She started her journalistic career while attending high school in her hometown, Joliet, Illinois. Stateville, a maximum security state prison, sits on the rolling edge of the neighboring town of Crest Hill situated on Route 53. It is 37 miles south of Chicago. The prison was then and remains now, home for some of Chicago’s more notorious citizens. During her many trips between Joliet and Chicago, Gladys Erickson may not have understood the influence and opportunities the prison would have on her career. But it would, and it did, and Gladys was a natural at crime reporting.
Shortly after graduating, she began working for the local radio station WJOL, where she wrote, produced and broadcast her own sponsored show. For a time she was a columnist for the Joliet Herald News. During World War II she would hold four jobs; broadcasting a daily show, writing for the Joliet Spectator, editing for the Will County Labor Record and as a stringer reporting for a Hearst publication, the Chicago American, for which she covered prison news out of Stateville. Her story on the recapture of Basil “the Owl” Banghart in a Joliet cornfield secured her a full-time position on the American.
In interviews on the early days of her career, Gladys shared that it was, a “crafty city editor” suggesting she “go home, to Joliet, and why not stop at the prison to see Nathan Leopold.” (Leopold and his partner Loeb, wealthy graduate students at the University of Chicago, had been obsessed with committing the “perfect crime” and in 1924 murdered 14-year old Bobby Franks. The parents of the duo hired legendary attorney Clarence Darrow to defend them. Though the pair pleaded guilty Darrow successfully persuaded the judge against the death penalty in what had become the trial of the nation.) While at Stateville, Loeb was murdered, and Leopold turned into a model prisoner.
During a conversation with the warden, Gladys learned “Leopold had been there for 24 years, didn’t talk to reporters, and was working on an important malaria experiment.” During their introduction a smug Leopold had been anything but willing to have a conversation with the young reporter. One year later, however, Gladys would follow up on Leopold while at the prison covering another assignment. Asking to meet him again, Leopold obliged, remembering her and admitted he regretted not talking to her earlier because he knew “she was new at reporting. And what did she want to talk with him about?” Gladys had been unprepared for Leopold’s remark asking him a somewhat frivolous question “about his philosophy now that he was doing well” but he liked it nonetheless granting her an interview ending his many years of silence. The result became an exclusive, “Leopold Talks.” Within the year, Gladys continued interviewing him, resulting in the compilation of an eight-part series.
The friendships Gladys forged with prisoners in the news and prison officials made it possible for her to be the first outsider to witness plastic rehabilitation surgery on an inmate of the prison and report on it.
In 1957, Gladys researched and wrote the biography of respected public servant Joseph E. Ragen, warden of twin Illinois state prisons, Joliet and Stateville. A career law enforcement and corrections officer, Ragen had been assigned by then Gov. Henry Horner to take over the corrupt Joliet-Stateville complex. Gladys took on the task to write about the warden’s monumental mission in detail and with prison drama.
Gladys covered the 1967 trial of Richard Speck, convicted of the brutal murders of eight student nurses in Chicago during the summer of 1966. Of the proceedings, she publicly spoke of the difficulties to report on the case due to the rigid “news media blackout imposed by the courts to ensure nothing would happen to cause a mistrial.”
As city news reporter for the paper, she covered numerous Republican and Democrat conventions leading her to interview four presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman and their families. Gladys rode in an airplane going through a tornado, paddled a boat to cover flooding in the state of Mississippi, had been a beauty competition judge, a jockey on a racehorse and rode with the United States Marines on Chicago’s lakefront. She traveled on assignments throughout Europe, Asia, and Greece and most of the States in America. Her interviews included the leaders of India, Belgium, and Luxembourg. She had a twenty-year career at the paper and its successor, Chicago Today, before becoming the public information officer for the newly created Illinois Department of Corrections in 1969.
Gladys joined the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) and its affiliate, the Illinois Woman’s Press Association (IWPA) in 1960. To this day, the Illinois affiliate of NFPW remains the oldest press women’s group in the country.
She may not have been a household name across the country, but in the 1960s and 70s throughout journalism in Illinois and within IWPA Gladys was highly respected and an award-winning reporter. So much so that Gladys had been endorsement twice by IWPA, the first occurred in 1963, as their “Woman of the Year.”
Gladys was the tenth winner of what was then known as the NFPW Woman of Achievement award and the first national winner selected from the state of Illinois at the National Conference held in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1967. The prize (now known as the Communicator of Achievement) was and remains the highest honor bestowed upon a member of the Federation. Upon receiving the award, Gladys said it evoked feelings of “pride in my profession, and gratitude that NFPW awarded such an honor to a newswoman.” In an interview some ten years later, she remarked she “felt an obligation to support NFPW and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association having served as affiliate president for the 1975-1977 term.”
While at the helm of IWPA, Gladys focused on the International Women’s Year along with United States Bicentennial programs. She also achieved a multitude of writing awards throughout her career but was especially proud of capturing first place in the NFPW Professional Communications Contest for a copyrighted story that stemmed from an interview of seven condemned convicts on death row at Cook County Jail. From this, she authored the book, “Warden Ragen of Joliet.”
Gladys was a charter member of the Illinois Committee to Abolish Capital Punishment and had been a past president of the Alliance of Business and Professional Women of Chicago. She was an active influence among Midwest writers through the Friends of Literature where she served as both director and president. Gladys gave her support to women writers through a term as president of Women in Communication.
In 1958, 1960 and 1966 she was a delegate on a Greek-American trip to deliver road building machinery worth more than $2 million in the fight against communism. For her efforts and reports from the trip, she was cited by the Greek government for her service. King Paul I of Greece decorated Gladys with the Golden Cross of the Royal Order of Efpoiia for her in-depth series of articles on that country in 1963. She was the first non-Greek to receive the honor.
In 1965, the John Howard Association cited Gladys for outstanding contributions to the advancement of correctional services. She had been the recipient of the Theta Sigma Phi’s Headliner Award in 1966.
In private life, after the death of her first husband, Gustav, Gladys married Charles Finston, a political editor for Chicago’s American in the 1950s and 60s, a lawyer and legal advisor to the Chicago Police Department from 1968 to 1973. Finston found himself involved in the thick of things immediately after being appointed aide and legal coordinator to the Chicago superintendent of police in April 1968 as more than 10,500 deployed police took to the streets in seven days of riots following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Five months later, Chicago hosted the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the city faced demonstrations and subsequent riots in opposition to the Vietnam War.
Gladys was one of three children of George and E. Kittie (McBride) Arbiter. Her father had been a prominent Joliet attorney having opened his law practice in his hometown in 1895.
Gladys, a graduate of Joliet Township High School, had been selected “Miss Joliet” by the Chamber of Commerce in October 1924.
Her sense of fairness and compassion for all individuals earned Gladys a lifetime of respect and international reputation. She lived a full life until the age of 86.