Biographical Sketch of Congressman Karl Stefan –– WJAG's First Announcer
by Mark Smith
In 1884 –– less than 20 years after Nebraska received statehood –– Karl Stefan was born in Bohemia, a part of today's Czech Republic. A year later, his father decided the family should emigrate to America. Unsure of where to settle, he closed his eyes, walked toward a map of the U.S., and placed a finger on the state of Nebraska. Before Karl's third birthday, the Stefan family moved to the United States and settled in Omaha.
Faced with hard times in 1897, young Stefan quit school at age 13, and took his first job at a local packing house. He also worked in the Trans-Mississippi Exposition publicity department in Omaha, and furthered his education by attending a YMCA night school. Stefan's interest in telegraphy grew while working as a messenger for Omaha telegraph companies. In his spare time he learned Morse code, and soon was one of the youngest telegraph operators in the country.
Before 1904 Stefan used his newly acquired skill on the road as a traveling telegrapher. Visiting nearly every state, he transcribed Associated Press wire copy, served as a wire chief for Western Union, and operated a telegraph at the South Omaha Stockyards. During a stay in Chicago, Stefan joined the Illinois Guard. After passing the required tests, the future Congressman landed in Manila during the Philippine uprising in 1904 In support of the island government, Stefan labored as a telegraph operator for the local constabulary, and worked at the Manila Times.
During his Southeast Asian sojourn, the future broadcaster also received an early education in the new invention called wireless –– later dubbed radio –– at a Philippine naval station. At this point, the seventh grade drop-out was fluent in seven languages. Still afflicted with a severe case of wanderlust, the young telegrapher left the Philippines for a trek through Asia and Europe in 1906. To finance his journey, Stefan acted as an interpreter and freelance writer-telegrapher. Upon returning to the States by 1907, Stefan labored at three Omaha newspapers.
That same year, Stefan married his childhood sweetheart, Ida Rosenbaum of Omaha; the two moved to Seattle, Washington where the new groom worked as a telegrapher and longshoreman. For reasons unknown, the Stefans returned to Nebraska in 1909, where Karl became an AP telegrapher at the Norfolk Daily News. In the days before teletype news machines, it was Stefan's duty to transcribe telegraphed wire copy, and rewrite it for the paper. From that position, he was later elevated to city editor. During World War I, Stefan taught telegraphy code at the Norfolk Federal Building. By the 1920s, the new medium of radio led him to a new challenge. In 1922, the Norfolk Daily News received a broadcast license from the federal government. Stefan became WJAG's first newscaster, and continued to serve as Daily News city editor. Although Stefan relinquished his duties at the paper in 1924 to operate a cigar store, he continued to announce the noon news at the Norfolk station until 1934.
Stefan was more than a talking news-head. In October 1922, he reconstructed wire accounts –– complete with sound effects –– of the World Series, and relayed the "play-by-play" to anxious WJAG listeners. He promoted a radio shut-in campaign to provide receiving sets for invalids. In the 1930s, Stefan experimented with a new "talk" format. With a portable transmitter strapped upon his back, the Norfolk broadcaster interviewed pedestrians each weekday on "The Voice of the Street" program. The future Congressman kept his pen busy, too. Before serving in the House, he contributed articles on northeast Nebraska farming to various magazines. It is said that Stefan did not pursue politics, it sought him. A WJAG listener sent a letter to the Norfolk station urging the popular radio announcer to seek the Third District Congressional seat in 1934; many of Stefan's friends convinced him it was a good idea, too. While admitting he voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Stefan entered the race as a Republican, but excluded the term "GOP" in his political advertising. Stefan defeated incumbent Edgar Howard –– a Nebraska political icon who sported a trademark goatee, long hair and Prince Albert coat –– by 19,000 votes out of nearly 70,000 ballots cast.
As a Representative of a rural District, farm issues naturally received a high priority in the Stefan legislative platform. He helped organize a coalition of farm state House members into the Prairie States Committee of Congressmen; millions of dollars in improved roads resulted from his contribution to the "farm-to-market" road plan. The interests of Nebraska farm families received national attention from Stefan's numerous appearances before Congressional committees, and speeches to House colleagues.
Third District patrons elected Stefan to consecutive terms through 1950. By 1951 he was the House appropriations committee ranking minority member. Nebraska's 67-year-old Congressional dean who "started at the bottom and rose to the top," died of heart failure on October 2, 1951. State and national dignitaries attended his Norfolk funeral at the small Trinity Episcopal Church while "hundreds," the World-Herald said, "stood outside the church." To honor the late Congressman, the "Karl Stefan Memorial Airport" south of Norfolk was dedicated in 1955.