Frank Sefrit was the firebrand editor of the Bellingham Herald for nearly 40 years during the first half of the twentieth century. A vitriolic man with a sharp pen and a zest for battle, Sefrit had little problem dispatching those who challenged him (and many who didn't) and intimidating the rest into silence. Though he didn't run for political office, his influence in local Republican politics was felt far and wide in Bellingham for more than 30 years, culminating in his successful effort to have the president of what is now Western Washington University dismissed from his position in 1939. It was a scandal that rocked Bellingham for years. After Sefrit died in 1950, his son Charles ("Chick") managed the Herald until 1960. He was followed by his younger brother Ben, who managed the paper until his retirement at the end of 1970.
Frank Ira Sefrit was born in Knox County, Indiana, on August 29, 1867, to Moses and Eleanor McDonald Sefrit. The fifth of 11 children, Sefrit was one of the fortunate in the family; only two of his siblings lived past age 22. Accounts of his life say he had little formal education, which means he probably left school around eighth grade, the norm for many children in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, he was possessed with a keen intellect that many a college graduate would have envied. He remained in southwestern Indiana into early adulthood, marrying Ethel Leonard Sefrit (1875-1954) in 1891. They had four children, one who died in infancy and three who lived into old age: Irene (1894-1980), Charles (1895-1965), and Ben (1906-1984).
By the time he was 12 Sefrit was working for an area newspaper in which his father had an interest, the Washington Gazette. By 1892 he and his brother Charles (1860-1925) were both working at the paper, with Charles serving as editor. But Frank was restless. He was freelancing for other U.S. newspapers by this time and did so for much of the 1890s. It was a pivotal time to be in American journalism. In the second half of the 1890s a more sensational writing style, known as "yellow journalism," came into vogue, which put emphasis less on the facts and more on creating a sensation from the facts. If the facts got bent or distorted in the translation, it was of little concern if it sold papers. Sefrit learned from this hyperbolic style, and it showed in his work over the next 50 years.
Salt Lake City
To put it mildly, Sefrit would prove to be a dynamic writer. In 1903 he and his family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he became associate editor of the morning Salt Lake Tribune and its late-afternoon edition, The Evening Telegram. In 1908 he was promoted to general manager of both papers. In Salt Lake City Sefrit began showing a taste for politics as well as writing, though he preferred writing about politics over running for office himself. He also began showing a taste for attacking his adversaries with a gusto that surprised even seasoned editors. He had little problem taking on the Mormon Church, a central fixture in Utah life as well as politics, claiming in a 1906 letter to Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge (1862-1927) that the church "has taught treason to its people since it came to this valley" (Judd, 93), and suggesting it threatened the country's stability.
There are differing reasons given for why Sefrit left Salt Lake City in the early 1910s. Sefrit himself said it was due to health reasons. Years later his son Ben suggested it was because of a rift with the owners, and that may be: Articles from May 1911 in at least two Salt Lake City newspapers discuss a jury trial in a lawsuit Sefrit filed against the Salt Lake Telegram Publishing Company, alleging he was owed $8,940 in back salary. The jury awarded him $1,500, and an article about the verdict in Goodwin's Weekly, a Salt Lake City paper, explained how some felt about it:
"When the suit was first filed, those who had watched the Telegram under the direction of Sefrit, were astonished, for though the probability of a suit had not previously entered their minds, they wondered upon reading of it why the Telegram was not the plaintiff and Sefrit the defendant, for it would seem that whatever damages he may have considered he was entitled to in the way of salary were many times offset by what he had done to the Telegram … in showing Westerners what a newspaper should be through a course of vilification and the venting of personal spite" ("Mr. Sefrit").
