William Theodore Evjue Papers, 1905-1969


William T. Evjue was born Peter Wilhelm Theodor Evjue on October 10, 1882 in Merrill, Wisconsin, the son of Norwegian immigrants Nels Peter and Mary (Erickson) Evjue. He married Zillah Bagley on May 31, 1913.

After graduation from the local school system in 1899, Evjue worked in Merrill for several years in order to continue his education, and in 1902 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter Evjue began his lifelong involvement with journalism as a part-time reporter on the Wisconsin State Journal. Also of fundamental influence upon him during his years at the University was his attraction to the progressivism of Governor Robert M. La Follette Sr.

In 1905 Evjue left the University because of illness, but after his recovery he determined to pursue a career in journalism rather than return to the University. En route to a position in Texas, he secured temporary employment on the Milwaukee Journal and soon found permanent employment as a reporter on the Milwaukee Sentinel. His rise was rapid, and Evjue was night editor when he left in 1910 to accept a position as copyreader on the Chicago Record Herald. Evjue was dissatisfied with Chicago, however, and he welcomed an opportunity to return to Madison as managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in 1911. In 1913 he was promoted to business manager.

Evjue's career as editor and publisher began in 1917 as a result of a split among progressives over Senator La Follette's position on entry into World War I. Aided by the Senator's other supporters, Evjue raised $20,000 and began publication of the Capital Times on December 13, 1917. In the first issue Evjue set forth the paper's ideal: the Capital Times was to be a “people's newspaper,” dedicated to the public interest and to good government.

For several years the paper's politics continued to affect its growth. Charges of disloyalty growing out of its support for La Follette and hostility to the paper's liberal political position sustained a year-long advertising boycott against the new paper. Gradually, however, Evjue overcame the lack of financial backing by relying upon individual subscribers and small stock purchases. The continued existence of the Capital Times was assured when it became the official state paper in 1921. Thereafter circulation grew rapidly, and by the 1930s the paper had won a loyal, statewide audience, and its circulation was the largest in Wisconsin with the exception of Milwaukee papers.

Although politics was of central importance to him, Evjue carefully avoided association with any political party and after his single term in the assembly, 1917-1919, consistently refused elective office for himself, as it might have jeopardized the independence of his paper. Nevertheless Evjue's influence upon politics in Wisconsin was considerable. As a leading voice among the progressive Republicans, he served as a member of the Republican State Central Committee from 1920 to 1924. He served as temporary chairman of the Fond du Lac Conference which launched the Progressive Party in 1934 and was one of Governor Philip La Follette's chief advisors. At the same time Evjue was a staunch supporter of the New Deal, and during the late 1930s he broke with the Progressives to support Roosevelt on the issue of foreign policy. This split also occasioned his resignation as editor of the Progressive, the party newspaper, which he had headed since 1929. During the late 1940s Evjue was active in the movement to revitalize the Democratic Party as the liberal party in the state, and his influence upon the party as an elder statesman continued through his endorsement of Senator Eugene McCarthy for the presidency in 1968.

In addition to his career as a journalist, Evjue was also a successful businessman. In 1929 he expanded into the new field of radio communications and established the Badger Broadcasting Company. Soon his weekly editorials, “Hello, Wisconsin,” over WIBA became a state institution. In 1948 the Capital Times and its business and ideological rival, the Wisconsin State Journal, devised a method of handling the competition between them while maintaining a competitive editorial policy by merging their production, management, and advertising departments into Madison Newspapers Inc.

Evjue demonstrated his dedication to the paper's founding principles through a record of courageous crusades in the public interest. Politicians and lobbyists were always a target for Evjue's criticism, and numerous local candidates owed their political fortunes to the Capital Times. Evjue was largely responsible for ousting Governor Julius Heil, although his attack upon Representative Alvin O'Konski was less successful. In the 1950s Evjue achieved national prominence for his opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy, a hostility which predated national antipathy by several years.

Evjue undertook a number of taxpayers' suits against state appropriations which he considered ill-advised, and was once arrested for violating a law which he considered unconstitutional in order to bring the case to court. Other campaigns of state-wide scope included attacks upon the Ku Klux Klan and exposure of gambling and vice throughout the state.

In Madison where Evjue's personal style of journalism occasionally exhibited a tendency toward stridency, Evjue's campaigns advocated construction of a West Washington Street underpass, illumination of the Capitol dome, establishment of the Kiddie Camp, and construction of a civic auditorium.

Evjue gradually curtailed involvement with the Capital Times during the 1960s in order to devote himself to his autobiography, A Fighting Editor, published in 1968. He died April 23, 1970, at the age of 87.