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Vance Trimble, who won Pulitzer Prize by exposing congressional corruption, dies at 107

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/20/2021 Matt Schudel

Vance H. Trimble, a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for exposing rampant nepotism, hidden payrolls and financial self-dealing among members of Congress, died June 16 at his home in Wewoka, Okla. He was 107.

The death was confirmed by the Stout-Phillips Funeral Home in Wewoka. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr. Trimble began his career as a cub reporter in the 1920s and was still publishing books in the 21st century. He was 77 when in 1990 he wrote a best-selling biography of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.

When Mr. Trimble won his Pulitzer Prize, he was a news editor in the Washington bureau of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, working from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. He had previously been the managing editor of the Houston Press, then a fast-growing metropolitan daily in a booming city with more than its share of crime and natural disasters.

“I grew a little restless by my desk job,” Mr. Trimble later said. “In Houston, I was under deadline pressure, working fast. My new job seemed too slow. So in my spare time, I began roaming Capitol Hill.”

One thing he noticed was that members of Congress were not required to disclose who appeared on their payrolls or how much they were paid. In January 1959, Mr. Trimble published the first in a series of articles for the Scripps-Howard news service, detailing that “at least one of every five lawmakers has some kinfolk on his staff.”

He revealed that Rep. Steven V. Carter (D-Iowa) was paying his 19-year-old son, a part-time college student, $11,873 a year — the equivalent of $107,000 today — as a member of his public relations staff. After outrage among his constituents, Carter reduced his son’s salary to $6,400.

Mr. Trimble found that Rep. Randall S. Harmon (D-Ind.) was paying his wife a secretarial salary and was being reimbursed $100 each month for renting office space, which turned out to be his front porch. (His monthly mortgage payment totaled $54.40.)

“So what?” Harmon complained to Time magazine. “It’s nobody’s business.”

While brandishing a gun, Harmon reportedly said, “I figure on throwing the fear of God into that Vance Trimble.”

A picture of Mr. Trimble appeared on a bulletin board in a House office building, with the note: “Beware of this man — he’s dangerous.”

After Mr. Trimble showed that Rep. Iris F. Blitch (D-Ga.) was collecting money for an office at her home in Georgia, Blitch spent more than an hour railing against him on the House floor for what she called “slanted, discreditable” reporting.

“I am truly sorry that anything I wrote offended her,” Mr. Trimble said at the time. “It was fair and accurate.”

Mr. Trimble filed suit to have congressional payroll records made public, saying, “The people have a right to know how Congress spends their tax money.”

His lawsuit against the Senate was dismissed by a judge, but the Senate later voted to release its office expenditures. The revelations sparked public outcry over the secretive, self-serving ways of Congress. The old Washington Daily News, a Scripps-Howard newspaper, trumpeted in a headline, “A Victory for the Taxpayers and Vance Trimble.”

As a result of his investigations, Mr. Trimble was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Vance Henry Trimble was born July 6, 1913, in Harrison, Ark. His mother was a writer, and his father was a lawyer and town mayor. The family fled to Oklahoma in 1920 after their lives were endangered by civil unrest in the wake of a railroad strike.

Mr. Trimble began working as a cub reporter at age 14 in Okemah, Okla., and while attending high school in Wewoka. He graduated in 1931 and was married a year later to Elzene Miller.

They traveled throughout the South and Southwest during the Great Depression, while Mr. Trimble looked for newspaper jobs. He made ends meet by repairing typewriters and adding machines.

He estimated that he worked at 25 newspapers — some for as little as two weeks — before landing at his first metropolitan daily, the now-defunct Houston Press, in 1939.

Drafted into the Army during World War II, he edited a newspaper at what was then Camp Beale in California. He then returned to Houston, where he became city editor and later managing editor before moving to Washington in 1955.

After eight years in Washington, Mr. Trimble became editor of the Kentucky Post in Covington, Ky., where he worked until his retirement in 1979.

He then wrote more than a dozen books, including biographies of A.B. “Happy” Chandler, a former Kentucky governor and commissioner of baseball; Federal Express founder Frederick Smith; President Ronald Reagan; and entertainer Bing Crosby. His biography of Walton, who was born in Oklahoma and established his business empire in Arkansas, reportedly sold almost 700,000 copies. His most recent book, about Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers, appeared in 2012.

After Mr. Trimble’s wife of 67 years died in 1999, he moved back to Wewoka, the small Oklahoma town where they met. Their daughter, Carol Ann Nordheimer, died in February. There are no immediate survivors.

In an interview in 2013, when he turned 100, Mr. Trimble said he had read 400 books in the previous three years. He financed an addition to the Wewoka public library, which is expected to house his collection of more than 5,000 volumes.

Mr. Trimble was named to the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame in 1974 and gave an interview to the hall as recently as last year. He also designed houses for his family in Houston, Chevy Chase, Md., and Covington.

Describing his investigative series on Congress that won the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Trimble told Time magazine in 1959: “I’ve been an investigative reporter for a long time, and some things just smell. You know there’s something boiling away under the surface if you can just take time to dig it out.”

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a man wearing a suit and tie: Vance H. Trimble, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for exposing nepotism and hidden payrolls in Congress, is shown at age 106. © Emily Siddiqui/Emily Siddiqui Vance H. Trimble, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for exposing nepotism and hidden payrolls in Congress, is shown at age 106.
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