[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Gentry: I'd like to discuss your '72 released book, Forever Open, Clear and Free, which has now been republished or re-released in a second edition by the University of Chicago Press. I can really see the architect's daughter in this book and the city planner and your great interest in city planning. The fight to save the lakefront, you took it from the Indians to the present—or to 1972. How did that come about?
Wille: There's a civic organization in Chicago, the Metropolitan Planning Council, that was formed, I believe, in the 1930s, a private, not-for-profit group, to promote good city planning, in housing and environmental issues. I had worked with them on a number of stories on slum housing and urban renewal and deficiencies in the city's building code enforcement. The planning council was also very interested in the preservation of Chicago's lakefront parks, which are unique in this country, perhaps in the world. For any major industrial city to reserve almost all of its lakefront for public use is rare.
Periodically, something happened that endangered one of the parks; there would be a proposal to build something on it or to lease it for some use that was not open to the public. For example, the building of Chicago's convention center, McCormick Place, on the lakefront is probably the biggest planning mistake in the city's history. After several lost fights to prevent erosion of the public's use of the lakefront, the Metropolitan Planning Council decided it would be useful to write a history of the lakefront parks and how they came to be open, clear and free.
The director of the planning council, Dorothy Rubel, whom I had worked with on a housing series, asked me if I would be interested in writing it and said that council volunteers would help me with the research. They had already done a lot of research on it.
I was hesitant at first because it's difficult doing that while you're working full-time, especially a job that wasn't nine to five, where I'd often work 12 to 16 hours a day. But it was an issue I was very interested in and I respected the people at the planning council and was supportive of their cause. So I arranged to take, along with vacation time, perhaps six weeks off. I did a lot of the research on weekends and off-hours and then used the bulk of that six weeks for additional research and wrote it in my free time.
It begins with the origins of the city—the origins of the lake, actually, which goes back to the Ice Age. Chicago exists today in the form it does because of this felicitous confluence of lake and rivers leading to the Mississippi River system so you can get a continuous movement really from the St. Lawrence Seaway down to the Gulf of Mexico.
One reason Chicago is founded where it was, the French explorers who came down from Green Bay realized that this area had great potential because it could be portaged to get to the Mississippi. And the Indians who lived here, the Potawatomi, showed the French explorers how to portage, and where a canal could be built to lead directly from the lake to the Mississippi. So that early history was very interesting to me. Chicago was founded because of that lakefront, river-edge location.
But very early, about the time the city was incorporated, the state-appointed canal commissioners who were to chart the new canal that would enable barges to move to the Mississippi waterways plotted the land along the lakefront of the new town and wrote on their map: "Forever open clear and free." They envisioned public recreational use all along the lakefront.
Gentry: Perfect title.
Wille: Years later, many years later, decades later, even a century later, those words had the force of law and were used time and again to clear away various commercial uses of the lakefront.
Gentry: They sure tried, though.
Wille: Almost every decade something happened.
Gentry: They're still doing it.
Wille: It's still happening although now there are many more public-interest groups devoted to keeping the lakefront for recreational use or at least guarding against inappropriate uses of the lakefront. Something like McCormick Place I'm sure couldn't happen today.
Gentry: There would be no sports stadium there?
Wille: There will be no sports stadium there. That popped up periodically but has been killed. While I was still at the Daily News, and just about the time I was finishing the book, I think 1971, a group of business leaders—well, Mayor Daley was sort of impartial about it—but a group of business leaders pushed for a lakefront sports stadium as part of the McCormick Place convention complex. There are a lot of reasons why that's a bad idea, primarily the crowds that would gather there would put the lakefront museums out of business on those days. Chicago's main tourist attraction, the number one tourist attraction in the state of Illinois, are its spectacular lakefront museums. When you've got big crowd-gathering events on the lakefront, the museums as well as the beaches are cut off from public use.
That lakefront sports stadium was defeated largely because of an editorial campaign by the Chicago Daily News. I was not on the editorial page then, but our editorial writers wrote about it, our editor, Daryle Feldmeir, believed strongly that it was wrong. So, even more importantly, did Marshall Field V, who owned both the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. He was on the committee that was to pick a stadium site, and he held out against the lakefront. There was just a lot of public opposition to it, and Daley perceived that and killed the idea.
It popped up much later when I was editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune years ago was responsible for putting McCormick Place where it was—in fact, McCormick Place was named for the man who then owned and published the Chicago Tribune, Colonel Robert McCormick, who used his nefarious political influence in the state legislature to get the thing built on the lakefront. The Tribune historically had wanted a stadium there to enhance McCormick Place. Later, in the mid-eighties, the idea was proposed again, again by a group of business leaders who saw this as the cheapest way to build a stadium. You get the parkland for nothing and you don't have to clear it. This time, the newspaper roles were reversed; the Chicago Tribune opposed it for environmental reasons, as well as planning reasons.
Gentry: You were editorial page editor at that time.
Wille: Associate editorial page editor. The Daily News was dead then but the Chicago Sun-Times, which by that time had been purchased from Marshall Field by Rupert Murdoch, came out for a lakefront stadium. But it was killed—
Gentry: Did you influence the Tribune on that?
Wille: Oh, of course.
Gentry: I thought so.
Wille: It wasn't that hard. The Tribune's publisher, Stanton Cook, who is also chairman of Tribune Company, saw why it would be wrong for the city. The museums, who have a lot of influential board members, were opposed to it. And so was the Metropolitan Planning Council—
Gentry: The traffic on Lake Shore Drive—all those people!
Wille: Oh, it would have been awful. And there's no access to public transportation. It was wrong for many reasons. And after that, better stadium sites were selected, including one that's being talked about now which is west of McCormick Place and with easy access to public transportation.
Gentry: On somewhat the same note of city planning, you did a very ambitious project in 1977, heading a team of reporters producing "Chicago and Its Suburbs: The Future of the City," a large series of articles. How long did you work on that and can you tell me a little about it?
Wille: That was perhaps the most significant thing I worked on as a reporter because it led to my being editorial page editor. It was born the day the first Mayor Daley died, in December of 1976. He died that afternoon. It was sudden. He had a heart attack in his doctor's office. So a lot of us worked through the night to do stories for our first edition, which came out early in the morning, although it was an afternoon paper. The first edition came out about eight or so. That was the publishing cycle for afternoon papers struggling to stay alive.
Gentry: After all, the mayor died all of a sudden.
Wille: Our editor then was Jim Hoge, who was editor of both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News. The Chicago Daily News then was terminally ill, suffering from a loss, mainly the loss of advertising that all afternoon papers experienced, to a lesser extent loss in circulation. And Jim, who had been enormously successful as the editor of the Sun-Times, making it the most interesting, vital paper in town, was asked by Marshall Field to take over the Daily News also, to see if he could do things to help it survive.
In any case, Jim was fairly new in that role at the Daily News the day the mayor died. When he was making his assignments for the next day's edition, he gave me, I think, the best of the assignments. Years ago, maybe even months ago under somebody else, I would have been sent out to Bridgeport, the mayor's neighborhood, to do stories of neighborhood reaction or family reaction—you know, the kind of feature sidebar that I had done periodically for 20 years. Instead Jim asked me to do a story on the impact on Chicago's business, political and labor community of the death of this man who for 21 years had forged a coalition of business, labor and political leaders that ran the city like no other American city was run in those years. It obviously was going to change the future of Chicago dramatically.
So I did. There were business leaders that I had worked with on other stories—housing and planning stories—and politicians. And I did a story on the impact on Chicago's economic life of the mayor's death. It was difficult to do because I had to do it in the middle of the night and track people down because in mid-December some of them were in vacation homes. But I managed to get it done—I don't know what our deadline was, 6:30 a.m., 7:00 a.m., in time for that first edition.
I went home for a couple of hours and then came back to the office that afternoon. And Jim called me in and said—I didn't know Jim too well at the time. He was difficult for me to read. He said, "That was quite a sophisticated story you did on Chicago after Mayor Daley." I didn't know whether Jim considered that good or bad. But it turned out he liked it and thought that it pointed up some problems that were going to be of great significance to the city, and [that] the city would have to grapple with for a long, long time. And he said it gave him an idea for a major project the Daily News could undertake. This was December 1976. As Jim said, the city was going to have a new mayor, for the first time in twenty-one years; the country was going to have a new president, Jimmy Carter had just been elected; and Illinois was going to have a new governor, Jim Thompson.
So these three things together could have a profound impact on the entire Chicago area, not just the city, a chance to look for new solutions to urban problems that had been building up in the last decade or so, and to change a great many things in the way the Chicago area had been governed and the way it did business. It was clear by this time that we couldn't write about the city alone, that the entire metropolitan area had a stake in Chicago's future, as Chicago did in the suburbs' future, and state government was intimately connected with this.
So he told me to think about how this could be done and said I could have several reporters helping me on it, to work with me on it. I spent a lot of time talking to people to find out what the issues were, what the problems were, and where we could look for solutions.
Gentry: How much time did he give you? That's a huge piece of work. It must have been months, this time. You said there's never months but this surely must have been.
Wille: This was different. This would have been the end of the year, the end of December when we talked about it. I started sometime early the next year. I probably had a couple things to clear up first, so it was maybe January or early February. And we spent maybe two, two and a half months getting material, writing it. I believe it began running late April through the beginning of May. So it was unusual in the amount of time. I'd never had that kind of time to work on a project before or the kind of assistance I got on that project.
I guess the main thrust of it—by that time, it was clear that Chicago's loss of jobs to the suburbs and loss of people to the suburbs was hurting the city a great deal. It was leaving the city without much of a middle class. Rich people stayed, but there was a growing poor population. The suburbs were alienated, to a large extent, from the city. Race relations had a lot to do with it. There were increasing fights and splits in Springfield, the state of Illinois capital, between city and suburban interests and city and downstate Illinois interests.
A couple of things that we wanted to do: First to write about the economic losses in the city, which had never really been written about. They were known, but the business community, the business leaders, really didn't like to talk about them, and Mayor Daley surely didn't. He felt that if you say this is a problem, you just aggravate the problem, more people pour out.
So while it was late writing about it in early 1977, it was really the first time a Chicago newspaper had done that, to document the drift away—not just away from the city to the suburbs but away from the Chicago area to the south.
Gentry: Which really probably began in the what—sixties?
Wille: It began—you can almost pinpoint the date it began. It began in 1968, after Martin Luther King was murdered and there were riots on Chicago's West Side. The reaction to King's murder and the way businesses perceived this accelerated the drift to the suburbs.
Gentry: People were fearful? Terrorized?
Wille: They suddenly decided that Chicago was going to see nothing but riots in its outlying neighborhoods for years, which of course wasn't true. But near where a lot of the riots and arson took place, there were a lot of factories and industrial plants and the owners and managers got nervous and moved out. And instead of looking in the city for their new locations, they decided they wanted to flee the city.
The real estate people we talked to showed us records of the kind of phone calls they got in April and May 1968 after King's murder and the reaction to King's murder. They would jump ten-fold, twenty-fold—appeals to get out of the city. And the city government and the city business community did nothing to ease those fears or did nothing to help the people who lived in those neighborhoods. It was one of the great
oversights in the way Chicago was governed, to let that hemorrhage go on without recognizing it and doing something about it.
Gentry: Is it still going on?
Wille: Not much any more. So many industries left that there's—
Gentry: For the people, the blacks, have conditions improved, their living conditions, in general?
Wille: Oh, some of the worst abuses in housing and health care have gotten better. The schools have gotten worse, which makes everything else meaningless, if you don't get a decent education. But in any case, the stories that we did focused a lot on the economic patterns that were hurting the city, and on suburbs unable to cope with growth, not doing sensible planning to cope with growth. And the city and the metropolitan area and the state doing nothing to compete with the southeast and the southwest in retaining jobs and developing new industry.
Chicago was one of the last cities to get an economic development commission. In fact, Daley didn't name one until a year or so before he died, and it was ineffective and pretty well dormant when we wrote these stories. Some of the fast-growing suburbs had economic development commissions long before Chicago did. We pointed out in that series steps that the city and the Chicago region and the state could take to strengthen the economy and improve living conditions.
The series when it began created some unhappiness among some of the business leaders who told Jim Hoge, "Ahh, you're giving Chicago a bad name. You're going to aggravate our problems." The late Mayor Daley's attitude always had been—he really felt it was wrong for the city to do anything to try to retain business because he felt, "If they don't realize what a great place this is to live and work, let 'em go, I don't want 'em here."
Gentry: Love it or leave it.
Wille: That whole attitude still prevailed. But after the series appeared—that was in May, I guess it ended in May—there were a lot of followup stories and a lot of people, both in government and in civic life, were eager to push some of the reforms and the changes that we had written about, so there were a number of followup stories.
It was sometime later that summer that Jim Hoge told me to my great astonishment that he wanted me to become the editorial page editor of the Daily News. This is a direction I had never seen my career taking, editorial writing. It had always seemed boring.
Gentry: I thought that was something you might always have wanted to do.
Wille: Oh, no. The editorial boards in those days—and to some extent this is still true in a lot of papers—were remote from the rest of the staff, both physically and socially. I had despised the editorial page of the Daily News. I thought it was dull and flaccid and didn't speak with a strong voice and was timid.
Gentry: Maybe he thought that, too. That's why he wanted you.
Wille: I think he did. I think he did. I rarely read them and when I did, I often got angry about them. The only editorial I had written was the one we had talked about earlier on why the paper should not endorse Mayor Daley.
Gentry: So what did you say? You were in shock?
Wille: Well, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
Gentry: No, it was a big promotion.
Wille: You know I also for years had pushed for women to get a bigger role in shaping the policy and here was a chance to have a leading role in shaping policy.
Gentry: This was the first woman—or not—in Chicago as editorial page editor?
Gentry: Was there a woman before you?
Wille: No. There was an editorial writer, Linda Lenz, that I believe I mentioned earlier.
Gentry: Yes, you did.
Wille: But Jim's reasoning was that—when I protested that I had never thought about it, wasn't prepared for it and so forth—he said that he felt that as a result of the project we had done on the future of the city and its suburbs, we had really developed a platform for change. He wanted to give the Daily News editorial page more of a local focus, instead of writing about problems in Afghanistan, you know, write about problems here at home in Cook County or Du Page County. I could use the opinions I had formed as a result of the series as an editorial page focus, which was true and that appealed to me. In any case, I only had maybe a week's notice. It happened very fast, which was probably good. I didn't have a lot of time to brood about it before I moved out of the city room for good and into the editorial page offices.
The Daily News had a small staff and a small editorial page staff but some close friends of mine that I'd worked with for years were editorial writers—I mentioned Linda Lenz, and Nicholas Shuman, whom I'd sat next to as a reporter, a fine reporter who'd been the Daily News foreign editor, wrote editorials on foreign issues. There was one painful thing. The man I replaced was given an early retirement and he didn't particularly want it and was hurt by it. And there was probably some feeling among some people that he'd been badly treated. But it was something that Jim felt the paper needed to do.
The first day was kind of rough. As I said, I had only written that one editorial. And I had to plan the page, edit other people's editorials because the staff was so tiny, in addition to writing one of my own. The first editorial I wrote that day—I can't remember what the story was in the news but it was why pain-killers, including heroin, should be given to terminal cancer patients. There must have been some proposal around to do that at the time. But I liked writing it and I always liked writing under deadline pressure.
Gentry: How much of this research for an editorial like that and many of the others you wrote did you actually have to do?
