A woman’s touch. That’s what Nina Mason Pulliam (1906 – 1997) brought to journalism when she became one of the first women admitted to Sigma Delta Chi, now the Society of Professional Journalists. SDX was founded at DePauw University by her husband and nine other students in 1909.
According to Frank E. Russell, Trustee Chairman of the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, Nina’s maternal instincts embraced Pulliam newspapers.
“Under her guidance, the Pulliam newspapers of Indianapolis and Phoenix always had a very active scholarship program for employees’ children, newspaper carriers and children in these communities,” he said.
Trust spokeswoman Lisa Shover, said Nina’s (which rhymes with mynah‘s) impact on the industry was felt when the Pulliam newspapers — Central Newspapers, Inc. — became the first newspaper organization in the country to have a pension program for employees. They also built employee recreation centers such as The Fourth Estate in Indianapolis and the Lazy R&G Ranch in Phoenix. The facilities featured pools, clubhouses and ball fields.
“Nina ignored other publishers who criticized them for giving away too much to employees,” Shover said.
In the 1950s, Shover’s father, Bill Shover, headed the community and corporate affairs department at The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News. In 1963, he transferred to The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette to serve as director of public affairs when Dan Quayle‘s father retired.
It became a philanthropic Tale of Two Cities when Nina died on March 26, 1997 of complications from a respiratory infection. She was 90 years old. The multi-millionairess had designated that all of her stock holdings be used to establish a trust to support the causes that she loved in both states — helping people in need, protecting animals and nature, and enriching community life.
The trust, which was set up to last 50 years, began making grants in 1998 to nonprofit organizations from offices in Indianapolis and Phoenix. By the end of 1999, the trust had assets of more than $411 million. According to Harriet Ivey, President and CEO of the Trust, a total of $114 million in grants has been awarded in Indiana and Arizona.
Nina’s life is like a Cinderella story. She was born on September 19, 1906 to Laura L. Mason and Benjamin Franklin Mason. She was one of seven children, six of them daughters. She romped in rural orchards south of Martinsville, Ind., that were tended by her Quaker father.
Though rich in love, the family had little material wealth. In high school, she was an honor student who loved Latin and basketball. Upon graduation, she studied journalism at Franklin College before leaving to attend Indiana University in Bloomington, and then the University of New Mexico. She supported herself as a stenographer after school and by working on a magazine, Farm Life, published in Spencer, Ind.
When Farm Life folded, she went to Oklahoma to work as a secretary for Eugene Collins Pulliam. Before the stock market crashed in 1929, Pulliam had bought — almost entirely on credit — seven daily newspapers in Oklahoma county seats.
Born in Ulysses, Kan., on May 3, 1889, Eugene C. Pulliam was the son of the Rev. Irvin Brown and Martha Ellen Collins Pulliam. The Pulliams were Methodist missionaries who had been sent to Kansas, which was then considered a frontier state. During his career, Pulliam spread words through the 46 newspapers he owned and operated. At one point, he owned 23 at the same time.
In 1912, Eugene Pulliam married Myrta Smith, whom he had met five years earlier when both were students at DePauw. The couple had one child, Eugene S. Pulliam, before Myrta died at age 30 in September 1917. Two years later, Pulliam married Martha Ott and had two daughters, Corrine and Suzanne. They later divorced and he married Nina in 1941.
Three years later, he purchased The Indianapolis Star and The Muncie Star. In 1946, he bought The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette. And in 1948, he purchased The Indianapolis News.
The vivacious Nina was the founding secretary-treasurer and director of CNI. She was known as an astute business partner, who could instantly spot any weakness in a profit-and-loss statement. Her step-grandson, Russ Pulliam, was editorial page editor for The Indianapolis News. Director of the Pulliam Fellowship since 1992, he is now an editorial writer for The Indianapolis Star.
“I called her ‘Nina,” he recalls. “She was known primarily for her work on the business side of the newspaper. But she was a good reporter and writer and demonstrated those qualities in worldwide travel with my grandfather after World War II. They traveled to many countries and were trying to understand how the world had changed after the war. They both came away convinced of the importance of freedom as the unique contribution of the United States at this point in the history of the world.”
In 1954, Theta Sigma Phi professional journalism sorority, predecessor of Women in Communications Inc., presented her with its “Headliner of the Year” award. She was also a lifelong member of Woman’s Press Club of Indiana, which is an affiliate of The National Federation of Press Women.
She established the Central Newspapers Foundation in 1953 and became known as a compassionate civic leader. When her husband of 34 years died in 1975 at age 86, she became president of CNI. Retaining an apartment in downtown Indianapolis, she moved to her Paradise Valley home in Phoenix, where she served as publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette until stepping down in 1978.
Her niece and longtime companion, Carol Peden Schatt, lovingly recalls, “Nina was brilliant, beautiful, energetic and had a great sense of adventure. She smoked, drank Scotch whiskey, and wore red nail polish. In later years, she quit smoking and switched to white wine but she kept wearing the red nail polish for many more years.”
Pulliam didn’t live like she had $441 million in the bank, according to Ivey.
“She didn’t live in a mansion in Phoenix,” says Ivey. “It was just a lovely old adobe home with quite a bit of land and a beautiful cactus garden. She cultivated it with the types of plants that desert animals would like. She had a housekeeper and a gentleman who drove her places and cared for the garden.”
Because the desert surrounded Pulliam’s house, she provided water for wildlife. “She kept a faucet at a constant drip so that wild animals could find water to drink,” says Schatt. “Owls, foxes, and coyotes came to her house to find safety, space, water and food. Her yard was famous for the generations of elf owls that returned year after year to nest in the same saguaro cactus to raise their families.”
Her love of wildlife benefited the initial contribution, support and establishment of the zoos in Phoenix and Indianapolis.
“The trust tries to balance grants between Arizona and Indiana,” Ivey says, “because Mrs. Pulliam loved both states and because the business in which they prospered was in both places.”
The balance is evidenced by the 2001 grant of $1 million to the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, to build part of the Greenway Trail System, which provides a new view from the canyon’s South Rim to all visitors, including those with disabilities.