If you have ever lived in or simply visited Santa Barbara, there is a good chance you have drivendown Storke Road, picked up a copy of a local newspaper and stood beside — or squinted at the distant shape of — Storke Tower, the tallest structure in the county. Unbeknownst to most, these iconic attributes share a common link: the man who would come to be known as “Mr. Santa Barbara,” who was just 24 years old when he bought the Daily Independent and over80 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
Throughout his life, Thomas More Storke served as a vital benefactor to the future of Santa Barbara,shaping the city’s character while cementing his ownwithin its framework. As Walker A. Tompkins noted in the foreword to Storke’s first autobiography, “He is revered by many, hatedby some, but respected by all.”
Storke was a seventh-generation Californian, born in Santa Barbara on November 23, 1876 as the only son of Charles and Martha Storke.
Storke attended Stanford University a year early and just one year after the college officially opened. After graduating at the age of 22, he returned to Santa Barbara.
Although he had no prior experience in journalism, Storke quickly became involved in the newspaper business. He started out as a cub reporter, feeling his way through the business, but became a newspaper owner within a few short years.
“In 1900, Tom Storke, aged 24, borrowed $2,000 to buy the Daily Independent, weakest of the town’s three papers,” an October 13, 1971 New York Times article reads. “He sold it in 1909 and went back into the business in 1913 as owner of the Santa Barbara Daily News. Not long afterward he reacquired the Independent and published the combined paper as the Daily News and Independent.”
In 1932, Storke took yet another paper under his wing.
“Thomas Storke, editor and publisher of the Santa Barbara Daily News, faced a dilemma that seems positively alien in 2004,” Matt Welch wrote in a Reason.com article. “Storke’s competition, the 58-year-old Santa Barbara Morning Press, was on the brink of bankruptcy, and it begged him to take over as owner.”
Thus, the Santa Barbara News-Press was born.
Storke of All Trades
In addition to journalism, Storke pursued work in a variety of other fields. In 1938, he stepped up in the place of Senator William Gibbs McAddoo and served as a California senator for two months. He founded the AM radio station KTMS, was a member of the California Crime Commission from 1951 to 1952 and served as a University of California regent from 1955 to 1960. He wrote two autobiographies, including California Editor.
Storke was also instrumental in establishing the Santa Barbara Airport, the man-made Lake Cachuma and UC Santa Barbara. Under the college land grant program, Storke used his political ties to secure 900 coastal acres of the land UCSB stands on today.
In 1961, Storke published a series of exposés identifying the John Birch Society — founded in the late 1950s and still active today as right-wing political advocacy group — as a totalitarian organization.
“My grandfather was basically a very kind and gentle man,” Thomas Storke Cox, Storke’s grandson, said in an e-mail. “However, he did not suffer fools gladly and he could only be pushed so far before striking back. That is what happened in the case of the John Birch Society. … Once the Birchers went after his close friend … he decided to return the favor and go after them.”
According to a May 23, 2011 Santa Barbara Independent article by Michael Redmon, the Society started out with only 11 members during the Cold War but, by the early 1960s, had a membership of nearly 100,000.
“The primary purpose of the organization in this period was to expose and root out what members perceived to be the pervasive and dangerous influences of communism in all aspects of American life,” the article reads.
Among those under attack by the Society were President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Storke’s good friend and former Supreme Court Chief of Justice Earl Warren, for whom the Earl Warren Showgrounds are named.
In response, the Santa Barbara News-Press slammed the Society for its divisive attacks on notable — and, in Storke’s opinion, undeserving — political leaders.
“During recent weeks, the News-Press has sought to enlighten its readers about a semi-secret organization called the John Birch Society,” one of the editorials reads. “The News-Press condemns the destructive campaign of hate and vilification that the John Birch Society is waging against national leaders who deserve our respect and confidence. How can anyone follow a leader absurd enough to call former President Eisenhower ‘a dedicated conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy’?”
In 1962, Storke was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in addition to the Lauterbach Award by the Nieman Foundation of Harvard and the Elijah Lovejoy Fellowship for courageous journalism.
Newspapers were one of Storke’s great life passions and though he sold the NewsPress in 1964, Storke remained editor and publisher emeritus.
In a speech at the Annual Dinner Meeting of the California Press Association, Storke said, “I still say that the first responsibility of editors and publishers is to their own community. But, when the job is done well, its byproducts can become greater than the first objective.”
“These bells ring for freedom…”
In 1969, Storke spoke at the official dedication for his namesake, Storke Tower, which he helped fund.
“It is my hope that the publications coming from this building will be the finest examples of journalism developed on any campus in America — perhaps in the world,” Storke said. “Talented students are here. Brilliant faculty members are here. Working together, they can produce publications of national and international scope — for the enlightenment of civilized people everywhere.”
The Daily Nexus student newspaper, La Cumbre yearbook and KCSB radio station have worked out of the offices under the tower for years.
The building’s original pamphlet notes that the landmark soars 175 feet above the campus’ main-level and is the tallest structure in the entire county. Within the tower lies a 61-bell carillon, the only five-octave chromatic bell system in existence.
On October 12 of 1971, just two years after the Storke Tower dedication, Thomas More Storke died after suffering a stroke. He was 94 years old.
Storke was survived by 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. The Davidson Library’s Special Collections alone has over 200 condolence letters, cards and telegrams sent to his widow within two weeks after his passing.
According to Cox, few of today’s journalists exhibit the same fearlessness as his grandfather.
“The whole concept of an ‘independent journalist’ à la my grandfather has become almost an anachronism in these days of the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,” he said. “Even the concept of an ‘independent newspaper’ has become almost quaint since the way things are now going there may not be a lot of ‘newspapers’ left in the future, let alone ones whose editorial policies are set by one dedicated individual as was the case of the Santa Barbara NewsPress fifty years ago.”
Storke’s memory is alive in the bells that chime every hour on the hour. As a placard on Storke Tower reads, “These bells ring for the freedom of the press and in tribute to Editor-Publisher Thomas More Storke, whose affection for the University made this building possible.”