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Canham: Legendary Editor, Public Servant

FOR a novice science writer, the note on his desk was an alarming summons. ``See Mr. Canham at once!'' it ordered in large block letters. It didn't help that the writer was late for work that day.

But Erwin Canham - the Christian Science Monitor's legendary editor - didn't waste time with a dressing down. He read a poem about the moon. He said someone writing about sending rockets to Earth's celestial companion should appreciate its romantic aspect.

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Canham respected the Monitor's tradition of journalistic excellence. He set a high standard both for himself and for the newspaper's staff. He expected individual performance to meet that standard. But he enforced that discipline by encouraging self-discipline. He offered professional challenge - the same kind of opportunity he had when sent to cover the League of Nations in Geneva a few months after beginning full-time work for the newspaper in 1929.

His orders to a young writer were to ``operate with a maximum of initiative and a minimum of direction.'' He later added, ``Never do anything against your better judgment, even if I tell you to.'' It's a leadership legacy whose influence is still felt on the newspaper today.

That journalistic influence reached far beyond the Monitor itself. His peers considered Canham one of their giants. They elected him president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1948.

In this connection, it's tempting to quote the cliche that a man of such personal stature casts a long shadow, as indeed he did. But Canham would have been uncomfortable with that. He spoke of the continuing influence of the Monitor's founder - Mary Baker Eddy - whose mission statement for the paper is ``to spread undivided the Science that operates unspent ... [with the object] to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.'' This was the drummer to whom he marched.

Canham believed in living one's religion and preaching by example, not precept. He saw the Monitor's mission in those terms and said: ``The battle for peace takes place initially and basically in the individual's own consciousness. The Monitor's role is to inform and awaken those who must move toward this awareness.''

His professional colleagues respected this position. They recognized that you couldn't separate Canham the journalist and public figure from his religious roots nor could you separate the newspaper they admired from its spiritual mission. As the Washington Post observed at the time of Canham's passing (1982):

``By his religious dedication he made the newspaper faithful to its primary, religious purpose - `to give proper emphasis to significant news' reflecting the positive and noble side of man. At the same time, by his professionalism he made the paper essential reading for many readers who did not share his religious views.''

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This dedication carried over into a larger world of public service. Canham found time to serve on the global, national, and local stages. To mention a few such activities, he was vice chairman of the US delegation to the l949 United Nations Conference on Freedom of Information in Geneva. A year later, he was alternate US delegate to the UN General Assembly. He became president of the US Chamber of Commerce in 1959. Locally, in Boston, he served on boards of public institutions. Once, during a prison riot, he was called in as negotiator at the request of inmates who said he was someone they could trust. He continued his public service after retiring as the Monitor's editor-in-chief in 1974 as the last resident commissioner who guided the Mariana Islands toward United States commonwealth status.

Canham brought to all this work a passion for American democratic ideals. He believed in individual freedom and responsibility. He despised totalitarianism and mistrusted governmental paternalism. These convictions permeated his writing and public actions. In a pamphlet entitled ``Challenge to Morality,'' he said, ``Leadership, one can reasonably infer, need not, and does not, come from the man on the white horse, but from the countless men with awakened consciousness that can save the city.''

Canham would fit well into our post-cold-war world, as does the newspaper he so ably served.

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