Sefrit would become more familiar with the judicial process after he arrived in Bellingham in 1911. He was hired by Colonel Alden Blethen (1845-1915), owner and editor of The Seattle Times, to evaluate Bellingham's American-Reveille and negotiate its sale to a group of local businessmen. He sufficiently impressed the group that when the sale was finalized in November 1911 he was named manager of both the morning American-Reveille (which published until 1914) and the evening Bellingham Herald. Sefrit replaced the more progressive Leslie H. (L. H.) Darwin (1875-1955) as manager of the American-Reveille, kicking off a fight between the two men that lasted decades.
In the early twentieth century Bellingham was sharply divided between traditionally conservative residents and those who identified with the budding progressivism of that era. Sefrit wasted little time injecting himself into these stormy politics. By the spring of 1913 (18 months after his arrival) he had already faced at least one libel suit -- though in fairness, this was hardly an uncommon experience for aggressive editors of the day, and L. H. Darwin also had experience with libel suits. What makes Sefrit stand out is the number of libel actions filed against him during his career. At one point in the 1930s he suggested it was a relatively modest four, while Darwin claimed it was seven, and Sefrit's son Ben later put the number closer to 10. Though Sefrit was convicted of criminal libel on more than one occasion, he always managed to get the convictions overturned on appeal. In a case in which Sefrit was charged with contempt of court rather than libel, a puzzled state Supreme Court dismissed the action, commenting that "Further controversy over the matter was hardly in the range of possibility, if, indeed, it can be said that there was any pending controversy at any stage of the proceeding" (State v. Sefrit, 350).
An intense, wiry man with round glasses, piercing brown eyes, and a full head of white hair that never left him, Sefrit relished dueling with his political opponents. As one example, in a 1913 article in the American-Reveille, Sefrit wrote in delighted detail about being challenged to a duel by a local judge irate over Sefrit's coverage. Then he wrote several follow-up editorials over the next few days scolding the judge further. Both the American-Reveille and the Herald were then owned by Sidney "Sam" Perkins (1865-1955), and Perkins gave Sefrit plenty of leeway to write as he wished. The men met regularly, strategizing about newspaper and political issues, often focusing on what they could do to help favored conservative Republican political candidates. This wasn't hard to do during the 1910s and particularly during the prosperous 1920s, when Republicans were the majority party in both Bellingham and state offices. Sefrit's power and influence in Bellingham and its local Republican party grew steadily during these years. By 1930 there were few in the city who were willing to challenge him. However, in the 1930s the Great Depression would bring bigger challenges for the scrappy editor.
Liberal Arts on Trial
Few were immune from the catastrophic economic collapse that ushered in the Great Depression. By 1932 its effects were becoming so widespread that even dyed-in-the-wool Republicans were willing to consider voting for Democrats if they could stop the bleeding. That's exactly what happened that year, when Democrats gained control of both houses of the state legislature as well as the governor's office. Bellingham voters elected a Democratic mayor and the three-member Whatcom County Commission went Democratic as well. Most other local positions also went Democratic -- many for the first time in the county's history. Labor, long-dormant (but not forgotten) after the failed 1919 Seattle General Strike, also began making gains in statewide elections during the 1930s.
Sefrit and other old-line Republicans viewed these changes with considerable alarm. They were especially threatened by what they perceived as a threat in their own backyard from Charles Fisher (1880-1964), president since 1923 of the Washington State Normal School at Bellingham. (In the early 1900s, a "normal" school was a college that trained teachers. In 1937, late in Fisher's tenure, the school was renamed Western Washington College of Education, and is now known as Western Washington University.)
Fisher changed the college's curriculum by hiring progressive teachers and offering a wider range of courses, speakers, and books. This approach was enough to thoroughly infuriate the city's old guard, who saw it as a college (in their own back yard!) churning out socialists and communists. By 1935, Fisher was seen by the Right as a communist menace who had to go.
