There must come a time when every successful man, before he becomes successful, discovers for the first time the direction he is headed. For Julius Gius, it most likely was a July day in 1935, as he walked the streets of a town he had just walked into at the age of 23. His assignment: Start a newspaper from scratch to compete against an established daily in the town of Bremerton, Wash.
Gius recalled in his memoirs: “It was a test of men and methods such as I never expected to experience in all my life, yet here I was in my early 20s matching skills and wits against an entrenched, well-heeled, mature publisher in this Navy Yard of 12,000 on Puget Sound. I remember that one day as we passed on the street he thumbed his nose at me, an upstart in town, and I knew then that the competition had him worried. His worries were well founded; 10 years later, his paper sold out to ours.”
By 1960, Gius had accomplished all he ever could have hoped in Bremerton. He had built a successful and profitable newspaper from the ground up and had become so widely admired in the community that when the district’s seat in Congress became vacant, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson beseeched him to run. Few doubted he would have won, but Gius had another challenge in mind.
He moved to California and started all over again.
In Ventura, Calif., the challenge was not as daunting as the one he had taken on at age 23. The Ventura County Star-Free Press was already established as the dominant newspaper in Ventura and extending its reach to the rest of the county. Julius took it from there, continuing to build The Star-Free Press and also, as editorial director for the San Diego-based John P. Scripps Newspapers group, taking over a failing weekly in Thousand Oaks and building it to a 25,000-circulation daily by the time of his retirement in 1987 at age 75.
Before Gius had retired, the late John Paul Scripps, his publisher and mentor for nearly 50 years, had merged his newspapers with Scripps Howard, the newspaper group founded by Scripps’ grandfather, E.W. Scripps. And by the time of Gius’ death in October 1996, the E.W. Scripps Co., reacting to an aggressive move into Ventura County by the Los Angeles Times, had joined the Ventura and Thousand Oaks papers to form the nucleus of the Ventura County Star, an emerging metropolitan daily with 100,000 subscribers.
Upon Gius’ death on Oct. 18, 1996, Paul Scripps, chairman of John P. Scripps Newspapers, reflected on Gius’ contributions to journalism.
“Julius was an editor in the finest sense of the term: courageous, deeply committed to the newspapers and communities he served and stirringly eloquent — both in print and in person,” Scripps wrote. “To him, journalism was more than a profession for which he happened to have an instinctive affinity and particular talent; it was a calling, a calling entailing profound personal responsibilities — which he heeded, and served, with remarkable distinction, from the beginning of his career in 1929 to his retirement in 1987 — and beyond.”
Gius’ newsroom in Ventura became a training ground for California journalists — among others, Bob Edkin, editor of the Redding Record Searchlight; George DeBord and Jeff Fairbanks, former editors of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune; and Marv Sosna, former editor of the Thousand Oaks News Chronicle. In later years, young reporters out of college, who were first attracted to and then nurtured by the atmosphere of excellence Gius created, used the Star-Free Press as a professional springboard. Among them — former Associated Press White House Correspondent Rita Beamish and Los Angeles Times columnists George Skelton and Robin Abcarian.
Of Gius’ guiding hand, former Sun editor Gene Gisley wrote: “His criticism was generally constructive and, even in times when I might have disagreed with him, I usually came to realize in the end he was right.”
But more than an editor, Julius Gius was foremost a gentleman admired for his special grace, good humor and dignity. Ventura County Star Editor Tim Gallagher visited Julius the night before he died. “I went to his hospital room,” Gallagher wrote. “He knew who I was, but he was clearly fading. The nurse came in to give him another injection. ‘Bea,’ he grabbed her hand. ‘This young fellow here is a wonderful writer.’ In his final hours, Julius Gius was ever the gentleman.”
By virtue of his position at the newspaper, he would have been a community leader in any circumstance. But he was more than that — a man universally loved in the community because of his compassion for and endless curiosity about the people whose community life he chronicled.
In his final “Editor’s Notebook” column — he wrote 1,092 of them in his 27 years as editor in Ventura — he had this to say of his readers: “You have been thoughtful, concerned, critical, praiseworthy, cooperative, helpful and kind. You have jabbed us in the ribs when we had it coming, and I hope you’ll always react that way. After all, it’s your newspaper, we are merely its custodians ...”
That was always his way: modest, thoughtful and appreciative.
On the evening following his death, Star Editorial Page Editor Timm Herdt spoke to a gathering of about 80 clergy and laypeople at a dinner meeting of the Ventura County Council of Churches. At the end of the evening, Herdt reports, more than half the people in the room came forward to tell a story about Julius Gius — not of a column he had written or some other journalistic feat, but of a personal kindness he had extended them.
Before fate took him where fate knew he belonged, Gius, one of eight children of immigrant parents, had been studying to become a teacher while writing sports as a young man in Tacoma. He never attained a college degree, but he was a learned, self-taught man who read incessantly and who took keen interest in foreign affairs, music, sports, politics. His counsel to would-be news reporters and to anyone else who would listen was straightforward: “Read, read, read ... histories, novels, biographies, periodicals of all kinds, and above all newspapers.”