Wille: Well, it depends on the editorial. Most of the time you're writing about subjects you know and you can do it quickly. Otherwise, you hurry up and—of course, newspapers have libraries that help you do that kind of research.
Gentry: Well, you had a staff, did you not?
Wille: Not a research staff. Everybody researches and writes their own editorials. I wouldn't ask one of my editorial writers to do research on my editorial. Editorial pages don't have that many people, at least never one that I've worked on. I did have three people that assisted me doing that project on the city and suburbs, but they remained reporters who were still in the city room.
But after the first day or so I found that I loved it and I found it wonderful to be able to express strong opinions that I had formed in all my years as a reporter, when we were trained and made an effort to keep our opinions out of stories, even though a lot of the things I wrote, I wanted to leave people with a viewpoint. Still, as a reporter I couldn't say, you know, this, this, this should be done.
So I adjusted very quickly and easily. As I said, the people I worked with were wonderful and we did a lot of daring things in editorials that I enjoyed a lot and Jim Hoge was happy with them. It did no good. The Daily News died six months later. So it didn't save—
Gentry: Yes, I was wondering if you saw that coming. You kept saying the paper was terminally ill, so it sounded like you kind of knew that it was close to death for a long time.
Wille: You may have talked with other people who were on newspapers that died. These rumors would be going around for years. You know, "Next month we're going to be sold, next month we're going to be folded." You get so used to it, you never believe them. We knew by that time—
Gentry: What kind of notice were you given?
Wille: You mean that the paper was going to fold?
Gentry: Did it just fold one day and you were told that day?
Wille: When Jim took over, the story was that Marshall Field was going to give him—I don't know, 18 months, two years, to try to build up circulation and advertising to a point where the paper would be viable. As it turned out, Marshall Field gave him only six months and it was impossible. I'm not sure anything could have been done to save an afternoon paper. Chicago's other afternoon paper had already died a couple of years earlier.
Gentry: It was such an old, distinguished paper. It was 102 years old, wasn't it?
Wille: Yes. That's right. But Jim called me in perhaps a week before the announcement was made to tell me that Marshall Field was going to announce the closing of it. The rest of the staff was told the Friday afternoon Marshall Field came into the city room and got up on a desk and made the announcement. But rumors seep out. Either Field or someone close to Field had been at a party in New York and had told someone during that week and that report got back. So people pretty well knew.
But what people didn't know is—you know, who's going to still have a job, who's going to be cut? And no one at the Sun-Times—or very few people at the Sun-Times anticipated that their staff would be cut also, to make room for people at the Daily News. So it was a very painful couple of months that left some bitterness that to some extent still exists today. And I'm sure this is true on other papers that have experienced this. Jim had to make the final decision, who to keep and at what jobs and who to let go. And there's never a right and wrong way to do that. Everybody thought he made a lot of mistakes—and he probably did and I'm sure he felt that, too. But it's really tough when you've got to fire hundreds of people.
Gentry: Do you have any idea how many they actually kept? That went over to the Sun-Times?
Wille: I don't because—oh, that went over to the Sun-Times?
Gentry: That they absorbed on their other paper?
Wille: It would also involve other departments than editorial—
Gentry: That's true. Printers and—
Wille: I suppose maybe 150, 180, and more than that lost their jobs, most of them from the Daily News. In general, the people that were close to retirement got benefits that sweetened their retirement. Younger people, most of the newer people were let go. It was a little bit easier for them. They tried to keep a lot of the middle-level people but couldn't keep that many of them. It was hardest on them. It was very hard on people who had a spouse with a good job in Chicago and didn't want to leave the area. Especially if you want to stay in newspapers, because there was only one other newspaper in town then, in addition to the Sun-Times, and that was the Tribune, who couldn't take that many.
But Jim had—when he told me the week before the announcement was made that the Daily News was going to fold, he told me he wanted me to take over the editorial page of the Sun-Times. That had been run by Don Coe, who'd worked for the Carnegie Foundation and some other paper in Florida before he came to the Sun-Times. He was a very good person, very thoughtful, very smart, good judgment. He hadn't been at the Sun-Times real long. But still, that was rough, too, because Don was moved down a notch from editorial page editor of the Sun-Times to deputy editorial page editor. And the two staffs were merged; a few people were let go. Linda Lenz became the education reporter at the new Sun-Times.
Gentry: Certainly it must have been hard for you after 22 years at the Daily News to lose a lot of your friends when it closed?
Wille: Yes, it was. But I think I was more concerned then about taking this merged staff and making sure that the people at the Sun-Times who now were working for me, that we got along. It's important for an editorial board to have a collegial atmosphere, that they didn't resent that fact, particularly Don Coe. That was hard for him and his family.
Gentry: Was it hard to manage the staff?
Wille: No, they were all such good people. We worked at it to make sure that feelings weren't hurt more than they had to be.
Gentry: You got into management very quickly, didn't you?
Wille: That's right. And then also, you know, editorial writers and editorial page editors continually use reporters as resources. We have to have good relationships with reporters to get background information and tips and ideas. And I had a whole new crew at the Sun-Times. While we had been under the same ownership and worked in the same building, we had been competitors, so I had to quickly establish good links to a lot of Sun-Times reporters that I barely knew, Sun-Times city editors I barely knew. So that was a lot of work. But it went okay.
And while the Sun-Times had a staff much smaller than the Tribune and our editorial page staff was much smaller, people worked hard and we did a number of things I'm really proud of. It was difficult adjusting to putting out a page seven days a week. The Daily News didn't publish on Sundays. It just had a weekend edition that came out on Saturdays. So I had an additional day to work for, too. But we did some of the things I had started at the Daily News.
Gentry: Did you have a day off?
Wille: Well, sometimes I would come in on weekends. But I worked long hours. Fridays I often worked till midnight — 1:00, 2:00 a.m. — to get those weekend pages out. It could have been done faster but I really wanted the page to be well-written and strongly written and to do a lot of writing myself. So I worked harder in those years as the Sun-Times editorial page editor than I've ever worked, I think.
I had started a column at the Daily News called Personal View that was in addition to our op-ed columnists, the syndicated columnists that we bought. This was a column of contributions from academics,
readers, anybody with some interesting opinion. We transferred that over to the Sun-Times. And it takes a while to get a column like that going, so initially I had to do a lot of soliciting of them. And I always personally edited them and helped develop them; I spent a lot of time getting that going and getting a strong reader contribution to the page, and doing other things that gave the reader a strong voice on the page.
Gentry: Before we talk entirely about your editorial page editing, I want to go back and reflect on a few things about your reporting career. One thing, you did such a wide variety of interviewing, interviewing welfare recipients, all kinds of politicians, drug addicts, mothers, immigrants. How did you achieve rapport with such a diverse group of people? And it's obvious you did, from the quality of the stories.
Wille: You know, I never thought about that because I never saw it as something that you worked to achieve. The only times that it might be difficult is if you're talking to someone who sees you as a potential adversary. This happened probably more often with people in politics who start off being defensive and know that you're after something they don't want to tell you. That's difficult. If I'm interviewing the city building commissioner and I want him to explain why this building inspector has either been taking bribes or not reporting violations as he should, naturally that's difficult and you don't establish rapport so much as duel.
But other kinds of people—for example, I did a series of interviews with survivors of the Holocaust who had come to the Chicago area on one of the anniversaries of the end of World War II in Europe. And it's not difficult to establish rapport because they have stories they want to tell and it's easy. And I think this was true of most of the people I interviewed. It's touchy, of course, if it's someone who's just experienced a tragedy and you adjust yourself to the person you're interviewing and try to establish trust and confidence.
That's one reason in most of my years in reporting I didn't use a tape recorder. That puts people off a little bit, I think, as soon as you put that down on the table. I preferred starting a conversation before I took notes—I mean just sitting and talking. And then after a while kind of slowly taking out my notebook, writing. It's harder that way. You have to be sure you're getting people's accurate quotes without having that machine. But I think they tell you more.
Gentry: Of course, I ask this question because of the use of this work in journalism classes. It's something people would be interested in knowing.
Wille: Now tape recorders are so common; they may give the person being interviewed confidence that there's going to be a record and their quotes are going to be accurate. In fact, often now when you interview people in political life in particular, their aides will slap their own tape recorders on the table, just to let you know they've got a record, too, and you'd better quote them accurately. But when recorders were first being used, they could put people off.
Gentry: Certainly, when they were new. Was it important to you to be a mentor to young women coming into the staff, either in your reporting years or in your editorial page editor years?
Wille: For a long time, there weren't that many, so it wasn't a role I became accustomed to. I told you earlier about Georgie Ann Geyer and my pushing to get her assigned to the newsroom staff. Gee-Gee was a fine reporter and writer and didn't need mentors. Gee-Gee was splendid from the start, and we were close friends and still are. It wasn't a mentoring relationship because Gee-Gee was so good. She was a contemporary.
Later, some women who were hired subsequently—I believe I mentioned Betty Flynn, who came from Minneapolis when the papers there were on strike. Betty sat next to me and I think that may fit that role more, although Betty grew up in Chicago and she knew the city; but I was able to help her understand ways the Daily News did things. So she would ask me about Daily News style.
Gentry: What about men? I mean, you might mentor young men, too, that wanted to learn from you because of your success. That might have come to you with a problem?
Wille: Mentoring makes it sound—I hate that word because that makes it sound as if this is a special role. The term became fashionable a few years ago, but I think it's always been natural that you establish friendships on the job, and that people who have done it a while help people who are new at it. And everybody did that. There weren't special one-on-one mentoring relationships. It depended on what you were working at.
When Linda Lenz came to the Daily News, she'd worked on a community newspaper. She'd had some experience in political reporting. She did a couple of stories right off the bat that were wonderful and I remember telling her how good they were. And she told me later that meant a lot to her. But I don't know if I call that mentoring. It's just, I think, something you do to be decent, and because you want the paper to be good and you want everybody who works on it to be good and you help people along.
There's one person that I took a special interest in and it has a special meaning for me because of what he's doing today, a young man named Don Wycliff—Don Wycliff, who came to the Daily News as a young reporter. He'd been, I think, working in public relations at Notre Dame. Do you remember I talked about Monsignor John Egan?
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Wille: Jack Egan was working as a special assistant to President Theodore Hesburgh at Notre Dame and got to know Don Wycliff, and thought Don was wonderful, had great talents, and would be a good reporter for the Daily News. So he recommended him and Don was hired. Don was from Texas, I think from a rural area in Texas—black, and we didn't have a lot of black reporters yet then. But he was interested in writing about urban issues—a lot of the things I was writing about in those days. So we worked together on a couple of projects. He was also interested in education, as I was, and the status of Chicago schools.
So I don't know if I'd call it mentoring. But I took a special interest in Don's work. I liked him a lot and thought he was so talented. Don was one of the reporters who moved on to the Sun-Times after the Daily News died. He found it painful, as did a number of people who were retained. They found the early atmosphere of the Sun-Times city room hostile. They felt bad that Sun-Times people had been fired to make room for them. And some of the Sun-Times people let them know that they didn't like it, either. Don is sensitive and it upset him. So he left, as did a number of the Daily News people. He went to work, I believe in Seattle for a while, and ended up at the New York Times on its Week in Review sections, one of the editors.
Jim Hoge and I helped lure him back later and he covered education for the Sun-Times and problems involving poverty. He and another Sun-Times reporter did, I think, maybe the first series on the development of a permanent underclass in America's big cities and the impact of this and what could be done about it, a splendid wonderful series. Anyway, Don today is the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, my successor.
Gentry: I thought he was. I remember the name.
Wille: He left the Sun-Times after Rupert Murdoch bought it and went back to the New York Times.
Gentry: A real talented guy.
Wille: He went back to the New York Times as an editorial writer. Then we lured him away, when I knew I wanted to take an early retirement and was thinking about who might—well, not so much about who might be a successor but who I would want on the Tribune editorial page staff when I left. And I thought of Don and I talked to the Tribune editor, Jack Fuller, about him, and together we wooed him and got him back. And it's great for the Tribune.
Gentry: It sounds as though he moved around a little.
Wille: He did. It was hard to get him back to Chicago and the New York Times was furious.
Gentry: That was interesting, though.
Wille: But if that's what you mean by mentoring, I've done it periodically. But I just think it's more a natural thing that experienced reporters help younger ones. It's in their own best interest as well as being the decent thing to do.
Gentry: Looking back on your reporting career, did it progress as fast as you wanted it to on the Daily News?
Wille: Yes, since I never had—I didn't have any specific expectations getting on the Daily News, you know, one of the biggest papers in the country. I wanted to stay in Chicago, so being able to be a reporter on a good Chicago paper was something so wonderful in itself that I didn't really think, you know, next I want to do this, next I want to do that. But it progressed, once I got on the news section—and that didn't take too long—progressed faster than I ever could have imagined. It was in a very short time I was working on the kinds of projects that I found very satisfying and having some impact, I think, on the quality of life in the city or on the city's problems.
Gentry: It was really relatively little time compared to many women journalists that you had to do those silly stories. It was just a matter of months, really.
Wille: In that sense, while being a woman made it difficult to get that first job and while a lot of assignments and areas of reporting were closed off to women, it also helped because I was something different, the only female in general assignment reporting. There were certain stories that the male editors in their ignorance considered only a woman could do because of rapport with victims or who knows whatever. I got better assignments.
Gentry: Really. It worked to your benefit.
Wille: Yes, it did.
Gentry: And I think probably in the beginning before they got to know you, you could probably get closer to some of these politicians. They were thinking you might be soft until the first story came out and they knew that you were tough.
Wille: I think it definitely was easier to get interviews. They saw you as non-threatening. That's true.
Gentry: You never wanted to be, as you said, an editor, like an editor of a paper.
Wille: I never wanted to stop writing and I wasn't that interested in the administrative end of it and the kinds of other problems that you got into once you left reporting. That's why editorial writing or being editorial page editor was so ideal. It gave me a chance to have a policy role in a management job but still do some writing. I gradually became more and more interested in effecting change in this region rather than tinkering and doing little things to improve the paper. So that was an ideal job for me.
There's been, I think, an interesting and maybe alarming trend that as women have advanced in papers and as there's been pressure to promote women, you see more and more female editorial page editors. It bothers me in that it looks like somebody has decided, well, they can't handle the daily deadline pressures and the competitive pressures of being metropolitan editor or managing editor or editor, but they can sit back there and think and do the thoughtful things. A number of big papers now have women as editorial page editors but it's still rare to see women as managing editors and editors of big papers.
Periodically I had a chance to move back into the newsroom and get into that stream. I didn't want to do it. I felt for the sake of women in the business maybe I should, but for my own personal enjoyment, I much preferred working on the editorial page. I thought of my work more as being community-oriented, I guess, than being newspaper-oriented.
Gentry: It sounded like a perfect step for you.
Wille: It was for me.
Gentry: Well, continuing with just a couple more questions in reflecting on your reporting career, do you have a favorite story or most interesting story that strikes you in that long career? I realize that's a lot of years?
Wille: The project we talked about on the future of the city and its suburbs was the most significant. It gave me a chance to pull together many of the areas I'd been writing about—schools, housing, race relations and so forth—and then led to being editorial page editor. So of course that was important.
I loved my year or year and a half or whatever it was when I had the title of national correspondent at the Chicago Daily News. What that really meant was going after some big stories around the country. I always enjoyed politics. I loved the time I spent in Plains, Georgia, and the series I did on Jimmy Carter, and also the series on his family.
Gentry: Were those maybe the best years of being a reporter, as national correspondent?
