(October 18, 1924 — December 9, 2013)
To those who knew him, William “Wild Bill” Kunerth is remembered as a loving family man, devoted friend and demanding mentor. He’s also remembered as a thorn in the side of Iowa State University administrators and state officials.
Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1924 he grew up with a father who was a “great newspaper reader,” something that inspired his own love of journalism at a young age. In elementary school, he wrote an essay about famous newspaper columnist O.O. “Odd” McIntire and began writing for his high school newspaper.
He graduated from Belle Fourche High School in 1942 and worked as an 18-year-old editorial assistant for Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star newspaper and an advertising assistant on the Washington, D.C. Daily News.
In 1943, he joined the Army and worked as a reporter for the Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, newspaper. Later, the Army sent him to Virginia Tech to study engineering under the Army Specialized Training Program. When the Allies began planning for the Normandy Invasion, he was reassigned to Camp Claiborne in Louisiana to train as an infantryman.
Camp Claiborne, which Kunerth described as “beastly” in the summer, was a place he and his fellow recruits hated with a passion. “Everybody was happy to go to Europe just to leave Camp Claiborne,” he laughed.
He was assigned to the 84th Infantry Division and shipped out to Southhampton, England, and, later, landed at Omaha Beach four months after D-Day. Barely 19 years old, he was sent to the Siegfried Lines on the German border in December 1944 and was shot in the leg. During his military service, he received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge.
After recovering from his wound, Kunerth became co-editor for a camp newspaper in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and, after leaving the military in 1946, returned to Belle Fourche to work at The Daily Post.
In 1950, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wyoming and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1952. He worked for community daily and weekly newspapers in Torrington, Laramie and Sundance, Wyoming, Winnetka, Illinois, and Ames, Iowa.
He taught journalism at South Dakota State University for three years before arriving at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in 1957. He taught investigative reporting and editing courses and conducted research to assist journalists in their coverage of public affairs news for 31 years.
During his career at Iowa State, he received several awards and honors including the first annual Rod Fox Award for Innovative Teaching (1980) and the Distinguished Service Award of the Iowa Newspaper Association (1987), an award given to long-time journalists for their contributions to the newspaper profession and their communities. He also received an Iowa Freedom of Information Committee award for defense of the First Amendment. One of his students, Tom Knudsen, won two Pulitzer prizes.
He also participated in honorary and professional organizations including Sigma Delta Chi professional journalism society, honorary president, Des Moines chapter from 1973-1974 and Association for Education in Journalism.
But Kunerth’s passion for speaking truth to power didn’t end with newsprint and ink. He challenged ISU administrators and state officials alike over Iowa open meetings and records laws, and waged a vigorous but unsuccessful fight against selling the university’s WOI-TV.
Kunerth retired in 1988 and lived in Ames until 2004 when he moved back to Belle Fourche to be at his ranch fulltime. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, former students reached out to him in phone calls, cards and emails.
One alumna shared a reply she received from him: “As I’ve said many times,” he wrote her, “students like you made teaching a pleasure and gratifying to look back on. As to my situation, it must be put in perspective: 89 years, 65 with a jewel of a wife, 30 years teaching in a golden era of higher education with a collegial faculty and challenging students like you, a loving family, being owner of a nice little ranch. And having fun popping the balloons of pompous power houses. Hard to beat!”
Kunerth died on Dec. 9, 2013. Five months later, Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism posthumously awarded him the Champion of the First Amendment Award and, in a surprise move, the highly distinguished James W. Schwartz Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Communication.
In making the presentations to his wife, Wilma, Greenlee Director Michael Bugeja said, “The First Amendment Award honors Bill’s values. The Schwartz Award honors his contributions to journalism education, and our collective gratitude.”
The Des Moines Register – Dec. 11, 2013.
Kline Funeral Chapel Obituary: http://www.klinefuneralchapel.com/obituary/2346705
Rapid City Journal, Aug. 31, 2013. http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/communities/belle_fourche/journalist-bill-kunerth-was-wounded-in-action/article_07d5a666-0fbb-5818-a40b-d54bc4805f65.html
William F. Kunerth Papers, RS 13/13/54, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.
Iowa State University News Service