His own interests and horizons took him well beyond the realm of a small-town editor. He traveled the campaign trail with Harry Truman, dined at the White House with John Kennedy, traveled to China with Gerald Ford and to the Middle East with Jimmy Carter. In 1986, he was one of a dozen representatives of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to visit the Soviet Union and the Kremlin during those days of glasnost that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Gius often marveled that his career had spanned “the most remarkable epoch in human history.” From his typewriter, he said, had been formed a half-century of headlines, from the Depression years, the New Deal, World War II, the first atomic bomb, the birth of the United Nations, the Cold War, the Kennedy assassinations, the struggle for civil rights, the moonwalks, Vietnam and Watergate.
Gius witnessed and reported on all this, but his capacity for wonder was never diminished by it — with him, the stereotypical cynicism of the gruff newsman never did set in. On the evening of July 20, 1969, he wrote of having watched Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon. Gius recounted that he put up the flag on his front porch, and then: “When darkness fell, I went outside and looked through the overcast to the moon. It seemed the same, but I knew that for the first time since Creation it wasn’t.”
He loved music and, although he was instrumental in the founding of the Ventura County Symphony Association, his most fervent love was of the Broadway musical. “I relish the hundreds of songs that musical comedy has given us through the years,” he wrote in 1982. “I don’t know how we can ever square debt with Richard Rodgers, Larry Hart and Oscar Hammerstein ...
It was a love he literally took to his grave. As mourners left his funeral they walked with an unavoidable bounce in their step — at Gius’ request, the pianist was playing “Hello, Dolly!”
If music was a passion, newspapering was his devotion. He never lost his thrill for the big story, his insistence for accuracy, his joy for a phrase well-turned, a headline precisely expressed. In later years, after technology had overtaken his newsroom, and the only paste pot and manual typewriter remaining were his own, he would still punch out a story now and again, ripping it apart, gluing it together and liberally marking it up with a black felt pen — producing copy that somehow seemed more exotic than arcane to those youngsters left with the task of inputting it to the computer.
He had a craftsman’s respect for the use of language, and was perplexed that such respect did not seem universally shared. “Written communication is never going to go out of style,” he wrote in 1980. “This may be a television age, and print skills are suffering to some degree, but spelling and writing will never become archaic disciplines. And students who fail to develop these skills will be sharply limiting their field of learning and future opportunity.”
Having become an editor at 23, he hadn’t yet attained much experience at the craft of newswriting; his reportorial assignments had been limited. But he had a natural style, an elegant blend of folksiness and sophistication; one of his role models was Will Rogers, whom he’d interviewed as a young reporter. Gius recounted that he had been so awed by Rogers’ presence that he “forgot to ask the right questions.”
Gius revealed his writing style in his “Introductory,” a front-page editorial written for Vol. I, No. 1 of the Bremerton Sun:
“Born — the 15th day of July in the year 1935 — one newspaper.
“Its name — The Bremerton Sun.
“It doesn’t quite weigh five pounds.
“But its constitution seems healthy. It has a keen pair of eyes, a square chin — and vigorous lungs.
“You will hear it.”
That theme of newspapering — to be watchful, fearless and never muffled — was one he carried out through almost 60 years as an editor. He was never a crusader in the Joseph Pulitzer tradition, but neither did he shy from pursuing the news wherever it led or from defending the First Amendment.
In 1970, after California Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke had opined that in those days of student unrest the media ought to agree to a news blackout whenever campus officials declared a state of emergency, Gius was appalled. “It is frightening to me,” he wrote, “that such a procedure, designed to contravene the American public’s basic right to know, should be made by this state’s No. 2 public official (and, inferentially, later endorsed by Gov. Reagan himself)...
“The troubled pages of this country’s history are written dark with the death of liberty in those nations where the first fatal symptom of political decay was control of the news.”
As a newsman, he was guided by a boundless curiosity and fascination with people and current events. Even in retirement, he papered the desks of Star-Free Press editors with news clippings that had caught his eye and story ideas he had picked up either about town or while engaging in one of his favorite retirement pursuits — spending a day at the courthouse observing trials.
He knew what a newspaper should be, and considered his editor’s trust close to sacred. Gius reflected in his farewell column: “The very nature of a newspaper places upon its people the obligation to be diligent in the pursuit of news, fair in its presentation, enterprising in the development of information; and vigilant in protecting the integrity of the government that serves us all. I like to think the Star-Free Press has fulfilled that primary role while also not neglecting the community service functions to which we all owe support.”
Gius steadfastly refused to allow anyone to make a fuss over his contributions. He did consent to one retirement testimonial, but only because it was a benefit for a nonprofit agency that provided services to abused and neglected children — an agency he had helped establish and on whose board he long served. In a letter to the event organizers, Gius wrote, “I really do not have a very impressive public service record. ... My position has afforded me considerable visibility in community affairs, but my contributions probably have been less than they seem.”
That statement, the Ventura County Star editorialized in a memorial piece following his death, “may have been the only piece of balderdash he ever wrote.”