Wille: Probably the best were some of those early years when I first did a series on—the first significant series, '61, '62, the series on the juvenile court, on the travesty of mental health commitments in Illinois, and on the failure of the state's public health systems to give adequate health benefits to women, mainly involving birth control.
Gentry: Which resulted in the Pulitzer.
Wille: Those three series came within perhaps a year or year and a half of each other. And all of them brought change. The juvenile court series resulted in the formation of a civic and business committee to reform the juvenile court setup in Cook County. The mental health series resulted in new legislation in the state legislature to improve and tighten commitment procedures. And the birth control series resulted in the availability of birth control services to indigent women.
Gentry: A story means so much more when you can see that it's made a change in the community.
Wille: That's right. It's rare to be able to do that. Periodically I did stories on conditions in Chicago's public schools. I wish I could say that those resulted in reforms one, two, three, four and now the schools are better. They're not. They're worse. Those were the most frustrating kinds of stories.
Gentry: That was the worst time, really, I suppose.
Wille: Not the worst time but the most frustrating to know that periodically I could do the same story over and over and nothing changed. But I suppose those early series I enjoyed the most.
Gentry: Who was the most intriguing person you've ever interviewed?
Wille: Well, it was fun to interview celebrities but I wouldn't say they were the most intriguing.
Gentry: Celebrities such as?
Wille: We talked about Cary Grant and Gregory Peck and one time Baron Rothschild and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Gentry: Those were early on.
Wille: Various movie stars coming in and out. I was a new reporter and that obviously was dazzling. I guess probably there was one person that impressed me the most and then turned out to have helped me the most—or maybe there were two. One was Saul Alinsky, a community organizer, quite well-known around the country, who grew up in Chicago and helped form the first neighborhood organization that fought for neighborhood empowerment in the country. That was the Back of the Yards Council in Chicago. It still exists.
His second big success in Chicago was helping create The Woodlawn Organization, the first black empowerment group in an American city. The Woodlawn Organization had an enormous influence on Chicago politics and eventually on the politics of every big city. Saul taught me a lot about political dynamics and where change had to originate and how change could be achieved. And he was also just a delightful person—cynical and funny and a good teacher. He wrote several books and established a training program for community leaders that still exists today that really set the pattern for people like Ralph Nader and the environmental movement, the anti-war movement. A lot of those movements were successful because they used Saul Alinsky's techniques.
Saul's close friend was Monsignor Egan, who became another great source of help for me. He was a priest who was very involved in the civil rights movement and in improving Chicago's neighborhoods. I mean really got down in the dirty organizing, fighting work. As a result, he got banned from Chicago by the then-Cardinal Cody and went to work for President Hesburgh at Notre Dame. Those two people were tremendously important to the city.
Gentry: I imagine they were resources for years for you.
Wille: They were. Saul died some years ago. Jack Egan is still around, now at DePaul University in Chicago. In fact, there's a new biography of him that's just been released.
Gentry: But you didn't write it.
Wille: I didn't write it, no. I still see him from time to time.
Gentry: When you were editorial page editor—well, I suppose it varied with each paper but on the Daily News and on the Sun-Times and later on, the Tribune—how much of a final decision did you have on choosing the editorial that you would write each day? Was this a whole board of people that had to decide? Did you have to go to the editor or the publisher, before?
Wille: On all three papers the editorial boards functioned essentially in the same way, and most of the editorial boards that I'm familiar with around the country do this, too: The editorial writers and the editorial page editor meet every morning to talk about what's been going on, and topics to write about for the next day and also more long-range topics. Usually people have their own specialties. I wrote a lot about urban issues, state and local politics. Someone else might specialize in foreign affairs, someone else in economics. How much specializing you can do depends on the size of the staff.
Gentry: How big were these staffs?
Wille: At the Sun-Times there were just five of us, including me. At the Tribune we had nine, including me, but three of them also wrote columns twice a week so they couldn't write editorials every day. But because there were nine of us, the people were able to specialize a little more. For example, Joan Beck in health and education, which are extremely important topics for papers today, a specialty we didn't have the luxury of
having at the Sun-Times. Someone else, Ken Knox, in suburban coverage and transportation, two other specialties that are very important, which we didn't have at the Sun-Times. But we met every morning on both papers. By that time, you were expected to have read your own paper, the opposition paper, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. You'd talk about ideas. Now, at the Tribune, the editor often sat in if he was in town—Jim Squires, who was my first editor at the Tribune, and then Jack Fuller—because at the Tribune the editorial page editor reports to the editor.
Gentry: That's what I was wondering.
Wille: At the Sun-Times, the editorial page editor reported to the publisher, who was Jim Hoge. Jim Hoge became publisher of the Sun-Times when Marshall Field stepped down. This was not long after the Daily News folded. So at the Sun-Times I did not report to the editor. Jim Hoge as publisher was very busy and did not usually sit in on our meetings, but most days I would talk to him by phone, tell him we planned to do this, this and this. Or if I didn't talk to him, I'd send him a little synopsis of each editorial, so he knew what was going on. At the Tribune, because the editor usually sat in on the board meetings, the editor would know what was going to be written. If Jack Fuller was out of town, he trusted me not to do anything zany.
Gentry: So there were very few disagreements.
Wille: Oh, no, there's lots of discussion and arguments among the board members because you have a number of views represented. But between the editor and the editorial page editor at the Tribune, there weren't a lot of disagreements. I guess the editor would be inclined to appoint an editorial page editor that saw things basically the same way but not on every issue. So there were differing viewpoints and that's important. I think it's good that the editors of the Tribune I worked for wanted and valued differing viewpoints.
So we had great arguments at our board meetings. Sometimes they would go on for hours at those morning meetings. The same thing that the nation as a whole argues about: abortion, the death penalty, should there be a tax cut to stimulate the economy or is it more important to cut the deficit to stimulate the economy, issues like that that we debate endlessly.
Gentry: Were these resolved primarily among you then?
Wille: It's important for a paper to have some continuity in its viewpoints. Every time you get a new editorial page editor you don't want to drastically change your views because readers would lose confidence in your editorials. But within broad principles, there will be change. The Tribune, once it outgrew its bad days of being isolationist and very narrow-minded on social issues, went back to its roots. The Tribune was founded to emancipate the slaves and was very progressive socially in its earliest days, but conservative fiscally and a great proponent of free trade. The Tribune today—Jack Fuller and I are fond of telling people this when they come to visit our editorial board—still is a modern version of those two principles: committed to free markets and freedom in the way countries are organized economically, and socially progressive.
Gentry: And that old Colonel McCormick radicalism is gone? There's none of that left?
Wille: Right. It's been squeezed out.
Gentry: Over many years.
Wille: The Tribune in recent years has done some fine reporting on urban problems, and that makes it easy for editorial boards then to do editorials that spin off these issues. For example, we did an editorial series on the importance of early childhood education. The single best way to improve a school system like Chicago's would be to start educating kids in poor areas from the age of two on.
Gentry: Like Head Start?
Wille: Oh, yes. Earlier than Head Start, more intensive than Head Start. There have been a lot of pilot demonstrations that show you can do this. And that's one of the frustrating things writing about big-city schools. There are ways to improve them and they're cost-effective in the long run. But you just can't get the political establishment to move on them because it takes a while to show results.
But anyway, we did a lot of editorial writing on that issue and on housing issues and economic development issues that in some ways hark back to that series I did at the Daily News on Chicago and its suburbs. I carried a lot of that over to the Tribune and it was fine. It meshed perfectly with what the Tribune believes; the Tribune is strong for sensible economic development.
Gentry: I've seen your editorial files. You've written an extraordinary amount of editorials yourself. What percentage did you write, say, in a week or about how many? Or did it vary between the three papers?
Wille: I went over to the Tribune as the associate editorial page editor when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times. So I had more time to write them; I usually wrote every day unless I was working on some series of editorials that took a little more time. When I became editorial page editor in 1987, succeeding Jack Fuller, who eventually became the editor of the Tribune, I wasn't able to write every day. I wrote maybe two or three times a week. I did a lot of editing on things other people did. And then there's also a great amount of time involved in meetings, both internally at the paper and outside the paper, people who come in and want to meet with your editorial board or people you've got to see to keep up contacts, speaking engagements, luncheons.
Gentry: I see.
Wille: A lot of time-consuming sessions that go with being an editor on a paper like the Tribune. So I wrote maybe two or three times a week.
Gentry: As editorial page editor, did you have the ability to hire and fire in your staff?
Wille: Fortunately, I never had to fire.
Gentry: Could you have?
Wille: Editorial board members are chosen with great care and it's, I would guess, pretty rare to make a mistake. Usually when someone is named to the editorial board, the editor and the editorial page editor know that person's work and they know that person can produce—
Gentry: And they've generally been there for a long time.
Wille: Well, not necessarily for a long time. It's good to keep new ideas and viewpoints flowing into that board and you don't want people becoming editorial writers thinking, "I'm going to have to spend the next 20 years doing this," because often they want to do other kinds of things. So editorial board members will change periodically.
We never—neither at the Sun-Times nor the Tribune—hired from the outside directly for the editorial board, with the exception of Don Wycliff, who had been an editorial writer at the New York Times and had also filled in for me somewhat at the Sun-Times. So I knew his work. That was easy.
The other appointments to the editorial board, Jack Fuller and I feel that it's good to make these from within the paper because it's a good job, it's a promotion, and you like to reward people who've done good work on the staff with that job. And also they then know the city, they know the area, they know all the players. And they're familiar with the paper.
So most of the newcomers to the editorial board—all of them with the exception of Don—came from within the Tribune organization. And often it was dictated, too, by the kind of expertise we were looking for.
Gentry: What were the special strengths of these people—for future people who might be interested, future journalists? Special strengths for being an editorial writer. It seems it takes different muscles than being a reporter.
Wille: It does. You need some of the same skills but I used to get a lot of applications from kids completing their graduate work or completing an internship and I would have to write back saying, "It's not the place to start. You really need a good background in reporting first—you have to know how to report and how to sift through what people are telling you." What's true and what isn't true, what's important and what isn't important—you have to learn how to make those kinds of judgments.
You also have to be a good writer and a creative writer to get people to read editorials. You have to know how to write for deadline. And you have to know how to write very succinctly because editorials are short. I think that one of the hardest shifts to make from school to newspaper work is learning to write fast and short. Shifting from working in the newsroom to editorial writing, you have to learn to write even shorter. So you do need a lot of experience.
And it also helps to have a specialty. One of the key members of the Tribune editorial page staff is Terry Brown, who had been the business editor of the Tribune and had also worked on the Wall Street Journal. He's got an excellent background in business and economics. He follows it like a scholar, or like a good reporter. When Terry comes in to the morning editorial board meetings, he's checked the wires, he's read the business publications, he knows just what's going on in his field and what is important and what isn't, and what we should be writing about.
The same thing with Joan Beck in health and medicine. Now that's an area of increasing importance, particularly how this country is going to pay for a decent level of medical care or how Americans are going to pay for a decent level of medical care.
Gentry: And the aging of America?
Wille: Right. It's something that's being talked about a lot now but it's so difficult to grapple with. Do you end up rationing medical care, as some countries do? Or what do you do about all the people who have no medical insurance? And you've got to make it clear to the business community that leaving great numbers of people with no access to health insurance ultimately forces up the health care bill for companies that do offer insurance. Hospitals and other health-care providers will charge more to the insured to cover their losses on the uninsured. There are just a lot of health and medical issues that are so important. Joan could write every day on that topic, I think, and it would be interesting to readers. That's a new specialty. And I guess I'd recommend that someone who wants to get into editorial writing on a newspaper consider health and also consider education as specialty topics, and economics.
Gentry: Probably not every reporter has the ability to make it as an editorial writer because of the differences in the two styles.
Wille: Some people who were new to the editorial board at the Tribune and people who would fill in as vacation replacements when I was at the Sun-Times found it difficult to express a strong opinion clearly. They would spend a great deal of time in the editorial, rehashing the facts, and avoiding opinions, because they found it difficult to get over that line that you try not to cross as a reporter. And suddenly you've got to jump right in and do it.
One of the best writers at the Tribune and someone who has a great deal of wonderful experience, Doug Kneeland, had been a top national reporter for the New York Times, joined the Tribune's national and
foreign staff, and became national and foreign editor; he was my deputy editorial page editor at the Tribune for a while. And Doug is a wonderful writer, beautiful writer, but often he'd write this lovely essay and I'd go back to him and say, "Doug, I'm not really sure how you think the Tribune should feel about this. What do we want to happen? What's our opinion?" He'd say, "Oh, yeah." So it was just a question of recasting to make it an opinion piece, and it took Doug a while to get used to that.
Gentry: But you found you caught on to it after the first day.
Wille: So did some other people. Pat Widder, who had been a deputy financial editor at the Tribune, was briefly on the editorial staff, covering economics, before she went to cover Wall Street for the Tribune. Pat was able to do it instantly. The first editorial she did had a good, strong, clear, lively opinion. But that just depends on the person. You've got to adjust to doing that.
Gentry: Did you make any effort to hire women on your staff?
Wille: Well, as I said, we never hired from the outside.
Gentry: Or promote women?
Wille: The Tribune was very—both Jim Squires, the person who hired me at the Tribune, and Jack Fuller, who succeeded him as editor, were very aware about getting women into top positions. And the Tribune has been one of the best papers in the country in that. The Tribune has—one of the key positions on the paper is filled by Colleen Dishon, the associate editor in charge of features; she presides over the biggest staff and the most sections and probably is the most creative person on the staff. The metropolitan editor until recently was Ellen Soeteber; that's a job—it used to be called city editor—the kind of job women have been slow to get because it's the number one deadline-competitive-pressure job on a paper. Ellen is now the deputy editorial page editor. Her successor, Ann Marie Lipinski, is a woman. A woman is deputy financial editor. There are women sportswriters. I believe now the chief photographer is a woman. The Tribune has been good at promoting women.
Gentry: Since the seventies or always?
Wille: Not the seventies. I guess the eighties, the early eighties. I don't know. But as I mentioned before, the pressure from women's groups, the women's movement, did a great deal to sensitize editors, as did the threat of filing EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] suits during the seventies. When I told the Tribune's editor, Jack Fuller, that I wanted to retire early, one of the things that concerned Jack was making sure that the number of women in top positions didn't diminish at the Tribune. And while there wasn't a woman in line to replace me—Joan Beck does a column and really wouldn't have wanted to give that up to become an editorial page editor full-time—Jack had in mind Ellen Soeteber to become the deputy editorial page editor when I left. Ellen had been a great success as metropolitan editor, and he thinks she's got good potential to be managing editor or run the paper someday; he felt that serving at least a while on the editorial board was good experience.
Gentry: Sure. Absolutely.
Wille: So Ellen has a great future at the Tribune. But then Jack also felt that—in a continuing effort to move women and minorities into good jobs, a woman named Ruby Scott who had been managing editor of the Tribune Magazine and had had some other management jobs—a superb editor, one of the top editors of the paper—he thought Ruby would be ideal as our op-ed editor. Then, in an effort to broaden the editorial board, he made the editor of the op-ed page—which is the column page, the page opposite the editorial page—he made that editor a member of the editorial board. Jack and I both felt that was important because it's good for the column-page editor to hear the kinds of issues that are being discussed at board meetings and to contribute to the discussion.
It gives that person an idea of the kinds of columns to solicit. The op-ed page editor works under the editorial page editor and should be a member of the editorial board.