Author Ron Judd has written a fascinating e-book, The Liberal Arts on Trial: Charles H. Fisher and Red-Scare Politics at Western Washington College of Education, 1933-1939, which tells the story in detail. (The book is available online at no charge.) Sefrit and others, operating under the name "The Committee on Normal Protest," filed a list of "charges" against Fisher in 1935 and demanded a hearing before the college's board of trustees. Though the trustees promptly backed Fisher, that wasn't the end of it. For the next several years the committee pressured Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955) to take action, and he finally did, advising the trustees that either Fisher went or they did. Fisher was unceremoniously dismissed in the summer of 1939, but his emphasis on a more progressive curriculum at the college survived and eventually flourished.
The incident caught the attention of TIME magazine, which published an account in its July 10, 1939, issue under the title "I'm Agin' You." The magazine added that Sefrit relished the title of "Little Hearst," after William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), a nationally known, flamboyant newspaper editor who helped perfect the art of yellow journalism in the 1890s, and who, like Sefrit, was aggressively anti-communist. The mercurial Sefrit read the article and erupted, firing off a three-plus-page rebuttal to the magazine, though he declined TIME's request for permission to print his response. In a follow-up telegram several days later, he further dismissed the article as "an obviously fake story in an effort to belittle me" (Judd, 269). Sefrit disputed the "Little Hearst" appellation, but appears to have followed Hearst's tactics to some extent. Judd writes that in bringing charges against Fisher, Sefrit and his allies "borrowed directly from Hearst's red-baiting playbook" (Judd, 362).
Sefrit also battled his old nemesis Darwin during the 1930s. Darwin had published the Bellingham American from 1922 to 1929, but his feud with Sefrit was mostly on hold during those years. That changed when he was hired in 1933 by an upstart radio station in Bellingham, KVOS. Darwin was tasked with providing a progressive view of the events of the day, and he was happy to oblige. Every bit as caustic as Sefrit, Darwin delightedly mocked his foe almost daily, regularly referring to him as "Kaiser Sefrit, the would-be Nero of Bellingham" (Judd, 115).
Sefrit failed to grasp radio's growing popularity during the 1920s, and had passed on an opportunity to run KVOS in a partnership with its new owner, Rogan Jones, late in the decade. By the mid-1930s Sefrit had seen his mistake, and in 1934 he and Perkins filed papers with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) for their own radio station, a conservative alternative to the more liberal KVOS. A battle royal unfolded the next year as Jones and his colleagues did everything they could to stop them. In hearings held to determine the merit of their application, Sefrit was portrayed by his enemies as an aging oddball determined to maintain his control over the press in Bellingham, an angry man who enjoyed labelling his enemies with adjectives such as "crook, pervert, grafter, and skunk" (Judd, 119). In a rare defeat for Sefrit, the FCC denied the application, but he got the last laugh. He and Perkins pushed to have KVOS's license revoked the following year, and the resulting political brouhaha grew so intense that KVOS dropped Darwin's show in 1937.
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Sefrit is said to have mellowed to some degree during his final years. He slowly faded away after being diagnosed with cancer in the late 1940s, writing his last series for the Herald (about Bellingham's water system) in 1949. He died on May 27, 1950, and his sons, Charles (known as "Chick") and Ben, both of whom had worked at the Herald since the 1920s, stepped into his shoes. Chick, also active in Bellingham's civic affairs, served as general manager through the 1950s. Ben served as editor before succeeding Chick as general manager in 1960. Quieter than his older brother, Ben is remembered for expanding photography at the Herald in his early years, and for adding the paper's first darkroom. He retired in December 1970, bringing an end to the Sefrit legacy at the Herald after nearly 60 years.
In 1952, the U.S. Forest Service named a 7,191-foot-high peak in the Mount Baker Wilderness (located a few miles north of Mt. Shuksan) after Frank Sefrit. It was a fitting tribute to the editor, who had supported efforts to build the Mt. Baker Highway in the 1920s and who had loved hiking and walking through the area. He found solace from his struggles in the forest's quiet peace, so much so that after his death and at his request his friends scattered his ashes above nearby Heather Meadows.