Because this session was videotaped,
material from other sessions may be repeated here.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Gentry: Lois Wille was a journalist on Chicago newspapers for thirty-five years. Starting out on the Chicago Daily News in 1956, she won the first of her Pulitzer prizes in 1963. She quickly became a specialist in urban affairs and politics, a journalist who could effect change. Lois's ability led to her promotion as editorial page editor of the Chicago Daily News, then to the same position on the Chicago Sun-Times. Later, as editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, she won her second Pulitzer prize for editorial writing in 1989.
Lois, for the record, when and where were you born?
Wille: Actually, I was born in a hospital in Chicago but moved at an early age—like three days—to Arlington Heights, Illinois. And that was in September 1931.
Gentry: Since you spent your whole career as a journalist in Chicago, did you grow up entirely in Arlington Heights and stay in the area all your life?
Wille: Yes. I stayed there until I went to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, lived on the campus there. Then not long after I got my master's degree, I was married and then my husband, Wayne Wille, and I moved to New Mexico where he was in the army. And we lived there for about a year. That's the only time I've lived outside the Chicago area.
Gentry: I see. What kind of a place was Arlington Heights when you were growing up there? Paint me a picture of the town and the people.
Wille: Quite different than it is today. Today it's got close to eighty thousand people and the center almost of another urban area. The northwest suburbs are really booming. But then it was—oh, I don't know, maybe five or six thousand people. Everyone knew each other. Most people took the train into Chicago to work, unless they managed shops or did something in the community itself. It was a wonderful place to grow up because my brother and I could ride our bikes all over town, go hiking. There were still farms surrounding the area; now it's all industrialized. Very nice community to grow up in.
Gentry: Tell me about your mother and father, their roots and their personalities and their occupations.
Wille: My mother's ancestors came to the Chicago area very early, when it was really getting settled in the mid-1800s. I think some came to Chicago and lived on the South Side of Chicago. Some others came to what is now the Northwest suburban area. My mother was born in Arlington Heights; she is a native to this area, of German ancestry.
My father was born in Germany, in Leipzig, which is the eastern part of Germany, formerly in East Germany. Actually, my mother's grandparents and great-grandparents came from an area not too far from where my father was born in Leipzig, the state of Saxony. He came to this country in 1924, when he had finished college. He studied architecture in Leipzig. He came to this area partly because every aspiring architect in the world, I think, wants to come to Chicago, and even then—or maybe especially then—
it was known around the world for its innovations in architecture and also because it's a growing area and there's a lot of construction going on.
The second reason that he came was that his father wanted him to get out of Germany. My grandfather was in politics, was president of the Leipzig City Council, or what was equivalent to the Leipzig City Council, and knew that the anarchy going on in Germany in those days between the wars was soon going to lead to even worse civil strife. The kinds of people who organized around Hitler were already in the streets. He wanted his son to get out of Germany to start his career.
Gentry: I see. What were their personalities like, your mom and dad's personalities?
Wille: My father I guess I would describe as an intellectual, or rational humanist, read everything. He loved mathematics, science, archaeology and transmitted a lot of that to my brother and to me. Just curious about everything going on in the world. My mother was a homemaker. She didn't work outside the home once her children were born. Did, you know, the things that a mother and homemaker did in the thirties and forties—baked and cleaned and cooked and belonged to some women's clubs—very devoted to her family. But also early on developed a great interest in politics and civic affairs and later in her life she was one of the most avid listeners of talk shows and radio and readers of newspapers. I think she read newspapers more thoroughly than I did. Very politically concerned. Both of them I would describe as political liberals, for whatever that word means today. Arlington Heights was hardly a place for progressive politics but my father at least was different in that respect.
Gentry: I remember in an earlier interview you told me that your parents were the only two radicals in Arlington Heights. I loved that statement. Would you elaborate on that?
Wille: My mother would be surprised to hear herself described as a radical. In 1948, when I was still in high school and Henry Wallace ran as a third-party candidate for president on—I think it was called the Progressive Party—my father and mother were the only people in Arlington Heights who voted for him. The community newspaper always printed the election results. They had Republicans, four thousand, eight hundred and something or other, Democrats, one thousand or whatever, two thousand, and Progressive Party, two. And I'm sure everyone in town knew those were my parents.
A week or so ago we went to a family wedding, a daughter of a cousin of mine in Arlington Heights, and saw an old friend of my father's, of the same era, and he asked me how my father was doing, and I told him, "He's still around, kind of frail but still there." And he said, "Well, tell him I remember him and tell him I'm still a Republican and I remember all those arguments we used to have about politics."
