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Soth, Lauren

Published onJul 30, 2021
Soth, Lauren

(October 2, 1910 – February 9, 1998)

Quick Facts

1956 Pulitzer Prize winner and agricultural journalist.

Lauren Soth wrote in the February 10, 1955, Des Moines Register's lead editorial,

"We hereby extend an invitation to any delegation Khrushchev wants to select to come to Iowa to get the lowdown on raising high quality cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens. We promise to hide none of our 'secrets.'... We ask nothing in return."

By August a Soviet delegation was visiting Iowa, and later Soth was the lone journalist in an American delegation's 9,000-mile tour of Russia. Soth's words had not only begun a thaw in the Cold War but also won him the 1956 Pulitzer Prize.

Soth was the son of Michael Ray Soth and Virginia Mabel (Kephart) Soth. Born in Sibley, Iowa, he grew up in a succession of small Iowa towns–Alton, Marathon, Wyoming, and Holstein–where his father was school superintendent. Work as a printer's devil and sports reporter in his father's journalism sideline, particularly at the Holstein Advance, planted vocational seeds, and jobs with local farmer instilled a love of agriculture.

In 1927 he enrolled at Iowa State College, where a professor's suggestion that he study agricultural journalism began shaping his career. Iowa State granted him a BS in journalism in 1932 and an MS in agricultural economics in 1938, and he would receive an honorary degree from Grinnell College in 1990.

Bachelor's degree in hand, Soth began teaching journalism at his alma mater in 1933. At term's end, on June 15, 1934, he married Marcella Shaw Van, and they subsequently reared three children: John Michael, Sara Kathryn (Hoogenakker), and Melinda (Fribley). Soth's career at Iowa State continued until 1947 as he worked through the ranks of graduate assistant, instructor (1933), assistant professor (1934), and associate professor (1938). Economics was added to his teaching load, and he was in charge of economic publications for the university from 1934 to 1942.

During the 1936-1937 academic year, Soth took leave to edit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's publication, Agricultural Situation, and in 1942 he was a principal agricultural economics consultant for the Office of Price Administration. A stint with the U.S. Army (1942-1946) took him from field artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Okinawa, where 45 days of fierce fighting on the front won him the rank of major. While with the occupation army in Korea, he negotiated with Russians to get coal for Korean soybean mills and found them "very stubborn."

In 1947 Soth was hired to write editorials for the Des Moines Register and Des Moines Tribune. His candid, tightly reasoned essays, disdain for intellectual laziness, integrity, and calm approach soon elevated him to assistant editor (1951), then editor (1954) of the editorial pages. Upon retiring in 1975, he reduced his workload to a regular Saturday column for another 18 years.

"To make people think" rather than please them was Soth's key editorial purpose. Although the soft-spoken editor believed firmly that the news and editorial departments must be separate operations, he saw editorial writing as "adding some depth and understanding to the news."

In the 1950s his appeals to end housing segregation and to improve U.S.-Soviet relations brought him abusive mail and phone calls. Undaunted, he traveled through Europe, the Far East, the Near East, Southeast Asia, and the Soviet Union producing dispatches designed to promote peace and understanding as well as long series on topics such as the Common Market, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He digested treatises and reports on economics, agriculture, and foreign affairs that informed his professional writing. His Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial was conceived while brooding over the "paralysis in diplomacy" as he read in the London Economist that Khrushchev desired to increase Soviet agricultural production and emulate American agricultural methods. Although that editorial remained his favorite, he thought his best writing was on agricultural policy.

Food policy and the role of small Iowa producers topped Soth's diverse concerns. A champion of family farms, he urged more investment in rural development to preserve the virtues of rural society and slow the drive toward industrialized farming. He advocated conservation measures as the basis of agricultural policy. Fearful that food processing was concentrated in giant corporations and skeptical of subsidies for corn-based ethanol, he was often at odds with various secretaries of agriculture and entities such as Archer Daniels Midland and the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

In addition to thousands of editorials and numerous journal articles and special reports, Soth penned four major books: Farm Trouble (1957), An Embarrassment of Plenty (1965), Agriculture in an Industrial Society (1966), and The Farm Policy Game, Play by Play (1989). His special reports included an "Agricultural Basebook of Iowa" for the State Experiment Station (1936), "Farm Policy for the Sixties" for the National Planning Association (1961), and a series of planning pamphlets titled "How Farm People Learn New Methods."

His editorial work was amplified by organizational activities. Chief among the organizations for which he worked were the National Planning Association, the National Council on Foreign Relations, and ReSources: For the Future. He served on President Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber, the Congressional Food Advisory Committee of the Office of Technology Assessment, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economics Research Advisory Committee.

Soth received numerous awards, but when he died of cancer in Des Moines in 1998, the Register rightly remembered him simply as "an editor, and more."

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

Soth's papers are at the University Archives, Iowa State University, Ames.

See also Who Was Who in America with World Notables, vol. 12 (1996–1998); Who's Who in America (1966–1977)

Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, Iowans Who Made a Difference (1996)

Hundreds of microfilm and scrapbook clippings from the Des Moines Register and Des Moines Tribune at the Des Moines Public Library.

Particularly helpful for this essay were Herbert D. Kelly, "Soth Is Well Informed on Pulitzer Prize Winning Subject," Des Moines Register, 5/3/1956; James Flansburg, "Soth Retires from R & T," Des Moines Register, 10/12/75; and Lillian McLaughlin, "Editor Sees Retirement as Just a Job Change," Des Moines Tribune, 10/13/75.

Wadsley, Virginia. "Soth, Lauren Kephart" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 9 June 2017

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