Apocrypha: Traditions, Myths, & Legends

The Quest and the Front-Page Fraud

Ink-Stained Wretches. The 1947 Quest staff included (l to r) Jim Whipple '49, June Ekstrom (Bennett) '50, Jerry Davis '47, John Sperling '48, Herb Margulies '50, Lois Baker (Janzer) '50, Bill Dickey '51, and editor BJ Warnock (Fernea) '49, weilding the editorial pencil in front. She and Bill dreamed up the spoof.

The Quest and the Front-Page Fraud

By Anna Mann

It was nearing midnight, and the mood in the Quest office was decidedly grim. 

The lead story was a bust—the reporter slept through the assignment and didn’t turn in his copy. Now editor BJ Warnock Fernea ’49 and features editor Bill Dickey ’51 were staring at a gaping hole on the front page, just 10 hours before the press deadline.

As they wracked their brains to fill the gap, Bill related a discussion about animal research that had taken place in a class with Prof. Lewis Kleinholz [biology 1946–89]. A student had asked about the anti-vivisection movement—weren’t they against cutting up animals for experiments? Prof. Kleinholz had dismissed this with the riposte, “We have to think of science.” An interesting debate, no doubt, but surely there was no way to turn it into a front-page article at this late hour—or was there?

Seized by a sudden inspiration, the editors proceeded to take a playful swipe at Kleinholz.

Page 1 of the March 20, 1947 Quest announced that a leading anti-vivisectionist by the name of Dr. Laura Benson was planning to visit Reed to deliver a series of lectures. The story claimed that Dr. Benson was a professor at Arkansas Baptist College and winner of the 1942 William R. Habst Prize for work in the field of vitamin deficiencies. She had just returned from Europe, where she had investigated scientific practices, and was particularly desirous to meet Reed students intending to make careers in medicine and related fields. There would even be a tea in her honor.

From lede to kicker, the story was fiction. After they put the paper to bed, BJ and Bill swore each other to secrecy—fabrication being, then as now, a cardinal journalistic sin.

But their little joke took on a life of its own. The news about the anti-vivisectionist was the talk of the campus. Letters poured in. So BJ and Bill felt compelled to continue the farce. They published a follow-up piece on April 3, revealing that Dr. Benson’s tour was sponsored by the Southern States Anti-Vivisection League and quoting Benson to the effect that she was “firmly convinced, after many years work, both in the study and teaching of biology, that science can attain all of its important goals without the use of vivisection.” Medical breakthroughs such as insulin, she said, could have been developed by other means. The Quest also reported that she drew a big crowd to her talk in Montana and a “spirited” question period followed her presentation. Reed was now scheduling a luncheon in her honor, along with a tea.

By this point, Kleinholz was fuming. He went to the Quest office and told the editors that it was preposterous for them to invite Benson to speak. BJ recalled him asking, “How can we prevent this woman from coming?” “And I said, ‘We can’t prevent her from coming.’ And Bill said, ‘How dare you even imagine that? I mean, freedom of speech!’ and so on, and so on. And then we realized we were going to have to do something.”

A grave headline greeted readers of the next Quest: “Laura Benson Dies in Downtown Hotel.” Apparently Dr Benson suffered a devastating seizure. Untrained in operating a rotary phone, the article reported, she could not call for help and was discovered in her waning moments by a chambermaid who had entered the room to empty ashtrays. “Present at her deathbed were a physician and reporter from the Quest.” To the attending Quest reporter, Dr. Benson expressed her disappointment at missing the opportunity to speak to Reed students, who, she understood were “among the most quick-witted in the nation.” 

Her final words dealt with the care and feeding of six canaries, which she had brought along in a handbag. The cause of death, the Quest reported, was diabetes.

It’s not clear exactly when Prof. Kleinholz finally realized that Dr. Benson was the desperate creation of Quest editors on a deadline. The story fooled a lot of people. Years later, while BJ and Bill shared a laugh, classmates remained uncertain. “To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘Was that anti-vivisectionist business really true?’” BJ said in 2004.

The Reedies involved in this dubious chapter of student journalism went on to fascinating careers. BJ became an anthropologist, scholar, and filmmaker of international renown. Bill was an award-winning poet, who taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. And John Sperling ’48, the paper’s éminence gris, founded the University of Phoenix.