Gentry: Back in the 1930s and the 1940s when you were growing up, girl children were not necessarily groomed to have careers. Did your parents expect you to enter a profession?
Wille: Yes. I don't remember it ever being spelled out like that, that you will go to work and do something and we expect you to have goals. But I just grew up knowing that I would do something. And I remember from my tiniest days when friends of my parents were there, they would ask me things like "What do you want to be?" And I know that probably wasn't typical but it never occurred to me at the time that it wasn't. I don't know how unusual that was because I just assumed I would have some sort of job and I wanted it to be something interesting, something exciting and adventurous.
Gentry: Now, you have one brother, Donald, who was three years younger. Tell me about him. And was he raised any differently as far as the expectations your parents had for his career?
Wille: Not that I can recall. He followed me through grade school and high school. I got good grades; he was expected to get good grades, which he sometimes chafed under. And I guess there was a difference between how boys and girls acted in those days, or behaved. He was involved in sports more than I was.
And there were very few organized sports for girls then. But we both knew, from as far back as I can remember, that we would be going to college and that we would prepare for jobs. And I don't think there was any difference between the two of us. Possibly my father may have pushed my brother a little bit more toward engineering and I may have had more freedom of choice in what I did, now that I think back.
Gentry: But then your brother didn't pursue engineering, did he?
Wille: No. Well, he did in his first two years of college but then shifted out of it.
Gentry: Would you call your family a close family that did things together?
Wille: Yes, very much so. When I was quite young, there was a Depression and then there was a war, there was gasoline rationing, and there wasn't the resources or the freedom to do a lot of the things that families do now. But we did do some traveling, we went to movies in those days before television, visited with relatives together. My happiest childhood memories are of the four of us doing things together.
Gentry: Wasn't your mother a rabid Cubs fan?
Wille: She was, as was her mother before her.
Gentry: As are you.
Wille: As am I, and my husband. She took my brother and me to a number of baseball games when we were real little. I remember taking—at that time there was a bus company in the suburbs called United Motor Coach that went into the city, and we caught the el [elevated train] in Evanston and took that to Wrigley Field many times. We came into Chicago a lot.
One advantage of growing up in a suburb in those days was that kids got to know the city a lot better. I came into Chicago with my girl friends when I was twelve or thirteen. I don't think kids growing up in the suburbs today have the foggiest idea how to do that. We came to the museums, we went to the Art Institute, Marshall Field's for shopping, the other State Street stores. I knew the downtown area, I knew State Street, I knew the museum complexes, the lakefront well as a little kid. I've given talks to high school classes out in the suburbs in recent years and have been appalled to find that many of those kids have never been downtown. They know Woodfield Mall or Oakbrook Shopping Center. They don't know the Loop or North Michigan Avenue.
Gentry: They miss so much culture that's right there, a half an hour away.
Gentry: That surprises me.
Wille: One reason is they're scared of the city. It's a phony fear but real to them.
Gentry: I grew up in Wisconsin but I knew Chicago fairly well. I can fairly often.
What kind of schools did you attend when you were growing up, primarily, the grammar school level?
Wille: I went to a Lutheran grammar school, a parochial school, that was just a few blocks from our house. I'm glad for that experience because it was more rigorous than the public schools. We had a longer school day and I think had to work harder. And that was fine. There was a lot of emphasis, as I recall, on reading and writing and composition. I wrote my first little essay or story or whatever when I was in second grade. Then I went to the public high school, Arlington Heights High School, which has since been closed. It split into about
seven other high schools like in the case of a lot of suburbs here when there was a big population boom among teenagers. And a couple of the high schools have since closed down, including the one I went to.
Gentry: So your writing really started out very, very early. Second grade is quite early to be writing.
Wille: We had a grade school newspaper that I wrote for.
Gentry: Oh, that is great.
Wille: Oh, I don't know. Is that —
Gentry: I think that's very unusual. Was the education you had at the Lutheran school followed up at home with more education by your parents, both in intellectual pursuits and also in values, family values?
Wille: It was followed up at home to correct some of the things that were taught in the Lutheran school. The thing that really bothered my father was when I would come home and say things like, "If you're not a Lutheran, you go to hell." He had a lot of corrective education to do. One time I came home—this was a Sunday school class—with some story about the devil which really bothered him. And that was the last time I went to Sunday school.
But when I had a science project to do or a history project, he helped me a lot, finding the resource material, and making sure that whatever—I recall that we had to do a lot projects, physical maps and drawings, and he gave me a lot of guidance at home, spent a lot of time with me.
Gentry: Were there particular family values that they impressed upon you and your brother?
