Husband and wife lived out call to evangelization through work for The Witness

By Patricia Devaney-Butler

Special to The Witness

Byron and Florence Devaney, a husband and wife who both spent decades working for The Witness, found a unique way to merge their careers with their deep commitment to the Catholic faith. The couple’s love soaked like invisible ink into the pages of this publication for many years.

Byron’s Dream

Byron Devaney’s dream was to evangelize. He wanted to do this through the Catholic press using his talents at selling ads and writing advertising copy to support, grow, and help deliver the faith to others.

Devaney engaged in an agonizing search for a position in the Catholic press. He had countless job interviews, including at The Witness. The interview at The Witness seemed promising, but, afterwards, there was no firm offer. In the summer of 1939, Devaney pulled up stakes in Omaha, left his position with the local newspaper, and moved his family to Dubuque. Although he did not yet have an offer from Msgr. J. Fred Kriebs, editor of The Witness at the time, the Holy Spirit was guiding him. He telegraphed Msgr. Kriebs and stated he was on his way. He asked the priest to contact him when he arrived in Marshalltown. When Devaney and his family reached that city, a message containing Msgr. Kriebs’ offer was there. The family continued their journey, which was to be a great gift from God.  Devaney was to become the advertising manager of The Witness, the official Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

Archbishop Francis J. Beckman also had a dream. He wanted a program for the development of the Catholic Press.  Devaney played an important role in this dream.  He toured the archdiocese addressing groups like the Catholic Daughters and Catholic Mothers Club(s), and many parish groups. He talked about the importance of patronizing the advertisers in The Witness.

Devaney also had the idea that if the high school students of the Catholic Schools, who took the public bus, would leave a copy of the Witness on the bus someone would pick it up and read it.

During Devaney’s tenure as advertising manager for almost thirty years, he grew The Witness from a one sheet that was folded in quarters to frequently having two full sections of the newspaper, as one may see in a typical municipal newspaper today.  The Witness remained a weekly publication. Its size was large for such a publication during Devaney’s time.

Devaney was active in the National Catholic Press Association.  Frequently, he was called upon to address the organization’s conventions regarding how the published advertising world could fit into their evangelization.  Bringing more dollars in through advertising gave more lineage for the knowledge of God.

Devaney saw many editors and assistant editors come and go.  Many of them became a household fixture in Devaney’s home.  Over the years, bonds formed with many of the priest-editors, including Msgr. Kriebs, Father Harry Long, Msgr. Arthur Breen, Father Raymond Etteldorf, Father Raymond Roseliep, Father Eugene Recker, Msgr.  William Green, Father Gerald Shekleton, and Msgr. Thomas Ralph. The Devaney family also became close with many of the lay staff members, such as Katherine Beckman, who did proof reading and lay out, and Helen Homberg, who worked in accounting. The list is endless.

Byron Devaney died in January of 1969 – just short of 30 years after he became advertising manager of The Witness. As The Witness wrote in his obituary, “the greatest tribute that could be paid is to call him a Christin because his life was given for others … He died as he lived resigned to the will of God.”

What is the significance in the number 30? In the newspaper world when a story is completed and handed to the printers the writer indicated the end with the number 30.  Byron would often end his correspondence with the number 30 or the word thirty.

Florence’s Talents

Sometime in the early 1950s, Byron Devaney’s wife, Florence, was asked to do a food column for a special Easter edition of The Telegraph Herald. She was known for her cuisine and the several community-wide smorgasbord benefits she spearheaded for non-profit organizations in Dubuque. This led to “More Dash to the Dish” a food column published in The Witness. It spread to other Catholic newspapers and soon became a syndicated item for them. It also brought in advertising dollars for the papers. That was the whole goal of the column.

During this time, Florence was tailing Byron to learn all she could about the advertising game.  Florence was a success at whatever she did.  When Byron became ill in 1965 she picked up his portfolio and carried on as if she was the advertising manager.  This was with little help from Byron due to his illness.  She continued to do this up to Byron’s death and several years after.

Today, like most Catholic publications, The Witness has shrunk to a minimal size to serve its people and now we can say “30” to The Witness. Byron and Florence Devaney saw the newspaper staff and subscribers as an extension of their family. The legacy of evangelism, which the couple participated in, bonds them to the generations of clergy, religious and lay people that have served at The Witness. This spiritual legacy will continue long after the last copy of The Witness rolls off the press.

Patricia Devaney-Butler is one of the children of Florence and Byron Devaney. She grew up in Dubuque and now resides in Hastings, Minnesota.

Cover image: (Left to right:) Florence Devaney, Monsignor William Green, editor, and Byron Devaney in this undated photo. (Contributed photo)