So Ruby joined the editorial board. That adds another woman and another black person to the board. While there wasn't a woman who seemed a natural successor to me, as I mentioned, Jack and I had sought out Don Wycliff at the New York Times to succeed Doug Kneeland as my deputy editor when Doug moved into a different editing job. And Don then succeeded me.
So the Tribune has three black editorial board members: Clarence Page, who also does a column and now is based in Washington but is still an editorial board member—
Gentry: He was a good friend of mine.
Wille: Oh, that's right. You went to school together.
Gentry: Yes. Well, he was a few years behind me at Ohio University. My husband taught him.
Wille: Oh. Clarence and Ruby Scott and Don Wycliff, the editor.
Gentry: I was going to ask you about Clarence. Of course, Clarence won a Pulitzer.
Wille: That's right. The same year I did.
Gentry: Did some of the other people on your staff win Pulitzers? You must have felt very proud of them.
Wille: Let me just finish what I was going to say about the number of women. The Tribune has three women on its editorial board: Joan Beck, who also does a column, and Ruby Scott, who edits the op-ed page, and Ellen Soeteber, who's the deputy editorial page editor, and three black members. We had an Hispanic member, Manuel Galvan, who's been promoted into a different kind of job, so we don't at present have an Hispanic. It's probably important to do that. But I think it's a board that—it may be evenly divided between people living in the city and people living in the suburbs. It's a good board, more representative of the city than editorial boards would have been years ago when they were all white suburban males. And this has been really important.
To talk about the Pulitzers: While I was at the Tribune, the first member of the editorial board to get a Pulitzer was Jeff MacNelly, our cartoonist. And Jeff had already won other Pulitzers but the next one that went to an editorial board member was Jack Fuller, who was editorial page editor at the time; he won for editorials he did on constitutional issues, particularly stressing the shortcomings of Ed Meese as attorney-general. Good editorials, wonderful editorials.
I was especially happy because I wrote the covering letter. Both Jack and I hate to write covering letters for prize entries but we had to. That was one of our functions: to select representative editorials to submit and then to write the covering letters. And we especially hated doing them on our own materials, so I would do Jack's and he would do mine.
Then in 1989, Clarence won for column writing, commentary, and I won for editorial writing. Again I wasn't there. The two times I've won Pulitzers, I've been out of the country both times. I was in Budapest with my father, visiting his sister. So I got a phone call late that night from Jim Squires telling me about it and then a whole series of other phone calls so that the switchboard at the hotel must have thought there was a great international crisis.
Gentry: You must always leave forwarding numbers when you travel.
Wille: Well, I would anyway. That's important.
Gentry: I was going to talk about your editorial Pulitzer that you won in '89 a little later but since we mentioned it, I'll go ahead and talk about it right now. There was something I wanted to read that your editors wrote, I guess with the entry.
Wille: Doug Kneeland wrote that. Doug was the deputy editorial page editor at the time so I wrote Doug's covering letter and Doug wrote mine and Doug insisted it was his letter that won. The judges read his letter and decided they didn't have to read anything more. "And a good thing," Doug says.
Gentry: I doubt that.
I just want to read a paragraph or two of it. It's just beautiful—an incredible letter and incredible comments on you. It goes: "No question. If Lois Wille were running Chicago, it would be a better place: fairer, more decent, more honest, more demanding and more giving, preserving the best of its past or reaching out eagerly to make even more of its future for all its people. Her editorial voice is so strong, so clear, so persistent and invariably so right, in a real way she does have a hand in how this town is run. Mayors, aldermen, county officials, governors, all the political ins and outs ignore her penetrating wit and wisdom at their own risk, and they know that.
"Most of them see her as a mythic figure of justice, weighing their transgressions on unforgiving scales. Fair enough. But the really sharp ones will have noticed that Lois Wille, unlike justice, wears no blindfold. She sees their follies and their frauds with unparalleled clarity, then dissects them in print with stinging accuracy." And these editorials are stinging.
Wille: See, that's what Doug means. Who could resist that letter?
Gentry: It's wonderful. Well, it's a wonderful commentary on you.
Wille: Doug is a wonderful writer. Doug writes editorials equally good.
Gentry: But he didn't win the Pulitzer prize, you did.
Wille: No, but he should have, some year.
Gentry: I love your line in one of the editorials on aldermen: "Being offensive is as basic to their nature as the wink and nod." I love that. That's just really stinging.
But do you want to talk a little bit about the series of editorials?
Wille: If you like.
Wille: It wasn't really a series. It was editorials that appeared at various times, not written as a series. But they were, I believe most of them, focused on state and local government. The state and local politicians in Chicago and in Springfield, the state capital, make writing editorials about them a joy. It's easy, believe me.
Gentry: They have so many faults, are you saying?
Wille: A lot of these had to do with the Chicago city council in one of its periodic wars. I think this was the time after Harold Washington had died and he was succeeded—there was an interim mayor, Eugene Sawyer, who succeeded him. He was also black but was backed mainly by white aldermen who had fought Harold Washington,
so that caused a split in the black community and led to all kinds of fights on the city council. And our state legislature is no better than most state legislatures so again there's a lot to write about.
Gentry: They were beautifully done. You didn't pull any punches. "Stinging" is a good word, I think.
Wille: The Chicago city council also has an incredible record of people getting indicted and sentenced for corruption. I don't know what are the figures. We've got fifty aldermen. Usually at any given time, about five of them are under indictment. There's a lot of cleaning up that had to be done and some of it's slowly taking place. Some of the abuses are being corrected. But they still give editorial writers plenty of fodder.
Gentry: Ammunition. You were completely surprised that you won it? You weren't expecting it?
Wille: Well, I knew I had been—the way the Pulitzers operate, there are panels of jurors who nominate three to the permanent Pulitzer board and I knew I was one of the three. That word always gets back. And we knew that Clarence was one of the three. I didn't expect to win because one of the three that was nominated for editorial writing was a splendid series the New York Times had done, I believe on early childhood education, a fine series. I don't remember what the third was. And I also didn't think that both Clarence and I would win.
Gentry: No, that's unusual, I would think.
Wille: It's not that rare for a big newspaper to win two Pulitzers in the same year but rare to have two in allied fields, editorial writing and commentary.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Gentry: When you got back, did you have a big party, you and Clarence and the rest of the staff?
Wille: The tradition at the Tribune when someone won a Pulitzer is that the editor would take—not all 600 editorial employees but key people in that department to dinner, in whatever restaurant the winners liked. One of my favorite restaurants is Harry Caray's, near the Tribune tower, named for—I guess he's probably one of the owners—Harry Caray, the Cubs announcer, and is full of all kinds of baseball memorabilia. I love baseball. At an upstairs room at Harry Caray's, we had a dinner for the editorial page staff and for Clarence and me.
Wille: It was nice. And with a couple of close friends—Mike Royko came. Wayne was out of town. Unfortunately, he was I think in Seattle at a meeting and couldn't attend. Clarence's wife came although she was about eight months and three weeks pregnant.
Gentry: I was going to ask you if there was ever a time when you had an editorial view or a view on an editorial that didn't mesh with the paper's editorial stand and had to back down.
Wille: As I mentioned, the editorial board sessions often have—there are differing viewpoints that we hash out. Let me see. What would be different? I guess although the Tribune has been supportive of the right to a legal abortion, I think I would have been more critical of the Webster decision. The Tribune—and this really reflects more consensus of the board, I guess—felt that Webster could be tolerated; it was not that wrong. Joan Beck had quite different views from mine on it.
Gentry: So you had to back down a little bit?
Wille: Tailoring. I didn't write that particular editorial but if it had been my choice alone, it would have been phrased differently but that's often the case.
Wille: And in a couple of other instances where the Tribune traditionally may have taken a different viewpoint, I was able to shift it. Maybe three or four years ago, I persuaded the rest of the board and the editor that Illinois needed an income tax increase to provide more money for public schools but also for some other social services. That's a position that would have been different, I think, for the Tribune to take some years earlier.
Gentry: Tax increases are always hard to sell, too.
Wille: Right. We had no problem with it at the Sun-Times but it was a little different for the Tribune. But the Tribune did take a lead role in that and campaigned ardently for an increase in taxes. And that's something I'm pleased with.
I suppose that I in general would favor more government intervention to help with economic problems than the Tribune would favor.
Gentry: More of a Democratic view? Traditional?
Wille: I guess, although—I just hate to attach party labels or any kind of labels. But in areas of economic development and environmental protection, I would tend more to favor a government role than the Tribune has in its editorials. But none of these are sharp differences. It's really a matter of degree. And there was never anything I felt was wrong that really bothered me that the Tribune had to say that I didn't want to say.
Gentry: When you were editorial page editor for the Sun-Times and then editorial page editor for the Tribune, did editorial voices vary very much?
Wille: Not much. By the time I became editorial page editor of the Sun-Times, it had shed its early reputation as being strictly a Democratic party organ and was impartial and objective and made its editorial positions on the basis of what was right, not on party label, endorsed people in both parties and probably as many Republicans as Democrats. And the same was true of the Tribune. It had shed its image of being a Republican party organ and had a good objective viewpoint on its editorial page. We endorsed pretty nearly the same people, so that the editorial pages were not that different.
I think I may have contributed a change in focus to do more editorials on local issues—on state and local issues—than the Tribune had done because that's what my specialty had been. And I was added to the board when I came. I didn't replace anybody so it was an added voice. And Jim Squires, the editor, one of the reasons he brought me there was to give that extra dimension to the paper.
Wille: So the editorial page may have changed in that respect.
Gentry: Were there any favorite editorials on the Sun-Times or those that you thought made the most impact that you remember writing?
Wille: At the Sun-Times, I did a lot on fiscal issues. It was an area that none of the papers had written that much about. And that's after New York nearly went bankrupt. The fiscal health of cities became a big issue. And one of the things that I got especially interested in was city budgets and state budgets and how to read them and how to find out what was right and wrong about them. I wrote a lot about that. And then also making it interesting to people. So I guess one of the things I enjoy doing a lot and I think hadn't been done until that time is when the municipal budget came out to do a good critical review of it for the readers.
Gentry: Now, you won eight Peter Lisagor awards for editorial writing. Did that cover all three papers you wrote editorials for?
Wille: I think so. Peter Lisagor—we mentioned him earlier—
Gentry: We mentioned him going through the bushes with you.
Wille: Right. —was the great Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Daily News. He's well-known nationally for his appearances on Washington Week in Review and some other TV shows, a wonderful writer, a wonderful columnist. He died of lung cancer shortly after the 1976 conventions. He worked those conventions while he was getting chemotherapy.
Gentry: Oh, my.
Wille: Amazing person. Went back to work after them. Anyway, the Chicago chapter of Sigma Delta Chi decided to establish annual awards in his name for newspaper—I believe also radio and television—work. One of them was an award for editorial writing. I think the first one that I won was the first year the awards were given, and that was when I was still at the Daily News. And I probably won it most years at the Sun-Times, a couple of years at the Tribune.
Gentry: They gave one a year?
Wille: Yes. They were annual awards.
Gentry: I see. That's great. Winning eight of them.
Wille: I don't want to make too big a deal out of it. There were just two metropolitan Chicago papers by that time, and the awards were local, they were Chicago awards. Community papers I guess were eligible also but it was essentially a competition between the various editorial writers on two papers.
Gentry: How would you describe your management style when you got into being editorial page editor?
Wille: I think like a lot of women in management, I would tend more to manage by consensus or at least have it appear to be consensus. I didn't manage big staffs. If you're managing a hundred people, it's different than if you're managing—well, at the Sun-Times, including the column editor and people who would handle letters to the editor and copy-editing, maybe eight people, the Tribune, including people in those position and cartoonists, 12 or 13 people. I want people to feel that they're participating in the decisions but it's also important to be perceived as a person of strength and fair and a person who can make decisions.
I tried to be aware when I thought that someone was unhappy or hurt for some reason. As I mentioned, the editor of the Tribune would usually sit in on those sessions. The editor that I worked under originally, Jim Squires, a very creative person, very strong person, also could at times be volatile and say things that hurt people. It was his style. You learned to get along with it because he had so many strengths that were important for the Tribune. He did a great job in making over that paper. But there were people on the editorial board who were hurt—he had a tendency to be a bully—were hurt at times by things that Jim did or said.
I had to learn during those editorial board meetings. In the beginning I would challenge Jim at those sessions and I found out that Jim could not be challenged in front of people.
Gentry: Especially a woman.
Wille: Well, no. It wasn't especially women. In fact, a woman probably could do it easier than a man, definitely easier than a man. But still, Jim didn't like that. So I had to learn to work within—I had to learn to handle Jim as well as handle what Jim did to the rest of the staff. And that was often tricky, especially when Jack Fuller left to become executive editor and it was Jim and me.
Then there's never enough money to give the kind of raises you think people deserve so the annual discussions with people about the kind of raises they were getting and the kind of job they were doing can be touchy but it's important.
Gentry: You had to decide on the raises?
Wille: Oh, yes. I had a budget to manage and I had X amount of money to use for salaries, so within that, decide what people would be getting and how the rest of the budget is to be appropriated. Again, it was a small department, much easier than what Ellen Soeteber had to do with her entire city staff. But those decisions were hard to make. And because people on the editorial board had different opinions, some people would go away from the meeting unhappy with what we had decided to do and I wanted to make sure that they understood that their viewpoint was appreciated even if it didn't carry the day.
I tried to always be sensitive to this because it's important. I wanted people to be happy in their jobs so they could give a hundred percent and then some to the job. And you can't do that if you're nursing some grievance. So I tried to be sensitive to those hurts. And also to give—oh, I think it's so important in the writing business, or any business, I guess, to encourage people and to let them know when they've done a good job. I've found that in newspaper work over the years that often this wasn't done, and that praise would have to come from co-workers because editors didn't bother.
So one of the things I made a point of doing is when someone did something good that I let them know I was enthused about it, to have a spirit of enthusiasm and also fun, to have a lot of jokes and laughter. I guess on the Tribune years ago, the editorial board was a very stiff collection. Someone rang a bell at the start of the meeting and the men would come in with their suit coats. We had a much looser operation. Jim Squires had changed that and Jack had changed that but I wanted to carry it even further and have an atmosphere that was fun to work in and where people's work was appreciated when they did something good so that if they did something that wasn't quite right, they would be motivated to improve it and know that they didn't hear just criticism from me.
Gentry: I wanted to talk to someone younger who had worked under you so I called Sarah Snyder of the Boston Globe, a financial writer there who was twenty-one when she worked under you as an editorial writer right out of college at the Sun-Times. And she said that she was green but you made her feel that her ideas were good, you always showed respect to her, you felt confident of her, and she said you made her feel smart and thus you instilled a huge loyalty in those that you worked with. And she said, "I think any one of us would have just worked at their very best" for you because of the way you complimented them when they did well and really respected their work.
Wille: I didn't have to make Sarah feel smart. Sarah is smart. She's very talented. Sarah was very young when she—Jim Hoge hired her as an intern. She came with a great recommendation from Eugene Patterson, the editor of the St. Petersburg Times. She'd worked there as a college student. This was after the Daily News had folded. Jim could not—he wasn't supposed to hire anybody as a reporter. All hirings had to come from people who had been let go by the Daily News and Sun-Times. That was one of the union agreements that he had to hire from a hiring list. That really limited what he could do.
Sarah came in for an interview. Sarah was so dynamic and so aggressive and so impressive that Jim wanted her on his staff. He couldn't hire her as a reporter—
Gentry: So that's how she got on.