Wille: I don't recall them ever being presented as such. No.
Gentry: Just learning by example, I guess.
Wille: Yes, that you have to work to get what you want.
Gentry: Hard work and other things.
Wille: Yes, but not overly so. We still played a lot, went outside a lot. Even the term "family values" is probably too contemporary for those years, for the late thirties and forties. It was just the way people lived.
Gentry: You were so young during the Great Depression, you probably have very few mental images of it. But can you remember any effect it had on your family and did experiencing it and going through those times have any residual effect on you?
Wille: I suppose it affected me in one way because my father was in the construction business. During the Depression, the only construction was governmental, the Works Progress Administration and other federal public works programs. Even though he was in a new country—he was a fairly new American at that time—he did work with the Army Engineers on some projects on the Mississippi River. So he was away a lot. I think when I was maybe two or three, we lived in Dubuque and Quincy, other Mississippi River towns, then came back to Arlington Heights. And he often had projects in nearby cities and he might come home just on weekends. I vaguely remember that.
I do remember people coming to the door and asking for food and my mother making—I think it was lard sandwiches, taking lard that she had made from whatever cooking she had done and spreading it on bread. Arlington Heights had its poor along with others. Unlike a lot of the suburbs today, it wasn't one economic strata.
It was economically integrated, even though that was the only way it was integrated. There were poor people, especially in that period.
Gentry: It was not integrated racially, I take it.
Wille: No. It was barely integrated ethnically. A lot of the northwest suburbs were settled primarily by Germans and Scandinavians. I think there was a smattering of Irish families. That's probably about as ethnically diverse—oh, some came from Eastern Europe, what is now Czechoslovakia, a few, enough to form one Catholic church in addition to the Lutheran church.
Oddly enough, there was one black family, and they were pillars of the community, a man who operated a barber shop and his wife who founded the Arlington Heights Women's Club. But then when they died or moved away, it returned to its all-white status.
Gentry: Your father ultimately specialized in designing churches, didn't he?
Wille: He did a lot of churches. During World War II, he again was with the Army Engineers and at Fifth Army headquarters in Hyde Park in Chicago and at Fort Sheridan. After the war he set up his own architectural business and did primarily residences, and maybe in the fifties began doing a lot of churches and some commercial buildings, savings and loans, some schools, banks.
Gentry: Was yours the kind of home where current events and politics were discussed and were there lively conversations?
Wille: Yes. I remember in grade school, going to third or fourth grade, talking to my friends about some upcoming election or who I hoped would win and get into office, and often be greeted with kind of blank looks. I thought everybody was as involved as I was. There was a lot of talk about that. My father was also involved in—not really local politics but local civic affairs. He was on the high school and the park district boards. He was fairly prominent in Arlington Heights matters.
Gentry: Did one of your parents inspire you more than the other?
Wille: I suppose my father, in what you could achieve. I, growing up, was always very impressed with the fact that he came to this country as a young—he was twenty years old, just out of school, came at a difficult time, knew some English but not a lot, and built a very successful business. That impressed me a lot and I think that was something that stayed with me, that it was possible to get what you want and do it yourself, overcome a lot of obstacles.
Gentry: That's important. As a child, were you an avid reader? And if so, what kind of things did you read, growing up?
Wille: I was an avid reader. The things I liked first, I suppose like a lot of kids, was fairy tales. I loved anything with some mystery and imagination and adventure. And then I read all the girl-type things, "Sue Barton, Nurse," and whatever. There were a whole series of books about young women who did things.
Gentry: Then you wanted to be a nurse, I suppose.
Gentry: You fought it.
Wille: Fought it awfully hard.
Gentry: Were there any on newspaper women?
Wille: No, but there was—not a book but something else that was a great role model for me, and that was a comic strip, Brenda Starr. I don't remember many comics of the time but what struck me about Brenda Starr and why I loved it—I had Brenda Starr paper dolls and drew Brenda Starrs—is that here was a woman who had what I thought of as the greatest—almost the greatest job in the world of being able to write, which I liked to do, and at the same time poke around in people's lives and solve mysteries and probe into problems and do exciting things on her own.
The one thing I wanted to do more than be Brenda Starr was to be a sportswriter because I liked sports a lot, especially baseball. My real goal, if you had asked me this when I was about twelve or thirteen, would have been to be a baseball writer.
I had a role model then, too, although it turned out it wasn't very valid. There was a famous baseball writer named Shirley Povich, who I think was based in Washington—or New York—and wrote in a lot of the—I subscribed to all kinds of baseball publications. So I thought, "Ah, if she can do it, I can, too." And I found out years later—and it wasn't even all that long ago—that Shirley Povich was a man.
