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Walter Cole: The Town too Tough to Die
At the start of their tenure, Walter and Edith Cole blissfully called for a “bigger and better Tombstone.” But what indelibly etched Cole’s name on The Epitaph’s composing stone were early comments. “The spirit of Tombstone is to never say die,” Cole wrote. Summoning the image of the little town that could, Cole said Tombstone was “the town too tough to die.” Just a few words, but they seemed to capture Tombstone’s place in the history of the Old West – standing tall in the face of adversity. In words, the phrase mirrored the silhouette of Wyatt Earp, standing unscathed, as the gun smoke cleared after the gunfight at the O. K. Corral.
Cole tirelessly promoted Tombstone during the Great Depression. Hardly a disinterested editor, he became personally involved in subsequent Helldorado celebrations, mining ventures, Hollywood film production, an early effort to rehabilitate the vacant and decaying Tombstone courthouse and an idea to seek national monument status for the historic silver camp. At one point, he suggested that Tombstone simply put itself up for sale for $75,000. He talked of “Tombstone the Beautiful” and heralded the healthful benefits of the desert environment. Clum visited with Cole during a final trip to Tombstone in 1931. Clum applauded the “plan of exploiting the attractions and advantages with which nature has so generously endowed your section.” Unfortunately, Cole’s correspondence shows that his efforts never gained traction. As early as 1936, he was trying to sell The Epitaph. Having guided the paper during what he called “the most trying times in the history of this camp,” Cole sold The Epitaph in 1938. A new motto that found its way to the front page of The Epitaph -- “Tombstone – Metropolis of Cochise County 1940” -- was not realized.
Clayton Smith: The Long Haul
If anyone might reasonably claim the title “Mr. Tombstone,” the honor could well go to Clayton Smith, who was The Epitaph’s longest-serving editor – a 26-year run that ended when Smith died in a 1964 airplane crash. Editing a weekly paper might be enough for most; for Smith it was just the start. He also served as a school board member, justice of the peace, volunteer firefighter, Boy Scout leader and champion – in print and in person – for the preservation of Tombstone’s historic structures. A North Dakota native, Smith came to Tombstone in 1936. After he purchased the paper from Cole, he followed the thread that Kelly had initiated in the late 1920s. That effort lay in promoting Tombstone’s “wild and woolly” frontier period. As more and more time separated the Old West as experienced from the Old West as artifact, Smith believed that it was in the town’s best interest to embrace those days. Smith used the pages of The Epitaph to present historical sketches on Tombstone’s past. He encouraged researchers to use The Epitaph’s files – an open-door policy that produced Douglas Martin’s award-winning book, Tombstone’s Epitaph. And he took a leading role in later Helldorado celebrations that featured re-enactments of Tombstone’s memorable moments.
Tombstone and Beyond…
In the immediate aftermath of Smith’s death in January 1964, his widow, Mabel, published the paper for several months. Then an important period of transition began. Detroit, Mich. investors, headed by attorney Harold O. Love, purchased The Epitaph along with several other landmarks in Tombstone, including the O. K. Corral, the Crystal Palace and Schieffelin Hall. For the next decade, The Epitaph was capably edited by Wayne Winters, an Arizona newspaperman, with extensive background in both printing and mining. During his tenure, Winters nominated one of his predecessors, William Hattich, to the Arizona Newspaper Association’s Hall of Fame. Other Epitaph names on that list include Stanley Bagg, the Giragis and Clayton Smith.
In 1974, Love and his colleagues, including Wallace Clayton, a Detroit advertising executive, began planning a new edition, a historical journal of the Old West. While it would never lose touch with its Tombstone roots, the National Edition would take the entire West in the second half the 19th century as its canvas. At the same time, the weekly Epitaph would continue to bring local news to Tombstone’s 1,500 residents. As part of the restructuring, The Epitaph hired E. Dean Prichard, a veteran newsman and writer, to edit the new National Edition and Frederick A. Schoemehl, then a reporter at a California daily newspaper, to edit the weekly edition and to assist Prichard with the monthly. Within a year, the weekly editor’s job had been assumed by Don Cantrell, another Southern California newsman. Then came a novel turn of events: the corporation met with the University of Arizona Department of Journalism to discuss a partnership whereby journalism students would produce the local edition. This would give students practical experience in all aspects of newspaper production, including reporting, writing, editing, photography, design and printing. Journalism students continue to publish The Epitaph’s local edition, on a bi-weekly basis, during the school year.
Between 1975 and the late 1990s, editorial management of the National Edition, with subscribers throughout the United States and many foreign countries, passed from Prichard to Clayton and then back to Prichard following Clayton’s death in 1998. From Tombstone to Virginia City; from the “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn to the Massacre at Wounded Knee; from Pat Garrett to Billy the Kid; from Wyatt Earp to Pinkerton detectives; from the photography of Evelyn Cameron to the Bassett sisters of Brown’s Hole, Colo., the National Edition has continued to bring a lively mix of stories and photographs drawn from the history and culture of the Old West. For Clayton, the high point of his editorship was the addition of The Tombstone Epitaph as a national journalistic landmark by Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists.
Prichard’s 33-year association with the National Edition ended tragically in August 2006 when he suffered serious, irreversible injuries during a fall at his Arizona ranch. After Prichard’s death in March 2007, The Epitaph turned to Schoemehl, who holds a doctorate in U. S. history, to become editor of the monthly edition. Having lost a close friend, Schoemehl helped establish a journalism scholarship in Prichard’s name at the University of Arizona. In taking the reins of the Old West’s most famous newspaper, Schoemehl said, “My goals are to showcase the history of the Old West in as accurate, entertaining and readable ways as we can. I want our readers to receive a monthly package that reflects the depth and breadth of the West, as it was experienced in its frontier period and as we remember that period today.” Schoemehl is also working to improve The Epitaph’s visibility through tombstoneepitaph.com and marketing initiatives that are coordinated by Gary Ledoux, a western history author and long-time Epitaph contributor.