Elmer Wilson Lower liked to say he was born in a voting booth. The sentiment was not too far from the truth, as his family schooled him in American politics at the kitchen table from the time he was a young child. Lower, who died early Tuesday in Vero Beach, Florida at age 98, was the son of an alderman; his uncle was a county sheriff and two-term state senator. Such an education would serve Mr. Lower during a career that would take him around the world and to the highest levels of American journalism.
Lower was born March 7, 1913 in Kansas City, Missouri. When he was five years old, Lower’s father died, leaving the family without financial support but with some important community connections. Political friends afforded Lower’s mother a job at a Kansas City hospital, while Lower’s elder brother, Louis turned to the local Masonic lodge of which his father had been a member. Louis made such a favorable impression that Frank Land, a lodge member, decided to start a Mason-sponsored youth group. The result was the Order of DeMolay, of which Louis was the first member. The group provided significant guidance for both Lowers brothers, including encouraging the younger Lower to pursue a career in journalism. The DeMolay later became an international organization and, in 1988, inducted Elmer Lower into its Hall of Fame.
Lower attended the University of Missouri at Columbia from 1930 until 1933, where he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and learned newspapering by reporting, editing, and typesetting the Missourian and stringing for the United Press. He had hoped to work for the U.P. upon graduation, but the wire service had instituted a hiring freeze to cope with the severe economic realities of the depression. Instead, Lower took a series of newspapering jobs – first editing a weekly in Trenton, Missouri, then reporting for theLouisville Herald-Post and the Flint (Michigan) Journal before finally landing a position at the United Press in late 1934. After briefly working out of the Kansas City bureau, Lower was sent to run the one-man UP bureau in Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City. The United Press promoted Lower to chief of its Cleveland bureau before sending him to Washington to work on as an editor on the copy desk. In 1937, Lower left the United Press to be a photo editor in Cleveland for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) and later, for NEA subsidiary Acme Newspictures in New York City. In late 1939, Lower took a job on the Chicago photo desk for the Associated Press, then joined the war effort in 1942 by serving as a photo editor in Cairo, Egypt for the Office of War Information where he worked with photographers like Slim Aarons of Yank.
After distributing photos of the D-Day invasion, Lower accepted an offer to be a picture editor and Paris bureau chief for Life magazine. In Paris, Lower edited photos taken by photographers Robert Capa, David Scherman, Ralph Morse, and others. The magazine moved Lower to Los Angeles in 1947 to lead its bureau there, then to Bankok two years later. After managing Life’s Far East Bureau for a year, Lower turned to government service, first working for the U.S. Office of Housing Expeditor in Washington, then the United States High Commission in Germany, where as Deputy Director of Information, he worked to re-establish a free press in post-war Germany.
Lower made a significant career change in 1953, one through which he would gain considerable prominence. Television networks in the United States were beginning to build news operations and Lower’s wire service and photo editing experience made him an attractive candidate for a time in which the networks were still unsure what shape television newscasts would take. CBS hired Lower as its Washington Bureau Chief in 1953, before bringing him to New York the following year to be manager of television news and public affairs, then director of special events. In addition to organizing clinics to train television personnel, Lower was instrumental in putting a full season of the National Football League on network television for the first time. Other projects included televising the Master’s golf tournament and organizing election coverage. During this time, Lower studied television news’ use of computers for tabulating election results, which later helped him earn a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University.
Mr. Lower moved to NBC in 1959, where he followed a career path similar to the one he had taken at CBS: He started as the network’s Washington bureau chief, then moved to New York to serve as the news director and general manager for NBC News. In 1963, he was recruited to be the president of ABC News. Although he had not sought to leave NBC, he accepted ABC’s offer because he felt ready to lead a network television news division. Shortly after Lower’s arrival, ABC News – already regarded so bad that some joked its name stood for the ‘Almost Broadcasting Company’ – was tested with the task of covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Over the next decade, Lower aggressively expanded ABC’s news division, increasing its staff from 250 to 750. In addition, he drastically expanded its budget, increased the number of its foreign bureaus, hired young talent such as Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson, and poured resources into election coverage. ABC’s increased efforts during the 1964 election campaign were noticed by its competitors, which agreed to join with ABC in forming the News Election Service, a consortium to share election results. ABC’s nightly newscast was expanded from 15 to 30 minutes in 1967. By 1971, ABC News had begun to hit its stride. With an additional 41 affiliates carrying the evening newscast, the network increased its ratings, significantly narrowing the gap between it and CBS and NBC. Lower’s unflinching leadership of ABC’s coverage of the presidency of Richard Nixon was rewarded with repeated income tax audits and the moniker of one of the administration’s hated “media elites.”
In September 1974, Lower left ABC’s news for the boardroom, becoming a corporate vice president for the network. He retired from ABC in 1978 to pursue a career in academia. In addition to serving as acting dean of his alma mater, the Missouri School of Journalism, he also taught at Brigham Young University, Columbia University, James Madison University, Ohio University, San Diego State University, Syracuse University, and the University of Kansas. Because he taught at so many schools, Lower earned the nickname “Professor Hopscotch.” In 1999, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication named Mr. Lower as its Distinguished Broadcast Journalism Educator, the organization’s highest honor for faculty teaching broadcast journalism. Lower’s work also won plaudits from universities and journalism organizations. The University of Missouri conferred its Distinguished Service Award on Lower in 1959, a doctorate of humane letters in 1975, and its distinguished faculty service award in 1997. Emerson College conferred on Lower an honorary doctorate of laws in 1974. Lower received an Emmy Award in 1970 and again in 1975. The Associated Press awarded Lower with the Robert Eunson Award in 1978, for distinguished service to broadcast journalism. In 1983, the Society of Professional Journalists named Lower a Fellow for “distinguished achievements to journalism,” and the Radio-Television News Directors Association bestowed on Mr. Lower its highest individual honor, the Paul White Award in 1975.
He is survived by two sons, Louis and John, two grandchildren and five great grandchildren. His wife, Gilberte Stengel, whom he married on June 9, 1938, died in 1981. A second marriage to Margaret Kessler ended in separation.
Lower will be interred in Kansas City. The Lower family will hold private services. Plans for a public memorial service are pending.