Wille: She came in—the editorial board was exempt from union rules and while he couldn't hire her—Sarah didn't have the background, really, to be an editorial writer right off the bat but we had a tiny staff and we needed assistance so she was hired as an intern assigned to the editorial board. One reason was to get around that Guild requirement but it also was very valuable to us. Well, Sarah was a good, aggressive reporter and invaluable to us but I also wanted to give her some opportunity to write. She filled in when people were on vacation or just filled in when we needed help and didn't need much guidance at all. Sarah is very, very good and I enjoyed working with Sarah enormously.
Gentry: She enjoyed working with you, too, believe me. She had lots of good things to say.
Wille: Sarah then moved into the newsroom and became a top reporter and after the Murdoch sale went off to Boston—she's from New England—to work at the Globe. I believe she's assistant or associate financial editor there now.
Gentry: She made another comment that was interesting about how you used your power. She said that you wielded a lot of power as editor of the editorial page but you never used it for your own gain, you always used it for "the public good, to do good." That's an exact quote from her. And I was just curious about—
Wille: My own gain? Why would I use power for my own gain?
Gentry: She said you never used it for your own gain, as most people would. Many people, of course they use power for their own gain.
Wille: What does she mean? To get bribes from people for editorials? That's such a foreign concept to me.
Gentry: But you used it for the public good, really. In other words, writing editorials for the public good and not just to win more Pulitzers and make yourself look good, I think is what she was saying.
Wille: Well, as I mentioned earlier, one of the things that appealed to me about editorial writing is that instead of focusing movement or promotion or goals within the paper, my goals were outside the paper. I was more outward-directed, I guess. Sure, that's true. Everything we did, the things that I wrote about or that other people wrote about—I think that's natural, though, for an editorial page—were to effect change in the community or the country or the world. And that was appealing to me because that's really what I liked about my reporting days, what I found most satisfying about reporting. So I never as a reporter or when I wrote editorials thought, hmm, what promotion can this get me.
Gentry: But some people would.
Wille: But what improvement or what reform can we get through this editorial?
Gentry: Did you admire Bob Greene? Of course, he has an entirely different style than you do as a columnist. Wasn't he with you?
Wille: Bob Greene worked at the Sun-Times and—
Gentry: The Sun-Times and the Daily News, didn't he?
Wille: No, not the Daily News. While he was at the Sun-Times the Daily News was still in existence, and as I said, the two staffs shared a building but we were competitive. I knew who Bob Greene was because he was hired by the Sun-Times, I think, directly from Northwestern's journalism school and became a columnist very quickly. Jim Hoge was—I think he was editor then and he correctly saw the need to attract more younger readers. It's a chronic problem for newspapers, even maybe more so today than it was then.
And he saw both Bob Greene and another young writer that he hired, Roger Simon, as young writers who could appeal to a younger audience. Both became columnists early on.
Bob Greene wrote a lot about things that appealed to younger readers. He traveled for a while with a rock group and wrote about that. I think he did a lot of political reporting, wrote about his high school years. I can't say I paid a lot of attention to him at the Sun-Times. I knew who he was and we had a couple of conversations. Occasionally, he did something I thought was really good and I may have mentioned—passed in the hall and mentioned that to him. I didn't really know him that well. He left the Sun-Times when the Daily News folded.
Roger Simon was also doing a column at that time. Jim Hoge, of course, wanted to keep Mike Royko from the Daily News and have his column move over to the Sun-Times. The Tribune saw that the Sun-Times was going to be heavy in columnists and it did not have a strong local columnist. Over the years, it had made a number of attempts to get Mike Royko, always unsuccessfully. So it made a stab at Bob Greene and Bob saw that things were going to be a little crowded for columnists at the Sun-Times and that he'd have more of a chance at the Tribune to be their premiere columnist, which he became, overnight. Then I didn't have much contact with him until I joined the Tribune and then just saw him again occasionally in the hall. We had something in common in that we both had worked for one of the Field papers.
I like Bob. He's always seemed to me rather, at least in the contacts I've had with him, rather shy and not real secure, not sure of himself. And I think maybe when he came to the Tribune, he already was well-known nationally at the time and a lot of people shied away from him for that reason or thought that he was aloof when it may have been shyness. He had some close friends there, not a lot, so I guess I tried to be a friendly person to him. But our paths never crossed that much.
Gentry: There are so many fine reporters that you've worked with and that have come out of Chicago, it's hard to mention them all. But another one that stands out in my mind is Pam Zekman, an investigative reporter at the Sun-Times. I would like you to tell the story of the Mirage Bar. Just a brief summary.
Wille: I was still at the Daily News when the stories on the Mirage broke.
Gentry: Oh, you were? Okay. I didn't realize that.
Wille: I knew Pam by reputation when she was at the Tribune on its investigative task force and did some great work. Then she shifted to the Sun-Times and did even better work. It was Pam's idea that she presented to Jim Hoge and he liked it instantly, that the Sun-Times buy and operate a tavern and just open it and see what happens. For years everybody knew that Chicago businesses were vulnerable to inspectors wanting bribes for permits. And this had been written about and from time to time there'd be some evidence, someone would be fired because of it or maybe even indicted because of it. But there wasn't a clear picture of exactly how it happened because reporters are never present when the crooked inspector comes around. But I didn't know about Pam's plans because I was at the Daily News.
Gentry: I thought you were at the Sun-Times. I thought it was '79.
Wille: No. No. The first I knew of it was the promotion ads the Sun-Times ran. This great series was going to break, which shows how competitive and separate the two papers were.
Gentry: Yes, it sure does.
Wille: And I thought it was just a wonderful read, her series. She and Zay Smith—
Gentry: It was a real sting operation, wasn't it?
Wille: Zay Smith, another Sun-Times reporter, worked as the bartender and he went to a bartender school to learn how to be a good bartender.
Gentry: How long did they have this place open?
Wille: I don't really know. It was a couple months. Also, they told some state law enforcement people about it because they wanted to be sure they couldn't be accused of entrapment. So there was monitoring by state law enforcement authorities all along. And when the city inspectors came around for their bribes, all of that was carefully monitored. It was a great series.
My contacts with Pam were mainly in the women's washroom where the two staffs would merge—or at least females from the two staffs would merge.
Gentry: This was very quiet. I don't imagine many people knew what was going on.
Wille: No. Even people at the Sun-Times, they couldn't because if word would get out, the thing would be blown. Surely the Daily News didn't, not until the stories broke.
Gentry: What about their failure to win a Pulitzer because the ethics were questioned?
Wille: Right. The Pulitzer jurors nominated it for a Pulitzer and it was their number one choice to win the Pulitzer. I don't know if it was for public service or investigative reporting. The permanent Pulitzer board at the time had a couple of influential people who felt that it was unethical ever to pose as something you're not. I think the most influential was Ben Bradlee. I believe James Reston from the New York Times also took that viewpoint.
Another member of the Pulitzer board who took the opposite viewpoint was Clayton Kirkpatrick, who was then editor of the Tribune. That was good. It was the competition but he was arguing—the Tribune in the past had won some Pulitzers for undercover work, including one exposing how vote fraud operated. He knew why it was essential occasionally to do this. And besides, it wasn't as if the public was being deceived in any way. This was a tavern. It was open for business. Zay Smith was mixing drinks according to the bartender's guide or whatever. Customers got what they paid for. Pam and Zay did not solicit bribes. They were very careful about that.
Gentry: I thought it was quite wonderful myself.
Wille: It was wonderful. And it resulted in long-overdue cleanup in city inspection services. It was just excellent, good old-fashioned reporting. And Pam and Zay should have gotten a Pulitzer for that.
Gentry: She did later get a Pulitzer for something.
Wille: She had had a couple of them earlier, as part of Tribune task forces.
Gentry: She's another writer you admire.
Wille: Very much. Not just for the writing but Pam is the best investigative reporter I've known because she has a knack for figuring out something that really affects the public and the public is going to identify with. Some investigative series are so arcane that the public has a hard time seeing why this was important. Pam will zero in on something like abusive abortion clinics. She did another great series on exposing corruption in abortion clinics that were performing abortions—alleged abortions—on women who weren't even pregnant. It was just an awful racket. They'd give false positives on pregnancy tests. They were unsafe, they were unsanitary. There were no regulations really setting standards for abortion clinics.
Gentry: So she posed as a woman coming in there?
Wille: No. She worked with a civic group called the Better Government Association that did place some employees as clerical people. But I think she also took the urine of some male staff member in there as hers and they pronounced this guy pregnant, from his urine. It was another that should have won a Pulitzer but didn't because it involved undercover reporting.
I'm not sure that Pam got a Pulitzer at the Sun-Times for investigative reporting. As I said, she got a couple of them at the Tribune. She then got an offer from the CBS owned and operated TV station in Chicago, Channel 2, to do investigative reporting. Television has never really done it well, the way newspapers did, and never gave people time, both to get the story or air time. CBS wanted to make a sincere effort at doing this and they wanted Pam to do it. She was really torn. They may have offered her more money. I can't imagine that Jim Hoge wouldn't have met what they offered her.
But it was a challenge. Nobody had done this on television. She really felt that she wanted to try it to see if she could do it. It was a difficult decision and a lot of us agonized with her while she was making it. I didn't want her to leave but understood why she did it. Pam went on to do the best investigative reporting any TV station has ever done, and still does it.
Gentry: Is she still on Channel 2?
Wille: She still is. I think they've had cutbacks, they no longer give her the staff and the time she used to have. I'm not sure about that. But Pam won many national awards for her work for Channel 2 for CBS in Chicago. Again, her focus usually is how people are cheated. Just a great investigative reporter and a delightful person. You would love to know Pam. A tiny person with lots of curly red hair who was also a great figure skater.
Gentry: Is she young? Quite young?
Wille: She may be in her early or mid forties now. She could have been an Olympic figure skating champion. As a child and a young—as a teenager, spent hours and hours perfecting her figure skating and won a number of contests. But then at some point—I don't know, maybe it was when she started college—decided that she didn't really want to devote this much of her life to figure skating.
Gentry: That's what it takes, too.
Wille: But again, the time she did devote to it, practicing before and after school for years, is the same kind of intensity and drive that she put into her work at the Sun-Times. When Pam began an investigative project, she would map it out the way an architect maps out a building he wants to design and would work around the clock for as much time as it took to nail down the stories.
Gentry: I think this project on journalists might include Pam.
Wille: It should. If Pam says in a story something happened that way, you know it happened that way because Pam has eight different kinds of proof of it. I mean, that's the way she operates. That's why there's never been a lawsuit. All the crooks she exposed would love to have sued Pam. They never did because they know Pam is right.
Gentry: That's great. I know when I talked to Sarah Snyder she said that you and Pam were the idols of the younger women in there and they looked at you and thought, "Well, maybe we could succeed, too, if we were as dazzling as they are."
Wille: I think a lot of them could be me. I don't know of anybody else who could be Pam. I've never known anybody in the business, male or female, quite like Pam. Pam and her husband, Rick Soll, are very close to Mike and Judy Royko. I believe that Pam and Rick introduced Mike and Judy, and Mike is one of her greatest fans, too.
Gentry: Another mention that both Mike Royko and Sarah Snyder made about you, I asked, you know, what was she like personally? They said that you were one of the most optimistic people, that you always saw good in other people. I don't mean all the politicians but your friends, your co-workers, and they thought that that was an unusual thing. A lot of journalists are jaundiced, let's face it.
Wille: I can hear Mike saying that because Mike is the eternal pessimist. Mike is sure everything bad is going to happen. And I'm probably the eternal optimist. And both of us are wrong a lot of the time. I hope I don't see good in the rascals.
Gentry: No, I said, not in politicians but what they said, with your friends and your co-workers, you were very positive. Not in politics.
Wille: I like nearly all the people I've worked with, even the ones that other people may not like. It's rare that I haven't found something to like about them.
Gentry: I know many journalists who are rather jaundiced.
Wille: About their co-workers?
Gentry: No. Just about life in general, and it bleeds over. You know, it's not always common to see someone who is optimistic.
Wille: Maybe it's because I've had a very good life. Things that have happened to me, I've just been very fortunate throughout my life. That probably makes a difference, too, all along.
Gentry: Of course I want to talk about Rupert Murdoch, while you were at the Sun-Times.
Wille: Speaking of occasionally having people I don't like.
Gentry: Speaking of a loss of optimism. You were at the Sun-Times from 1978 to '84, until Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. Did you see that coming?
Wille: The Murdoch sale? No. I thought that after the folding of the Daily News, the Sun-Times seemed very healthy. I think it was very healthy; it was a good, intelligent, lively paper. Jim Hoge was a great leader. It had gained a lot of influence locally, had a tough time making in-roads in the suburbs where much of the population growth is but was doing a little bit of it. It was well-respected, really a classy paper, well-written. The Tribune had a much bigger share of the advertisers. That's always a problem, I guess.
Gentry: Did it not have a bigger circulation, too?
Wille: It had a bigger circulation. The Sun-Times, I believe, was growing faster than the Tribune. The gap was closing. The Sun-Times was—I don't know, what?—650,000; the Tribune, 740,000. The gap was narrowing. The Sun-Times demographics were getting very good. It was getting a lot of the younger, more affluent readers that the Tribune wanted and wasn't getting. When Jim Squires became editor of the Tribune, he'd been with Tribune Company for quite some time, had been a very successful editor for the Tribune Company paper in Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel.
Jim began making a lot of improvements in the Tribune, going after those readers the Sun-Times had been getting. I still thought the Sun-Times was a very healthy paper. There were rumors from time to time that the Field brothers would sell it. At that time, the ownership had passed into—it was jointly owned by Marshall Field V and his younger brother, Teddy Field. Marshall had an active role on the paper. Teddy had settled in California and was producing movies and racing cars and there were all these rumors that Teddy wanted more money out of the company, out of Field Enterprises, and that this might force a sale.
That turned out to be true. Jim Hoge called me into his office one day. I think it may have been April of '83, around that time, and said, "I've got some bad news. The Fields are going to sell the Sun-Times, they're going to put the Sun-Times up for sale. I hope that this won't hurt people or hurt the paper, that we can get an owner that's going to keep up the quality of the paper, but I wanted some people to know about it."
Pretty soon that became public because the paper publicly went on the block. There was a lot of concern that the Fields would sell just to the highest bidder and the highest bidder might be Rupert Murdoch. If I recall, the Fields said early on, "No, never. We want to make sure that it's good ownership, we prefer local ownership, and it won't be anyone like Rupert Murdoch who would trash the paper," and people felt pretty confident that would happen. Jim said he was going to be trying to work with local people to put together an investment group or an ownership group, hopefully that he could head. That was really reassuring to people.
As time went on and different groups looked at the paper, they found that it needed new presses, a huge investment—and you couldn't put the new presses in its present location. Improving the paper for the long haul meant a lot of money and maybe a new building, selling its site, more trouble than, say, the Los Angeles Times or one of the other big newspaper conglomerates that had looked at it wanted to take on.
Then there were rumors that Murdoch did appear to be the leading buyer. That obviously made people really nervous because we had seen what happened to the New York Post. I think by that time Murdoch also owned the San Antonio paper and we heard about what happened to that and knew the kind of papers he operated in London and Australia.
Then in November rumors became stronger, Rupert Murdoch was seen in the building, someone said. A phantom Murdoch was seen all over the place. Again Jim called me in—a few people in one by one—and said, "I've got bad news. Murdoch is going to buy the paper." And the group Jim was trying to put together—or had put together—lost out. Their offer was somewhat less. He was pretty bitter about it because he had felt it was a good offer and the Field brothers could have taken the lesser offer.