In truth, Gius’ presence was felt in scores of community endeavors. When the Boys & Girls Club needed a new clubhouse, it was Julius who found the donors. When the Salvation Army’s winter relief program was threatened by a shopping center lockout of its good Samaritans, it was Julius who launched a successful “Bellringer” feature in the pages of the Star-Free Press, a program that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years and continues today. When Juvenile Court Judge Joe Haden saw a desperate need for a facility to take in children from abusive homes, it was Julius he turned to for help; the right people were rounded up, and Casa Pacifica opened in 1993. The list runs on, but there was no issue that more profoundly distinguished him than his singular crusade to bring public higher education to Ventura County.
Were it not for Gius’ support, a storefront “Learning Center” would never have evolved to a branch campus of California State University, Northridge — a campus whose continual enrollment growth finally led CSU trustees to move toward the establishment of the university’s 23rd campus in Ventura County, which opened in September 1999.
For this crusade he was remembered, and he took exceptional pride in that. In the introduction to his memoirs, he wrote: “I am humbled by the many honors that have been paid me, represented by the plaques that cover a wall of my study. I prize them all, but there is one of special stature: A certificate conferring an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University Center at Ventura on June 5, 1988. It is the first and only honorary degree granted by this affiliate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the California State University, Northridge — and the only degree I hold.”
Explained Joyce Kennedy, director of the University Center: “I referred to him as Cincinnatus, a great man brought out of retirement to help solve continuing social problems.”
Julius Gius was born New Year’s Eve — Dec. 31, 1911 — to immigrant parents. His father was born in the Austrian village of Molosco, now part of Italy. Guilio Gius came to the new world through Ellis Island, where a clerk promptly Americanized the family name. “It’s ‘juice’... G-I-US,” reported Guilio. “That’s not ‘juice,’ that’s GUY-US,” the clerk responded. And so it became.
Ellis Island was the first step of a transcontinental journey that took Guilio Gius to Alaska to seek gold in the Klondike. At the mining camp was a Finnish cook named Mary Sarja; she would become Mrs. Gius.
Julius’ father, who had a fourth-grade education, was himself self-educated. The father’s devotion to education was to become his sons’ weekly chore. Though he could not write English, Guilio Gius in the 1920s was elected clerk of the Fife District school board in Washington’s Puyallup Valley. “And so it was,” recalled Julius, “that he would attend the meetings and, next evening, recite in careful detail from memory the account that either (my brother) John or I would enter in the minute book. After a few weeks he bought an old used Woodstock typewriter and arranged for a neighbor to show us how to operate it. The hunt and peck typing system, to which I was thus introduced, has served me ever since.”
Shaped by these roots. Editor Gius was an unashamed patriot, intensely proud of the immigrant dreams the United States inspired and the spirit of those who acted on the dream. He also knew that the key to carrying on those dreams for immigrant offspring was education. These were the things that gave America its soul, he believed, and woe to the assignment editor who failed to send a reporter and photographer to a ceremony swearing in new citizens, or to a graduation of any sort.
As strong and dear as were his roots, it was difficult for Gius to leave his beloved Washington to come to California — abandoning comfort, friends and stature, and uprooting his wife, Gail, and two children.
But over time Ventura County became as dear to him as the Puyallup Valley. He wrote often of his love for the splendor of the beautiful Ojai Valley, of the orange blossoms that perfumed the Santa Clara Valley, and he became as protective of Ventura’s historic charms as any old-timer.
In that regard, he kept faith with the pledge of founding Editor Roy Pinkerton, who declared in the first edition of The Star that the newspaper “will work wholeheartedly for the material upbuilding of the community, (but) a happy, healthful, pleasant Ventura is the first consideration.”
Julius did his share of business boosterism, but he was true to Pinkerton’s promise. He wrote in 1983, “Ventura is not so hungry for industry that all bars are coming down. It is going to be selective. ... Expanded employment opportunities for our people are important to the future stability of our area, but so is the quality of life.”
It was a quality of life much enhanced by Julius’ contributions, and no story illustrates his influence as well as his intercession that ended a years-long “Charity War” between the United Way of Ventura County and a group called A.I.D.
In 1978, Gius spoke to the groups and recited a parable he had learned in his youth:
“In the Palouse country of Washington State, it happened one day that a little girl of 3 strayed from her home into the wheat fields. She was soon out of sight, because the golden wheat was taller than she.
“Her alarmed parents summoned their distant neighbors to join in the search, which they did willingly, dashing off this way and that through the fields, cutting their diverse paths through the wheat — all without result until night fell.
“The next morning searchers assembled again and one had an inspiration. ‘Let us,’ he said, ‘form a human comb by joining hands. Then we will sweep through the fields, one field after another, until we find her.’
“And they did — unfortunately it was too late. She was dead from exposure to the cold of night. When the father reached the scene he lifted his daughter into his arms and, looking heavenward, said, ‘Dear God, why didn’t we have the good sense to join hands before?’”
Inspired by such wisdom, by the end of 1978 the two charities had joined hands.
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*