Alfred Wilson Lee

aw lee
Lee Enterprises is named for A.W. (Alfred Wilson) Lee, an ambitious young man who entered the University of Iowa at the age of 13 and who took his first newspaper job at the Muscatine Journal around 1880. The paper already had a proud heritage, tracing its history to 1840 and being able to boast of briefly employing in 1854 Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, whose brother, Orion, was a part owner for a time.

For A.W. Lee, Muscatine was a family affair — as was to become a running theme in Lee history. Lee’s father, John, was head bookkeeper at the Muscatine Journal. The owner and publisher, John Mahin, was married to A.W. Lee’s sister, Anna. Mahin was A.W. Lee’s first tutor and the young man learned quickly, succeeding his father as head bookkeeper before moving for a job at the Chicago Times. In 1890, he decided to become a publisher for himself, working with local investors in taking charge of one of three daily papers in Ottumwa, Iowa. The Courier’s daily circulation of 575 grew to 3,709 by 1900.

Lee had a formula that worked — one based on strong finances and independence. While most newspapers of the time were beholden to a local bank or financial group with a political and economic agenda, Lee was convinced no newspaper could be good unless it was independent and self-sustaining. According to a 1947 Lee history called “The Lee Papers,” A.W. Lee believed the paper must be maintained in a position where, if necessary, it “could look any man or corporation or institution in the face and tell that man or corporation or institution to go to hell.”

It was an unsettled time for journalism. While some publishers like William Randolph Hearst were flourishing by sensationalizing stories, others like William Allen White put more attention on community pride and public service. Lee sided more with the latter. He reportedly told his editors and reporters: “You can have the freedom to publish accounts of almost anything under the sun, as long as it is news, is reported fairly and objectively, and can be fully supported by facts that you have compiled before you even set pen to paper.”

In 1896, A.W. Lee recorded a book of favorite quotations and inscribed it with these words:

My Purpose
To be a true and brave man.
To develop and exercise to the utmost my natural abilities.
To publish the best newspaper that can be successfully produced
in a similar field.
To obtain as much knowledge as it is possible for me to acquire.
To be a success and do as much good in the world as I can.

Lee conceived the idea for a group of newspapers, each controlled by his family and associates, but each with local ownership, each an independent corporation — and each as local “as the city hall or the town pump.”

In 1899, he and a group of associates acquired controlling interest in The Davenport Times, then the weakest of about 10 papers in what would become known as the Quad-Cities. In 1903, he purchased the Muscatine Journal from the family of his brother-in-law. And in 1907, he and his associates bought the La Crosse Tribune in Wisconsin and the Hannibal Courier-Post in Missouri

The Lee Syndicate as it was known was well underway when Lee and his wife sailed for England in May 1907. One of his last acts before leaving was to send his nephew, Lee P. Loomis, who had been city editor in Ottumwa, to become managing editor in Muscatine, setting him on a career course that would take him to the top of the company.

Shortly after the trip began, Lee developed heart trouble and died July 15 at the age of 49. In his final hours, he advised his wife to hand control of the papers to E.P. (Emanuel Philip) Adler and another associate, James F. Powell, who began his career as a printer in Ottumwa.

Source: Lee Enterprises, The History of Lee, Lee newspaper legacy reaches back to 1890.