Gentry: Certainly. They had enough money.
Wille: They did. And it turned out, not surprisingly, that Teddy and his loyalists said it was Marshall who insisted on Murdoch and the higher price. And Marshall insisted it was Teddy who insisted on Murdoch and the higher price. Anyway, one day in November the sale to Rupert Murdoch was announced to a big staff meeting.
Gentry: Had it leaked out?
Wille: Oh, not definitely. But the fear was pretty real by that time. I got back to my office from that meeting and my secretary came in and said, "You had a phone call from Jim Squires of the Tribune," whom I had known slightly. I knew he had arrived from Florida and had made improvements on the paper—was a nice, smart, lively person. I called him back and he said, "You know, I just want you to know I don't know what's going to happen over there, what it's going to mean to you, but if you don't like the way things are going, you've got a job here. Any time you want to, just put on your coat and come across the street." He said, "If you're wedded to the editorial page, I can't make you editorial page editor, I've got a great editorial page editor
in Jack Fuller, but we can make room for you on the editorial board or if you want to go back into the news operation, I'll get you a masthead level job on the news operation. Either way, it will be a job on the masthead."
Gentry: Can't lose, can you?
Wille: That was the end of the conversation. This man whom I had barely met—I guess I met him once. I was just overwhelmed at that. I thought that was so wonderful. I will be eternally grateful to Jim, on what would have been a really black day, into giving me that out. I still didn't know how things were going to turn out or whether I would have to take him up on it or not but it was wonderfully reassuring to know I had that avenue.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Wille: We didn't know then, early in November. Murdoch had said all the right things, he wanted the paper to keep up its quality and so forth. I thought, well, maybe he means it. Maybe he wants this to be his quality paper. I found out later that one of my old Daily News buddies, Ray Coffey, who at that time was head of the Tribune's Washington bureau, had called Jim Squires and suggested that if he was going to hire some people that he should be sure to line me up. So that was kind of nice. It was one of the old Daily News ties paying off.
Gentry: So did Murdoch march through the newsroom?
Wille: No, he wasn't really seen much after that initial day. He sent as his deputy there Robert Page, who eventually became publisher of the Sun-Times, to meet with groups of people. Page never said a word to me. Neither Page nor Murdoch had ever contacted me. So that to me was a pretty clear signal that they didn't want me to stay on or they weren't interested in the editorial page. Anyway, it sent bad vibrations.
Gentry: You probably didn't want to stay on, anyway, did you?
Wille: It depended. I didn't know what kind of paper they wanted to run. Jim Hoge didn't know, either. Jim felt pretty sure that he would not be staying on but he said from what he could find out, everything they were saying indicated they wanted the paper to remain good and decent. But their past performances surely didn't indicate that. And I felt the fact that they had not contacted me was a pretty good signal.
So I told Jim Squires—I called him and said it looked like I would want to take him up on that offer and that I wanted to stay on the editorial page. By that time, I liked that work so much—I had decided that's what I wanted to do with the rest of my career. I didn't want to go back into the news operation, as much fun as that was in a city like Chicago. I really was more involved, as I mentioned earlier, outside the paper with changing, trying to effect change out in the world beyond.
Gentry: There's no better place than the editorial page.
Wille: So Jack Fuller, the editorial page editor of the Tribune whom I had known also through the Daily News—Jack was a young intern when he graduated from college, from Northwestern in 1968, the summer of '68 Jack and I were gassed together in front of the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park. That forms an indelible and unbreakable bond. Jack after he served in Vietnam went to Yale Law School and worked in the Justice Department for a while as a special assistant to Ed Levi, who had been the University of Chicago president and was appointed by President Ford to clean up the Justice Department. Jack is a really exceptional person, again one of the great people I met in this business—smart and so good. He would probably not like me saying this but I think of him as "saintly," in addition to being smart and a lovely writer, he's so decent and so fair.
So Jack called and said, "Let's talk." So we met—because at that time there were all kinds of rumors about who might be leaving and where they might be going. We decided we could not be seen having lunch
anywhere near the papers together because people would know instantly that I was going to go to the Tribune. And that wouldn't have been good for my staff, for anybody. We decided to go to a restaurant near the Hilton that had been filled with tear gas at the time of the '68 riots and talk then about the role I could have.
Gentry: This was how many days after Murdoch took over, just a few?
Wille: He hadn't yet. The sale didn't become final until early in January. It had been announced but Murdoch had not yet taken over. I never worked for Murdoch. Jack's deputy editor on the editorial page, Jim Jackson, who had been the Tribune's foreign editor or foreign correspondent, was going to be—I guess again become its foreign editor. So there was an opening as deputy editorial page editor that I would move into. It was great. Mainly we reminisced about old days. It was very easy to shift into a role of working for Jack.
Gentry: Were you called deputy editorial page editor?
Wille: No. I think associate editorial page editor. The Tribune used the titles of associate rather than deputy. That title I don't believe had been listed on the masthead. One of the things I wanted, because I had been on the masthead, was to be on it right away. Newspapers guard their mastheads jealously. That had to be approved by Stan Cook, the Tribune's publisher and board chairman of the Tribune Company but it turned out it was okay. I had met him because he's one of the most prominent business leaders in town on various things and had gotten to know him slightly when Chicago was talking about a 1992 World's Fair.
Anyway, those arrangements were made. Probably the entire Sun-Times staff would have moved over to the Tribune if it had had room. But of course, it didn't. Even a paper as successful as the Tribune doesn't have limitless amounts of money to spend. Jim Squires had to make room within his budget for people he could use. Obviously, he wanted Mike Royko. The Tribune had wanted Mike for years. Mike's negotiations were a little different because he had a contract with the Sun-Times. So that involved some legal maneuvering of breaking one contract and getting into another.
Jim Squires hired perhaps—I don't know, ten or twelve Sun-Times people right off the bat that I think added a great deal to the Tribune. A lot of people wanted to come and I early on started lobbying for people that I thought were good. I would have loved to have taken my whole little editorial writing staff. That was impossible.
Gentry: It was a very good move for you, wasn't it?
Wille: It was a great move for me. Then I tried to get jobs for some other people. I had heard about one job opening up as head of public information for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Don Coe, who was my deputy at the Sun-Times, had had some experience in university public relations so I told Don about that job and helped him get it. I was happy that Don was well situated. I eventually got a job at the Tribune for John Teets, another of my editorial writers. Nick Shuman got on his own a job teaching at Columbia College. John Camper, another of my editorial writers, got a job with Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority in public information. I lobbied—he's a marvelous writer and reporter—and eventually got him a job at the Tribune, it just took a little longer. So I did help get my staff situated and that was important to me.
Gentry: Was there anyone left?
Wille: I lobbied for Don Wycliff to come to the Tribune. Somehow he didn't make it in that first wave and he should have. He didn't feel like waiting around so he took the offer from the New York Times. But I got Don eventually so that's okay.
Gentry: What happened to the Sun-Times under Murdoch?
Wille: A lot of people left. As I mentioned, twelve or so went to the Tribune. Many other people got jobs on their own at other papers, those who were free to leave. The Sun-Times changed overnight. For all his promises, none were kept. It became trashy and ridiculous instantly. It lost a great number of its readers. The readers it wanted to keep, you know, its upper-demographic readers, it lost them overnight, it lost a lot of advertisers overnight. It has never recovered, even though the paper since has become a lot better.
Gentry: He doesn't own it any more, does he?
Wille: No. He only owned it for a couple of years and then sold it to a group put together by Bob Page.
Gentry: Just long enough to ruin it.
Wille: Yes, just enough to destroy it. And then he had to sell it because he bought a TV station in Chicago and couldn't own both. It's sad because the Sun-Times never recovered. And although it's better now than it was under Murdoch, it's not as good as it was before he bought it because it doesn't have the resources—it's been bled because its subsequent buyers had to pay high prices and what were then high interest rates so what little profit it made had to be plowed into those interest payments to service its debt. It's got a tough time financially and a smaller staff than it should have.
But some good people remained, most because they didn't have options, really, often because there was a spouse who had a good job and they couldn't leave the city. And they formed the nucleus of the staff and have helped keep it together.
Gentry: So after the Murdoch sale was announced, was it just a week or two when you were on the Tribune?
Wille: No. He signed an intent to buy the Sun-Times in November, to be effective sometime in January. And I didn't want the fact that I was going to leave known, for a lot of reasons. So I didn't plan to leave until the sale was effective, about two months after the announcement. Then sometime perhaps in mid-December, Jim Hoge said, "Have you signed anything with the Tribune?" I said, "No. Just a verbal agreement." He said, "Don't sign anything. The sale may not go through."
It turned out that another group of local investors who were very upset at the idea of Murdoch owning the Sun-Times and destroying the Sun-Times, and Chicago then having only one strong newspaper voice—it's just not very healthy—raised more money. Jim was part of that group. Some of its members were some of the most distinguished civic leaders in Chicago: a lawyer named Wayne Whalen and another young lawyer named George Ranney, Jr., some people that I knew well and had worked with over the years. And they exceeded the Murdoch offer and went to the Field brothers with this. There was some question about whether the letter of intent to sell that the Fields had signed was legally binding at that point.
Teddy apparently was willing to go with the new Hoge group. Marshall was nervous about it. He thought there might be some lawsuits if he didn't follow through with his letter of intent. He was getting conflicting legal advice on how binding it was. Mike Royko was enlisted to help persuade Marshall. He knew Marshall quite well, they fished together. Marshall was in Florida at the time. Mike doesn't fly so he—
Gentry: He doesn't?
Gentry: You don't drive and Mike doesn't fly.
Wille: Well, I ride in cars. It's not the same. He won't ride in a plane. He came really close to flying to Palm Beach to talk to Marshall. But in the end he couldn't do it but he did have long phone conversations with
him and appealed to all his better instincts. And then Marshall said, "Okay. You've convinced me. I'll do it." So everybody was jubilant.
The word quickly spread around the newsroom, "Saved! Saved! At the last moment we've been saved!" Overnight, Marshall had some other legal advice and changed his mind.
Gentry: Oh. I wondered what happened.
Wille: Decided not. Yes, he was nervous about it. Wouldn't do it. So the thing fell through and left even more bitterness than had existed previously.
Gentry: Oh, yes. That's hard on the staff.
Wille: I think something like January 9th, the Murdoch takeover was to become effective. I had a couple weeks vacation that I arranged to take beginning January 9th and join the Tribune when those two weeks were over—I guess it was January 23rd or 24th.
Gentry: And you were associate editorial page editor from '84 to '87?
Wille: That's right. Jack became executive editor under Jim Squires in I think it was September '87 and I became editorial page editor then.
Gentry: '87 to '91.
Gentry: No, on the Tribune you said your staff was a lot larger. You didn't see that much, as you said, editorial stand difference in the two papers.
Wille: There was some difference in that the Tribune editorial page staff represented a wider variety of viewpoints. There were more people and more heated discussions. The Sun-Times staff was small and had some divergent viewpoints, but not a lot. So right away I enjoyed that. I liked the long debates that we had at a lot of our editorial board meetings.
Gentry: Did you have just as much freedom as you did with the smaller staff at the Sun-Times? Or as much voice?
Wille: You mean when I became editorial page editor?
Gentry: Yes. I realize you wouldn't as the associate.
Wille: Sure, because by that time I knew Jim Squires well and I knew the Tribune positions on things. And as I said before, there's always a continuity that you want to maintain. And I was familiar with the way the Tribune saw things and Jim Squires trusted me so that when he was away or on days he didn't come to the meetings, I was free to run what I wanted to run. He rarely saw the editorials before they went into print. If he was at the meeting, he had a general idea what we were going to say. Occasionally there was something really difficult or sensitive that I wanted to run by him to make sure it was okay with him.
Gentry: So you were very happy there.
Wille: Very. A good organization.
Gentry: Let's see, I believe you may have told me this but I'll ask you again. How many editorials did you actually write at the Tribune when you became editorial page editor? About three a week?
Wille: Two or three a week. There'd be times during vacation season, some weeks in the summer, when I had three people gone at once and I had to write every day. Or an issue involving the state budget or something else that was in my area was in the news every day, and I would write about it every day.
Gentry: So even with a bigger staff you never lost that love of writing?
Wille: I always did some writing.
Gentry: Haven't you also done some TV work?
Wille: I did. Channel 11, the PBS station in Chicago, has a weekly show called Chicago Week in Review, somewhat like Washington Week in Review, moderated by Joel Weisman, a lawyer who was at one time the Sun-Times political editor and someone I'd known a long time. I appeared on that show a lot. It used to be taped on Friday afternoons, which was often a busy time for me, but the taping was at a downtown studio, so it wasn't much of a problem to arrange my day to do it. Then it switched to live on Friday evenings from Channel 11's studios on the Northwest Side. That was hard because I usually worked late Friday nights, so I tapered off doing it as often as I had. I also often was a guest on some panel show or when there were debates with political candidates, one of the questioners—in a mayoral debate or a debate between Senate candidates, candidates for governor.
Gentry: Did you enjoy that?
Wille: Yes. A lot. I liked doing television.
Gentry: That's something not everyone that writes for a newspaper could do or would like to do. It's an entirely different kind of spontaneous—
Wille: I suppose. But I did enjoy it. Especially it was easy doing it as an editorial page editor—or deputy editorial page editor—because I didn't mind expressing my views and that's important on those shows. I think for reporters who are guests on them, it may have been a little more difficult. I could often just mouth off on something I'd written an editorial about so it was fun.
Gentry: This is kind of a broad question and it may be a hard question but having written all these editorials and getting involved in all the issues in Chicago, what one or few concerns of yours would you consider to be the most important issues facing Chicago now and should be continued to be explored by future journalists or editorial writers?
Wille: Without question, the education system in the city. Everything else is manageable and solvable—at least, the solutions are known, even if they're not yet underway. But improving the quality of education is so complicated. One thing that has to be addressed immediately—and it's something that I wrote a number of editorials about in the last year or so—is the disparity in the spending on education in Illinois. A suit has now been filed—it's roaming around the courts—declaring Illinois' school financing system unconstitutional. It surely must be and it's surely immoral. Because schools are financed so heavily with the property tax—other states have had the same problem—heavily financed with the property tax, a community or school district rich in property, lucky enough to have a shopping center or a nuclear power plant within its boundaries, can afford to spend a lot on its school system without overly taxing its homeowners.
Chicago, because it's lost a lot of its industrial base and has so many of the state's poor people who live in public housing or other kinds of housing that doesn't produce a lot of property tax, and also because Chicago has to support a big police department and fire department, does not have a lot of money to spend on
its school system. Illinois has a school aid formula that's supposed to equalize this disparity, but it doesn't come anywhere close to equalizing it. So Chicago spends a lot less per student than the average suburban school district, but it's got a much more difficult job. It has many more children who need bilingual education or who need special kinds of educational services, including pre-school education. It's got a more demanding job and less money to spend than the affluent suburbs. And I think that is a crime. It's true that much of how well a child does in school depends on its home environment, and a school can't do everything. But a school system can do a lot more and it must do a lot more. If Chicago continues to turn out kids who are not equipped to hold a job or not equipped to get training to hold a job, it can no longer be a viable city or a good place to live.
Gentry: It turns out functional illiterates now.
Wille: Right. What people have to realize is this is not just a problem for Chicago, it's a problem for the whole state because if half of Chicago's public school graduates are going to go on public aid, everybody in Illinois is going to have to pay that bill. And the nation has a role in this, too. The trend in Washington the last decade, that the federal government is cutting itself off from aid to cities, is eventually going to backfire if it hasn't already because it produces national problems and destroys national competitiveness.
