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Traditions Take Hold

Conant and MacLeish agreed that, in addition to the fellows’ individual studies, there should be a thread of professional development offered throughout the year. MacLeish organized weekly dinners and was able to draw on his extensive network of friends and acquaintances to bring leading journalists to Cambridge for an evening’s discussion with the fellows.

Louis M. Lyons, a reporter for The Boston Globe who was a member of the first class and later would serve 25 years as curator, wrote that MacLeish “was deft in directing the discussion and bringing everyone into it. There was just one rule: everything was off the record. So the talk was full, free and candid.” For many years, the Signet Society in Harvard Square was home to Nieman dinners.

After an evening with the Niemans, columnist Heywood Broun wrote that a majority of the professors had earned a passing grade from the fellows. “A few have been set down as phonies and stuffed shirts, but, for the most part, it is admitted that most of the instructors know their stuff and actually have something to offer.” In the spring of 1939, Conant suggested that the fellows also should hear from faculty members, a suggestion that led to the Nieman seminars, which met in afternoon sessions over beer and cheese at the Faculty Club.

The fellow who made the largest impact in the first class of four newspaper reporters and five editorial writers was Edwin A. Lahey, labor reporter from the Chicago Daily News. He had not been to college but had what Lyons described as “a larger experience in life than any of us.” Lahey also had a gift for pungent expression that “had Harvard students collecting ‘Laheyisms.’”

Lyons said that “It was great good luck for the Nieman program that its first group brought to Harvard a newspaperman of such pronounced characteristics as to make an indelible impression. Lahey to the Harvard mind was the prototype of Nieman Fellows.”

Nieman archives reveal extensive national coverage of the first Nieman class, including an item in the Newspaper Guild Reporter noting that the group had donated $45 to support journalists on strike against Hearst’s Herald & Examiner in Chicago.

After just one year, President Roosevelt appointed MacLeish as Librarian of Congress and Conant asked Lyons to take on the task of running the Nieman program.

The Lyons Years »