Gentry: That's wonderful!
Wille: I think it's Maury Povich's uncle or father—anyway, it's the same Povich family.
Gentry: But here this man inspired you all these years. So it was pretty young that you really wanted to be some kind of writer; is that correct?
Wille: Yes, it's probably because it's one thing that I did well in school. I liked math a lot but that didn't seem to lead to any job and that was sort of a game, almost, mathematics. But probably because I did well in writing, it was something I thought I could develop into a career.
Gentry: When did you really decide that? How young were you?
Wille: I don't know that it was a conscious decision. I told you a worked on a grade school newspaper and then when I went to high school, I worked on the high school newspaper and became editor of that. So there was kind of a natural thing. By the time I got ready to pick a college, I had—my father had mentioned Northwestern to me a long time ago. In fact, I remember him saying one time when I must have been still in grade school or early high school that he thought probably I would go to Northwestern and my brother would go to IIT, Illinois Institute of Technology—which he didn't. We both ended up going to Northwestern. But fortunately Northwestern had a good journalism school. I think I applied to the University of Missouri, which also did. But by that time, by the end of my high school days, I knew I wanted to study journalism.
Gentry: Now you were about eight years old when World War II began. What was it like living in a predominantly German neighborhood as Hitler's armies marched across Europe? Do you remember your family and your neighbors' reaction to Hitler?
Wille: I don't remember anything about the neighborhood or the community reaction to it. The main thing I remember about the family reaction is that my father had a mother and a sister living in Germany. Of course, he was concerned about them, but he had been for some years. I mean, things were not good there for a number of years. I do recall—I read well enough, I guess I must have been—August of '39 I would have been seven—and I remember reading the headlines of war at that time in Poland and worried for my grandmother and worried for my father worrying about his mother and sister, but I don't recall much else about it. I'm not sure we even discussed it at school, only when the U.S. got involved, when some friends of mine had older brothers who were drafted and people being genuinely concerned about that.
Gentry: That must have been a traumatic time in your father's life. Did you and your family follow every aspect of the war, have maps and newspapers or radio that you listened so that you could see what was happening?
Wille: My father may have. He probably did. But I really wasn't that aware of the logistics of the war, only speculation on whether the city where his mother lived would be bombed or what would become of his sister. But any communication with them was shut off by that time.
And then after the U.S. entered—I remember Pearl Harbor. I remember it was the Sunday afternoon that we had planned to drive to a neighboring suburb, Park Ridge, to go to a movie, which we did, even though we knew what had happened at Pearl Harbor by that time. But I remember coming home at night and being afraid as we got out of the car that we were going to get bombed, as any child would in that era.
Gentry: Didn't your father work in the war effort? Weren't you afraid something would happen to him?
Wille: No. As I said before, he was with the Army Engineer Corps but it was involved with construction at Fifth Army headquarters and other army facilities.
Gentry: He was not a warden in the community?
Wille: Oh, he was an air raid warden but I didn't really think that was dangerous. After the first couple weeks, I think kids got over their fear of bombs coming. He did have to register for the draft and I think when I figured out that he was of an age where he'd have to register, I worried about him being sent overseas but as it turned out, he was a civilian employee with the Army Engineer Corps and never really went out of the Midwest area.
Gentry: So was it during World War II that you really started reading newspapers?
Wille: I have to tell you that I never really read newspapers much till I was quite old. I read the sports sections. I did not follow—you know, kids eight or nine, ten years old, I don't think, maybe unless they had an older brother in the army, didn't read newspapers that closely. I have fleeting memories of headlines when major things occurred but kids that age are not great newspaper readers, I think, and I wasn't, either, except, as I said, of the sports sections.
Gentry: When did your father finally make contact with his mother and sister, and find out what happened to them?
Wille: Well, it would have been after Germany surrendered, or maybe just before when he got word through a U.S. soldier, an army soldier from Texas who had marched into Leipzig with the U.S. army, and I think had been quartered with my grandmother, and got word to him that his mother was alive. My father was sure she wasn't because Leipzig was very heavily bombed in 1944 and he really didn't think they had managed to survive, there were so many civilian casualties. But then, as you know, the U.S. army pulled back and the Soviet army moved in, and there was a lot more devastation and he didn't think they had survived that.
It must have been late in 1945, some months after the end of the war, that he got a letter from his mother saying that she and his sister had survived. And of course, that was a day of great celebration. By that time, I had a little part-time job at the Arlington Heights library, stamping books in their children's section, or dusting them or doing something like that. And my parents phoned me at the library to tell me they'd heard from my grandmother.