So as I said before, there are ways to make the schools better and to help kids learn more. One of them is early childhood education, although that pay-off is down the road. But it clearly saves tax money in the long run. It helps make children succeed academically. And the other is to provide some good school-to-work training, which countries like Germany do splendidly. This country's barely made a beginning at it. Not everybody's going to go on to college and not every high school kid should think that the only route for them is to go to college, otherwise they're not going to get a good job. We need good vocational training and business has to cooperate with that so that kids can move directly into apprentice jobs.
Gentry: What is the Chicago Tribune Task Force 2000?
Wille: That is a group made up of representatives from different departments—editorial but also circulation, marketing, advertising, production, thinking about ways to make the newspaper healthier in the next century or keep it healthy, new kinds of services newspapers may have to provide, ways to—you know, newspaper penetration has been shrinking around the country. The Tribune's has.
As the Chicago area has grown, the Tribune's circulation remains good but the percentage of households it reaches is not good. It has to be improved, find ways to get younger people interested in the newspaper and used to newspaper reading. Maybe develop things that could be done electronically in cooperation with the newspaper. And also in production, should there be a couple of satellite printing plants? One thing that can help newspaper circulation is to have the home delivery edition include the final sports scores. You know, when the Cubs play in San Francisco, the game may not be decided until midnight Chicago time but to have that in the paper that's home delivered—people want that. And that may involve a satellite printing plant in the suburbs.
All those kinds of issues, the Task Force 2000 is considering. It's also looking at ways to increase Tribune readership in the city itself, which is not good—it's good in the suburbs and growing in the suburbs but the Tribune's been losing in the city. And one reason for that—one reason is the size. The Tribune is big and, it's interesting, a lot of marketing surveys have shown that people don't like the Tribune because there's too much in it, it's too big.
Gentry: Takes too long to read it.
Wille: The other thing is that Chicago—it's always been getting newcomers from around the world and there are a lot of people who come here not speaking English well and they may not read a paper right away, principally Spanish-speaking. How to get more readership among Chicago's growing Hispanic population.
Should there be a Spanish edition or is that the wrong way to go? The Task Force 2000 is a continuing operation to discuss these various problems. Jack Fuller was one of the heads of it and had been working on this for several years.
Some of the things they've come up with have already been put into operation, such as zoned editions in the various suburbs. The Tribune has a big news operation in the northwest suburbs and Du Page County, which are areas of growing population, and separate zoned editions for those areas.
Gentry: Isn't Cokie [Colleen] Dishon on the Task Force?
Wille: She may be. If she's not on the Task Force, Cokie's responsible for a lot of things the Task Force is recommending. Cokie has done so much creative thinking about how to attract new kinds of newspaper readers, some of which have been part of the paper for several years. We've got a supplement called "Friday," which is a weekend entertainment and restaurant guide, zoned eight or nine different ways for different parts of the Chicago region, that's been enormously successful. The Sun-Times copied it just a couple months after she created it. Cokie's always got, you know, two or three new kinds of supplements or sections popping around in her head. She's working on one now geared for young people that's just got some great ideas.
Gentry: She's a real creator, then?
Wille: Oh, yes, absolutely. So a lot of what the Task Force 2000 is proposing or has proposed are ideas Cokie has developed, models she's developed. She's also developed models that the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors have sent around to their membership to increase newspaper readership in general.
Gentry: We're going to interview her for this project.
Wille: Good. Good, because now there's woman who's—now, Cokie may have started out as a reporter, I don't even know, but I think the bulk of her career has been in management and administration and beyond that, in creating different kinds of newspaper sections, so she's really an important person to have. I don't think there's anyone like her in the country.
Gentry: That's great. That's great. You retired from the Tribune in May of '91, which was probably a surprise to a lot of people. How did you come to that decision?
Wille: My husband Wayne and I had planned for many years to retire early and do all the things we wanted to do. We both had high pressure jobs and little free time. We don't have children so we were able to save more than we otherwise would have. And we enjoy each other's company a lot but never had enough time to spend with each other. We decided that while we both had jobs we loved, they were demanding jobs, and though we're proud of our work, there was more to life and we didn't want to start exploring it when we were too old to really enjoy it to its fullest. So this is a plan we've had for many years.
Gentry: Did you both retire at age fifty-nine?
Wille: I think Wayne had just turned sixty. But, yes, pretty close to it. The hardest thing I've ever had to do in my work relations was telling Jack Fuller and the Tribune's current publisher, John Madigan, and its board chairman, Stan Cook, that I was leaving, and then to let my staff know. It was really hard because I wanted them to know it wasn't that I was unhappy in any way. And I was so grateful to them for the opportunities they gave me at the Tribune and for the freedom and the resources and the support. They have just been superb. I didn't want them to think that there was anything wrong that they had done or the way I'd been treated or anything wrong with the paper. And I hope they know that.
Gentry: I'm sure they do. But I guess it was quite a surprise, too.
Wille: I had told Jack a long time ago that I was going to be retiring early because we had talked from time to time about whether I would ever want to move back into the newsroom or anything else I might want to do, even when Jack became editor, whether I might want to be managing editor or if he moved on, to succeed him. You know, throwing these things around. I had told him that, you know, don't think of me in any capacity like that because I want to retire early and I love this job and I want to stay in this job. But I guess he thought I meant 62 or 63. He didn't think quite this early.
Gentry: So he was quite surprised when you came in there and finally broke the news?
Wille: He was.
Gentry: It was probably very sad.
Wille: Yes, it was. It was sad for both of us. And then his first reaction was, well, what kind of continuing arrangement can we have? Would you like to write a column or do some writing for us? John Madigan, the publisher, talked with me about that, too, looking for a continuing role. But one of the things Wayne and I have planned is to leave the Chicago area and move to Virginia so that pretty much cut that out.
I didn't want that kind of retirement. I want to stop writing for deadline. If someday I feel I want to write something, fine. I haven't felt that way yet. That's something I loved doing when I did it—
Gentry: You look very happy in retirement. You look like you made the right decision. You don't look like you're looking back.
Wille: I haven't had any regrets.
Gentry: That's great. I mean, fifty-nine is young.
Wille: While I did it, I gave all the energy I could muster for it and now I'm enjoying doing a lot of other kinds of things. And it's not as if I feel the paper needs me. I think I left an editorial page staff that's superb. And I'm especially pleased that I had a role in picking the person to succeed me.
Gentry: And you don't want to write a book?
Wille: I don't want to write a book, no.
Gentry: That's what everyone does when they retire.
Wille: I know. Jack does. Jack Fuller writes novels, wonderful novels. But Jack will get up at 5:00 in the morning and write for a couple of hours and then go out and jog for ten miles and then work a 12-hour day and come home and write jazz reviews. He's also the Tribune's jazz critic. I don't know where he gets the energy. But that's not the way I want to run my life or organize my life.
Gentry: Do you miss the newspaper world? Do you go back there and see—
Wille: I've been back a couple of times. I always disliked it when I'd be in the middle—or on deadline or involved in something and somebody who had retired or left would be peering in my doorway, smiling and expect to be invited in and sit down and chat. So I wanted to avoid doing that. I've gone up there a couple of times and had lunch with people or seen people and I love seeing them. And I really miss them; I'm so fond of them all. I wish there were some way to keep—I could sit in on the editorial board meetings every day and just enjoy their company without working. But I haven't seen too many of them since I've left.
Gentry: Except maybe Mike [Royko]?
Wille: I've seen Mike a couple of times. A few times when my brother has visited, he and Mike have played golf and we've had dinner. I've seen him for—I guess lunch, and breakfast once or twice. Ellen Soeteber, I've seen her a few times. I've seen Jack several times and Don Wycliff.
Gentry: What are some of the things you are anxious to do now that you are retired? You said that you wanted to do other things.
Wille: Yes. I want to sleep late and have leisurely breakfasts and enjoy papers. I love newspapers and I have enjoyed reading them the months since I've been retired even more than I did before then. It's so wonderful to read them, not thinking, hmm, how come the competition got this and we didn't or I didn't? What kind of editorial do I have to write about this event? It's been great reading them for enjoyment and seeing good things by friends, seeing their writing. I never had much of a chance to cook and I kind of like that, I bake things and cook things. We eat healthier than we used to, since I never cooked anything except on weekends.
Let's see, what else do we do? We've taken trips—we always took one nice vacation a year, usually in Europe, and we did that again in May after I quit and have taken some short trips since then. But we've spent a lot of time planning and thinking about the house we're going to build in Virginia. That takes, I guess, as much time as you want to give to it, so we've given it a lot of time.
Gentry: And you're building in the same town as your brother lives?
Wille: Close to it. It's in the southwestern part of the state, the southwestern end of the Shenandoah Valley in a town called Radford. My brother is the dean of the school of business and economics at Radford University—I guess we talked about that earlier—part of the University of Virginia system. We visited there a lot and love it. Because it's got two universities close by, Radford and Virginia Tech, there are a lot of cultural events and theater, music groups, that you wouldn't normally get in small towns. And yet there are hiking trails, and we like hiking, and a lot of things to do outdoors. It's fairly close to Roanoke, a manageable drive to Washington. And I like being close to my brother and his wife. We've only been able to see them a couple of times a year because we've never lived close to each other and we have great times together.
Gentry: Does he have children?
Wille: He's got two sons. They're both grown, one who lives in Roanoke with his wife. They've been married about a year. The other lives in Atlanta with his wife and new baby. So we'll see at least Eric, the Roanoke—
Gentry: You've always been very close to your family, haven't you?
Gentry: All of them.
Wille: My brother and I have been very close, especially.
Gentry: And your father and mother?
Gentry: Have your father and mother watched your career with interest? They remained in the Chicago area their whole lives?
Wille: Of course, because they read the papers I worked for and their friends read them and would see my by-line.
Gentry: Very proud of you, I'm sure.
Wille: They were very proud of me and they loved it when I was on television. My mother would call all her friends and tell them to watch me.
Gentry: As mothers will do.
Wille: They liked that a lot. And the thing that grieved me about the second Pulitzer prize, I remember a couple of years earlier when Jack won for editorial writing, my mother agreed this was wonderful and she said, "Well, I wish you'd win another one someday." I said, "No, people don't win them twice. I've got one. I did it." "Oh, well, it still would be nice." And then when I did win it, it was just a couple of months after she died. It would have meant more to her than it meant to me. I'm sorry she wasn't still here. And also, that was the year that the Cubs won their division championship. That would have meant a lot to my mother, too. So 1989 would have been a wonderful year for her for a lot of reasons. I'm sorry she wasn't there to enjoy it. She loved baseball.
Gentry: But your dad was—is, still living.
Wille: My dad was there. And my father and I had gone—after my mother had died, he and I planned a trip to Leipzig, where he was born, to see his cousin who lived there and his cousin's children and then to meet his sister and her husband, not in Czechoslovakia where they lived, because that was still so dreary, but in Budapest, one of the great cities of the world. So we left in mid-March and were in Budapest when the word came about the Pulitzer. So that was nice. We had a little celebration there. Of course, my father was really proud.
Gentry: That's great. It was just the two of you?
Wille: Yes. Yes.
Gentry: Now, we talked at lunch about this but I don't think it's on tape. We talked about Wayne going to CBS but his main career was with World Book Publishing encyclopedia publishers. What did he do there?
Wille: He was editor of their annuals. His first job there was as managing editor of the World Book Year Book which is their yearly review of the world's news, then became editor of the Year Book and their other annuals, [including] Science Year, and he started a new one called Health and Medical Annual. World Book at the time he went to work for them—I was at the Daily News then—was also owned by Field Enterprises. And they sold World Book maybe about a year after the Daily News folded, as the Field brothers were slowly dissolving their publishing empire. World Book was more fortunate in its new owners. They did not trash the company.
It's a great job for Wayne because he's always been a scholar and interested—like my father, interested in everything. I mean every kind of science and every kind of world event and every kind of sporting event and everything that happened any place. The Year Book has several special long articles of trends or important developments during the year and then a lot of shorter articles reviewing the year's news. It's a job that got especially busy, oh, say, from November through the middle of February, when he would have his annual deadlines; and then during the summer there'd be the Science Year deadlines, then the medical book, so he had periodic deadline pressures during the year, too, as I did on a daily basis.
Gentry: His job was still very journalistic.
Wille: Oh, yes. It was.
Gentry: Even though it was an entirely different kind of job.
Wille: Right. He had a longer view. And maybe both looked back and had to look forward because a lot of it had to be trend reporting, too. But the kinds of things he was working on were also things I was interested in and vice versa. And many of the freelance writers he used were people I had known through newspapers.
Gentry: So you went over each other's work or talked about each other's work?
Wille: Always. Yes. Yes.
Gentry: That's good.
Wille: Brought home things we were working on, for each other to read.
Gentry: That's good. As I told you, many of the women that I have talked to felt that they couldn't balance working, with the long hours of the newspaper and the commitment you have to have, with marriage. And obviously it's refreshing to talk to someone who has done it very well and has been married, what, thirty-seven years?
Wille: Yes. You're right. 1954. It depends. You have to have a husband or wife who understands. But that surprises me. Men have succeeded in newspaper work with the same kind of demanding pressures and remained married. I don't see why women can't.
Gentry: It's just maybe that I got several women that just felt that way.
Wille: But it involves the spouse being supportive and appreciative of the other's job.
[End Tape 2, Side B; Begin Tape 3, Side A]
Wille: It would not work with a spouse who felt that a woman's career could never be as important as a man's or who would insist on a big home-cooked dinner every night or who was just not interested in what I was doing.
Gentry: Did you go out to eat every night?
Wille: No. No, no. I often would make things on weekends that we could freeze and the advent of frozen foods helped a lot, too. But Wayne always took as much joy and delight and interest in my career as I took in his. I couldn't have married anybody but someone like that. Not that we explored it in depth before we were married. I just knew.
Gentry: He knew you were going to be a career woman. There was no doubt about it, was there?
Wille: And because we met at journalism school and shared that interest right from the start. It was just a natural evolution.
Gentry: You said you had no children. Was that a mutual decision because you were both working?
Wille: Not early on. I don't think we set out by saying, well, we're never going to have children; we're going to do this and that. Gradually we realized that it wasn't important to us. I think it has to be—it may be different today. I don't think getting married was a problem at all. In fact, it often helped to have someone like Wayne at home.
There's a big difference today in that it's a lot easier to work and have children. I would have had to quit my job and then take a chance on resuming it at some future point, getting a job and being able to pick up where I was. That would have been very difficult in those years, if not impossible to do. And there were no
examples of women who had done that. Helen Fleming, the woman at the Daily News who was the education reporter when I transferred into the city room, was not married, married later someone from the paper whose children were grown and never had children. Peg Zwecker, the woman I mention who hired me, had quit to raise small children. I think it was maybe the intervention of World War II that helped her resume her career. It was really rare; it wasn't done.
Today it's done all the time. The younger women in the city room who want children almost all have them and are able to take maternity leaves. And it's difficult to get child-care arrangements but they manage. I think it's easier in a city than it would be in a small place. And they all manage.
Gentry: Day-care is big business now.
