming gold medal.

It is THE Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor for journalism, which was awarded to the MT on May 7, 1934.

Moreover, it was the first Pulitzer ever received by an Oregon newspaper, a fact that makes this MT staffer mighty proud.

As usual, writers for biggies like The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle won Pulitzer Prizes that year. But judges gave the award — for meritorious public service — to the MT for "its campaign against unscrupulous politicians in Jackson County, Oregon."

There are two heroes in Medford's Pulitzer story. One was Medford constable George Prescott, 63, shot and killed March 16, 1933, while serving a bench warrant on Llewellyn A. Banks, publisher of the Medford Daily News.

The other was MT editor and publisher Robert W. Ruhl, whose courage never faltered in the face of a group calling itself the "Good Government Congress." History would indicate it was none of the three.

Perhaps the best person to tell the tale is Jeff LaLande, a retired historian and archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the events that led up to, and immediately followed, Prescott's death.

The Ashland resident received his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon's Department of History in 1993.

"I always think of poor George this time of year," said LaLande, who continues to work as a consultant. "He was an older gentleman, just looking to work out the remainder of his days serving warrants. When you walk through Alba Park (in Medford) now, you'll see the daffodils coming up on the anniversary of his death."

Park visitors will also see a stone memorial bearing Prescott's name, erected in his honor shortly after the officer was killed. Every March 16 the Medford Police Department holds a short ceremony in his honor.

"My interest wasn't prompted by George Prescott and what happened to him," LaLande said. "He was actually a small part of the story, although he certainly was in the finale."

LaLande's main interest was the political dispute that led to the police officer's murder. Dissertations are normally as dry as dust. But this one is a page turner, although we'll boil it down here because of space considerations.

Arriving in Medford in 1911 to edit the paper that evolved into the MT, Ruhl was a Harvard College graduate who had been on the staff of the student paper, The Crimson, working alongside a fellow named Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ruhl had already worked for the New York Globe and the Spokane Spokesman-Review when he took the Medford job.

LaLande rightfully described Ruhl as "Oregon's archetypal crusading small-town newspaperman." When the Ku Klux Klan reared its pointy, bigoted head in the early 1920s, Ruhl took them on, resulting in a Klan-organized boycott by advertisers and subscribers. But the Unitarian and Republican never backed down, despite threats against him.

What LaLande calls the "Jackson County Rebellion" began to simmer in the late 1920s before flaming up in the late winter of 1933. It was led by Banks, who relied heavily on character assassination and rants against elected local leaders to fan the flames.

"He used allusions to the American revolution and patriotism to whip people up," LaLande said. "It was a back-country rebellion of largely rural residents against the economic elite and the establishment."

Remember, this was during the depths of the Great Depression. Many were suffering from the nation's economic woes. Banks, who at one point would identify the infamous Louisiana Sen. Huey P. Long as the nation's savior, derisively called local elected officials "The Gang." Joining him in leading the movement was Earl Fehl, publisher of a local weekly newspaper who was later elected chairman of the board of county commissioners, a position then known as county judge.

As local residents began taking sides in the county-wide dispute, Ruhl wrote editorials condemning the character assassinations and urging that common sense and fairness prevail. He called for the public to "stand by the courts, stand by our jury system, stand by those duly elected and honest public officials who are doing everything in their power to put down the forces of violence and insurrection."

As happened during the battle against the KKK, the MT was boycotted and threatened with sabotage. Ruhl had printers stand night guard at the press armed with shotguns. And he made special arrangements to make sure his little girl made it safely to and from school each day.

The beginning of the end for the Good Government Congress came on Feb. 20, 1933, when men acting under orders from Banks and Fehl stole and destroyed election ballots that had been stored for a recount of a contested sheriff's election. A state circuit court issued a warrant for the arrest of Banks, who had vowed to kill any officer who attempted to arrest him.

Banks' wife answered the door the morning when Prescott and three other officers arrived with the warrant, but tried to close it when she was told of the warrant. Prescott stuck his foot in the doorway to prevent the door from closing. That's when Llewellyn Banks fired a rifle through the door, striking Prescott in the chest. He died at the scene.

Banks was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died in the Oregon State Penitentiary on Sept. 21, 1945, at the age of 73. Fehl, sent to jail for his role in the ballot thefts, was later paroled and lived until 1962.

Yet LaLande noted that Ruhl wrote late in his long life — he died in Medford on Aug. 21, 1967, at age 87 — that he was most proud of his battle against the KKK in the 1920s.

"He was taking it on the chin in terms of boycotts against the paper," LaLande said. "But he fought the good fight against them. He said it required more courage and sacrifice than the fight which earned the Pulitzer for the paper."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.