Wille: Right. And they come back to work and their jobs are there and they flourish in them. But then there are some who don't. The two women I mentioned at the Tribune, Ellen Soeteber, the deputy editorial page editor, and Ann Marie Lipinski, the metropolitan editor, and Colleen Dishon—all three are married and none of them have children. Whether it may still be in Ann Marie's plans, I don't know. But that's still hard for a woman, to make that choice. Joan Beck has two children. Joan is perhaps in her mid-sixties now. I think she started out at the Tribune as a feature writer and then quit to raise her children and did a lot of freelance writing at home while they were young. Developed a specialty of writing about child-rearing and used that to come back to the paper and then was able to rebuild her career.
Gentry: That's great.
Wille: Yes. I admire people who are able to do that.
Gentry: Back when you were married in the fifties, there was a pressure, I think, to settle down and have a family, more pressure than there might be now even. It seemed to me that a lot of women were working in the home at that point.
Wille: Right. I guess that was the traditional thing to do. I never felt that pressure. I guess I didn't feel it from Wayne. I never felt it from my parents.
Gentry: If you didn't feel it from him, then you wouldn't feel it.
Wille: And neither my mother nor my father said, "When are you going to quit work and have a baby?" They loved what I was doing and rejoiced that I was happy with what I was doing. So I never felt any pressure.
Gentry: Did Wayne get lonely when you went off and were a national correspondent and took off with a campaign?
Wille: Oh, we always talked at least once a day by phone. I didn't do that much—Wayne's job involved some traveling also, most of the time more than mine. And no, he's well able to manage by himself and we always kept in touch.
Gentry: Let's see. You love hiking in Europe and the Chicago Cubs. What are some of your other interests?
Wille: I like all sports, as a spectator. I like football and basketball, in addition to baseball, so living in Chicago, there's always a team to follow. We're going to miss that in Virginia so we're going to be sure we get whatever kind of satellite thing it takes to be able to follow Chicago sports teams. We read sports sections avidly.
We like—it sounds funny living in a city town house—we like gardening. We've got just little tiny patches of it but that's one thing we plan to do more of when we've got more space. And as I said, I like cooking,
I like baking. And I'm kind of learning now—my interest in cooking was so long—I'm a retarded cook. And it's fun now to have time to do the things I never had to do.
I like crossword puzzles. I love crossword puzzles. I limit myself now to only the New York Times Sunday magazine crossword puzzles and doing them on vacation or I would do them all day long.
Gentry: Oh, really. An addiction, huh?
Wille: I like reading, too.
Gentry: Did you find when you were both working that you had trouble finding sufficient time for fun things?
Wille: Oh, absolutely. In the early days at the Daily News, we used to entertain a lot. I think I mentioned the group at the Daily News just got together in each other's homes all the time. But entertaining was very casual. I was often working on a series but there would be periods in between series when I could manage to get off work at a reasonable hour and do entertaining or give a dinner party. That has grown less frequent and almost disappeared, you know, especially once I became editorial page editor because the hours were longer and I'd occasionally have to go in on a weekend and I never had time to do that kind of thing. And we missed that.
We went out to dinner fairly often. And we love music. We have subscribed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for years and go to a lot—we like baroque music. There's a group called Music of the Baroque in Chicago that's a superb group and we have a subscription to that. So we haven't given up going to restaurants and going to concerts.
Gentry: You mentioned about the Daily News, how that was almost like a close family with all those couples getting together. Did that remain so on the Tribune? Were your best friends journalists also? Or did you have the old friends from the Daily News still?
Wille: Well, a lot of my old friends from the Daily News are now at the Tribune, who either came when I did or came before then. But it's different when you join a paper on the editorial board and in the job I joined, you're not part of that city room group. No, those early days at the Daily News were never replicated at the Tribune. But my best friends were the people I worked with, people we had social contacts with, or else people that Wayne had worked with at World Book. And still some old friends from college days, too. We actually didn't see a lot of other people a lot. Most of what we did was the two of us. I mean the concerts and the dinners out or the things we would do with Wayne's parents and my parents when they were all still alive or when my brother was in town. We've done things, I mean the two of us more than in groups, which is one reason I guess I had no qualms about retiring and spending more time with Wayne than with anybody else. That was fine with me.
Gentry: Yes. You're very at one, I guess.
I'd like to conclude with just a few reflections generally on your career. Thinking back on your career and on your life, what has been the happiest, most fulfilling time, do you think?
Wille: Of my whole life?
Gentry: Yes. Or your whole career. One or the other. It's a question we ask everybody.
Wille: Oh, being this foolish optimist that Mike Royko and Sarah Snyder told you I was, I think at almost any given time I'd say that particular time is the happiest and most fulfilling.
Gentry: That's great.
Wille: I'm sure when I was a kid—as I mentioned, we had a very close family and I loved doing things with my parents and my brother when I was little. My happiest times were when the four of us would be taking a trip West or going to a movie or doing something together. In high school, I guess I would have said that was my happiest time because you know how high school develops these cliques that are so close and tight and you think you're going to see each other every day of your life forever. And the same thing with college. I loved college. I loved working on the Daily Northwestern and the first real independence.
And I surely loved my early newspaper—I loved every phase of my newspaper career and I think at each phase I felt it was getting better. I think if I had to choose between the happiest days of my newspaper career it would be a toss-up between those days I told you about in the early sixties when I first got a chance to do a series of significance to the last years at the Tribune because that's such a good organization and I respected the professionalism of it and the quality of the people I worked with. And also there's no question that running the editorial page of the most influential paper in the state has a special aura about it and it lets you do things and influence things in a way you can't on a smaller paper. And it puts you in contact with people—you know, governors, senators, mayors—and I would be lying if I had said I didn't relish that, feeling that I had an entree to the most powerful people in the state.
Gentry: But you don't really miss it, any more?
Wille: Well, you can never lost sight that while they seek you out, they do it because you're editorial page editor of the Tribune, not because they think you're such a delightful, wonderful person to know. I mean, if you ever start thinking they like you for yourself, then you're in trouble.
And now I would have to say that the best time is what we're going to be doing in the next several years. This is what we worked to achieve and fortunately, we're both healthy. I hope we stay healthy. We'll work at that, too.
Gentry: And you're going to be building your own home on four acres?
Wille: Yes. Yes. It's a wooded hillside, laughingly called a mountain. What they call a mountain in Virginia looks like a big hill to us. I have to learn how to drive but I would prefer getting a motorbike or motorcycle.
Gentry: No, you wouldn't.
Wille: Oh, I would. Why do you say that?
Gentry: You're going to get killed.
Wille: No. I mean, you can a careful motorcyclist, can't you?
Gentry: Since you haven't driven that long, I think traffic on the back of motorcycle would be a lot scarier than with a steel car around you, since you're not used to it.
Wille: What about a motorbike? Can I have that?
Gentry: Heck, no. You're going to get killed. What you need is a trail bike that goes on the hills and doesn't ever go on the roads.
In your career, roots have been very important to you, haven't they, staying in Chicago. Has anyone ever tried to hire you away?
Wille: I had a couple of feelers from—when the folding of the Daily News was announced, there were some phone calls from newspapers in other cities, including one from the Washington Post and from a woman I knew
at the Post who said Katharine Graham wanted to talk to me about a job and that was nice to know. But it was already clear I was going to go to the Sun-Times in the same job so I wasn't available. But at that point, I don't think either Wayne or I would have liked a commuting marriage and his job was—I would have wanted to be sure he could do something he liked in Washington. No, I never seriously considered it because I was never in the job market. I mean, one Chicago newspaper job just kind of progressed into the other naturally.
Gentry: The kinds of things you've done over the years, the sources you've made, it would have been very difficult, I think, to leave.
Wille: I think so, too, because so much of what I did was directed to the Chicago area. I would have had to learn a whole different area.
Gentry: You know, some people move papers every three or four years. And have twenty of them on their resume.
Wille: The closest I came, and the only really serious offer, or offer I seriously considered, was in—I guess this was maybe '76 or so—the national editor of the Los Angeles Times talked to me about being the L.A. Times correspondent in Chicago. The correspondent they had had was moving to Washington and that correspondent had recommended me to Dennis Britton, who was then the national editor for the L.A. Times. And that was appealing. It would have meant quite a bit of traveling around the greater Midwest region.
Gentry: Do they have an office here?
Wille: Yes. Sometimes two people; usually just one person. But it would have been doing the kinds of stories I had been doing. The L.A. Times correspondents do long, in-depth kinds of reporting that I liked. That was at a period when—
Wille: '76, when I was kind of restless at the Daily News. I had this title of national correspondent and did some traveling and reporting but that was curtailed by the amount of money the Daily News had to spend on it. And there were dry periods in between where I was beginning to feel I was writing the same kind of story over and over again, reporting on the same problems over and over again.
So I did seriously consider that and was at the point where they offered me the job and were waiting for me to decide whether I wanted the job when—was this '76 or '77? I think this was after the series on the future of the city and the suburbs that I had done for the Daily News. It must have been the summer of 1977. And the job of national editor had disappeared by that time and I had finished this great project which I enjoyed a lot and didn't really know what I wanted to do next and hadn't talked to Jim Hoge about it.
And it was just at that point when I was about to say yes to the L.A. Times when Jim offered me the job of editorial page editor. A lot of people at the Daily News, including the poor man who had to take an early retirement to make room for me, felt that it was because of that offer from the L.A. Times that Jim offered me the job of editorial page editor.
Gentry: You mean he knew about it?
Wille: No, he didn't know about it.
Gentry: Usually you don't discuss things like that.
Wille: At least he said he didn't know about it. I never told anyone. It may have leaked out somewhat because other people had applied for the job and they may have known that I had talked to the L.A. Times about it, too. But it really was not a factor. And I never went to Jim and said, "You better find something good for me or I'm going to the L.A. Times."
Incidentally, the L.A. Times national editor who offered me that job is Dennis Britton, who is now the editor of the Sun-Times and has helped a lot to improve it. When I first saw Dennis when he came back in town, he told me that he took credit for what I'm doing now because he was convinced that it was his offer of that job to me that got me the position of editorial page editor. That's all right. He can think that.
Gentry: I think we've talked about this probably all you want to talk about it but you've been a working journalist since the mid-fifties. Do you think that women have really progressed at a good rate during those years until now?
Wille: They didn't begin progressing at any kind of rate until the early seventies, until the women's movement began to be taken seriously by papers, when they saw a connection between the women's movement and what their women readers and employees wanted, and getting and retaining women readers. Pressure from EEOC rules made them fearful of lawsuits, and they also felt pressure from the few women they had on their own staffs. No, I don't believe women got any place till they pushed to get someplace. That was one of the lessons I learned from Saul Alinsky. I remember him telling me several times: "No one gives up power willingly." You go after power. You take it away from somebody. And that's what women had to do. And the editors, when they began making room for women, did it—they may have thought it was the right thing to do but it was mainly out of fear they had to do this or they'd get a lawsuit or they'd lose readers.
Gentry: Exactly. By the seventies, they would have.
Wille: Right. Things didn't begin opening up until then. And then once they began hiring on an equal basis—and I'm not sure that's true for all papers today. It's true of big city papers because they're watched more closely. Then it was a long time before they began giving assignments on an equal basis and promoting on an equal basis. And there are still some problems with that.
Gentry: I was just wondering if you think today, in the nineties, a woman can be almost anything she wants to be on a newspaper?
Gentry: No, not yet.
Wille: Not at all. On some newspapers it's better than others. It's good at the Tribune. It's very good at the Tribune because of people like Jim Squires and his successor Jack Fuller and because of the Tribune's current publisher, John Madigan. They've made it very good and they're very aware and concerned about moving women to top positions. Jack would love it if there were a woman in line to succeed him as editor; he would really be pleased. But I'm sure there are a lot of papers where that's not true. I'm not sure it's true at the Sun-Times. Most newspapers are still—this business was male dominated for so long and run by a clique of men who saw each other after work and went out drinking and did things together. It was tough for women to break into that or for men to realize that women could take the kind of competitive pressure that you get in this business.
Gentry: They have the old stereotypes, huh?
Gentry: If you had children, particularly female children, would you encourage them to go into journalism?
Wille: It's sounds trite, but if they wanted to. You know, it's not the kind of career that you can push somebody into if it doesn't appeal to them. You've got to want to write and report and be curious about a lot of things and you've really got to want to do it.
Gentry: But you wouldn't tell them, "No, that's a terrible field. Don't go into it."
Wille: No. No. Although I would say it's tough to get into. You need a lot of luck.
Wille: You do because there are always so many more people who want the jobs than there are jobs available. And it isn't only talent that prevails, it's applying at the right time and being there when the job is open.
Gentry: There are an awful lot of journalism graduates who are waiting tables for several years.
Wille: Right. Right.
Gentry: What concerns you most about the changes in the profession of journalism as we go into the nineties?
Wille: The loss of readers.
Gentry: It does?
Wille: By journalism, I mean newspapers. Attracting and retaining young readers in a responsible way. Not by becoming trashy or silly but getting people to read substantive things. I mean, you've got to be interesting but you've got to be something more than USA Today, also, in order to fulfill a newspaper's role of informing the public. And it's got an important role in a democracy. Newspapers are—an informed public is essential to a democracy. Newspapers—and also television—journalism—is the way people are informed.
I think newspapers are much more responsible now than they were when I started. They're more honest, they're more ethical, they monitor all kinds of activities, not just scandals in government but they monitor business and they monitor neighborhood relations, human relations, in a way that they never used to. So I think newspapers are good but what worries me is how they'll remain influential.
Gentry: You don't think TV will ever become the only medium to get news. You think there'll always be a place for a newspaper?
Wille: I think there'll always be a combination of the two. I don't think you can get your news solely from television. But it's becoming more and more valuable as a way to get a complete picture. Take the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, which I was able to watch because I was home all day. Being able to see them fully gives you a vista that you really couldn't get from newspapers or the news magazines. But seeing them and then reading the reports on them, the things that were filled in and the things you didn't know about because you were watching the event happening, is what I hope will be the future of journalism—or of news dissemination. Each doing what it does best. Television can give you an immediacy in seeing things, seeing how people react, how a figure in the news looks and sounds when they're saying something is important. But then so is reading the kinds of background information and the complete picture you get from the newspaper.
Gentry: So you feel there'll always be an important place for newspaper journalists.
Wille: I hope so. It may be with a shrinking audience, though. But I think among people who run the country, both politically, economically and socially, newspapers will always be important.
Gentry: I have only one more question. If you were advising a young woman who might want to follow your path into political reporting, urban reporting or editorial writing, how would you tell her to prepare? What are the most important skills she needs to survive in today's newspaper business with so few jobs for so many journalism graduates?
Wille: You need a broad academic background that would include economics, social science, psychology, political science. I don't think journalism schools—their value I really think is in getting the job interview, not in preparing you for the job. Nothing prepares you for the job like doing it, so it's important to get a part-time job or a summer job on a newspaper—maybe it's your college newspaper—but try to get an internship, to do something to put you in the newsroom and let you learn by doing things. That helps enormously in getting that first full-time job.
There are a lot of internships opening up. A lot of papers now use interns in ways that weren't done years ago. It's important to find out about them, what requirements papers have for their internships and how to qualify for one and to get in line for one of them, and then to keep pushing. And once you're there to work twice as hard as anybody else so you get noticed.
And to be very flexible. You have to be very flexible. You can't whine if you're given an assignment you think is beneath you or dull and you just have to try to find something special about that dull assignment to make it interesting. Or if you're asked to come in on a day when you thought you could have off or work late some night, you have to be willing to bend and to show them that you think your job is important and that you're willing to work hard at it.
Gentry: That's great. Thank you very much.
© 1992, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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