Gentry: I'll bet that was a celebration in your home.
Wille: It was. And there was just a lot of news to catch up on. My father's sister who was fourteen when he left, got married during the war to a man from Czechoslovakia who had been brought to Leipzig as a laborer when Hitler moved—after Czechoslovakia surrendered, he moved a lot of the Czech and Slovak soldiers to man the factories in Germany. And she met him at one of their little garden plots, where people tried to grow their own vegetables, and went back to Czechoslovakia with him toward the end of the war so escaped a lot of the heavy bombing in Leipzig. And she still lives there with Toni, the man she married.
Gentry: When did you finally get to meet your grandmother?
Wille: In 1958, which was the first time my father went back. My mother and father and Wayne and I went. But we flew to—we made kind of the grand tour—to the Netherlands and to Denmark and then went into Germany. It was difficult to get into the eastern part of Germany but Leipzig has a semi-annual trade fair in which they open their gates to Westerners twice a year. We went during their September fair. And his sister took a train up from Czechoslovakia and his mother came to Berlin from Leipzig. It was a wonderful reunion, even though when we went back to Leipzig with her, it was terribly emotionally difficult for my father. The city he remembered as being so beautiful, just a lovely, Middle Ages, middle European city was destroyed and Eastern Germany wasn't rebuilt for decades. And when it was rebuilt it was in a pretty ugly fashion. Most of the lovely squares and boulevards he remembered were gone.
Gentry: But he hadn't seen, then, his mother and sister for over thirty years, had he?
Wille: From 1924 till 1958.
Gentry: So that was quite a reunion.
Wille: That's right. When he originally came to this country, his father had planned to follow with his mother and sister in a couple of years but then his father developed stomach cancer and died—I think he was about fifty or just short of his fiftieth birthday—so that cut short any plans of the reunion they had hoped for.
Gentry: You told me one thing about the war that was interesting. You said that you went to school with some Japanese-American kids whose families were interned.
Wille: That's right.
Gentry: Did they live in Arlington Heights? And what was it like?
Wille: Nearby. They were part of the concentration camp era. As you know, the Japanese were seized and their property was seized on the West Coast. They lived in camps in the West for a while. And then a lot of them were shipped to other areas. I guess the theory was to get them away from the West Coast where presumably they would have had contact with Japanese—and who knows what kind of crazy thoughts were going through the head of the government at the time—but they were put in farms in the Arlington Heights area and they were forced laborers. The children were sent to schools. We had a couple of them in our schools, where they became instant celebrities because they looked so different. And they were delightful children in spite of everything they'd gone through. I think there were three or four.
Gentry: So they were accepted in Arlington Heights, which was not known for accepting other nationalities.
Wille: You know, they weren't part of the community; they were still prisoners of the government of the United States. So it wasn't a question of being accepted. They couldn't buy property or move freely about the community, even though they were more American than I was. I mean, I was first-generation of an enemy country and some of them were second- and third-generation.
Gentry: You told me about your brother and you bicycling to a German prison camp. And that was an interesting story. Where was that? And what was the German people's reaction to a German prison camp?
Wille: In a nearly suburb of Palatine there was a big prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers. They were kept behind a fence. And a lot of kids used to ride out there and look at them through the fence and call out to them. And they'd wave. I remember they wore denim jackets that said "PW"—it didn't say "POW," I think it said "PW." And it was fashionable among kids at the time to get denim jackets and with white Band-Aid tape write "PW" to look like them. And we were cautioned not to do that, in case anybody shot us in the back thinking we're escaped prisoners.
They were curiosities but there were a lot of German-American families who may have felt some kind of kinship with them. I remember people used to ride out there on Sundays and give them pies and potato salads and things through the bars. I'm sure a lot of them got out and probably have been living in this area happily ever since.
There were a lot of German prison camps in the Midwest because it was so far from an ocean that there was no way they could escape and get back to Europe. So there were a number of them in Midwestern states.
Gentry: Do you remember during the war years, women in the community—or any women—going off to nontraditional jobs, like Rosie the Riveter, women working in factories during the war? And if so, did that encourage you that women could do just about anything a man could do?
Wille: No. I was in grade school—my mother didn't and the mothers of my friends didn't. I learned in later years of a number of jobs including jobs on newspapers that were temporarily open to women. But Arlington Heights did not have factories or—it wasn't part of the war effort in that sense that there was a labor shortage and a lot of women went off to factory jobs. So I really didn't know anyone who did that.
Gentry: When you were high school, you said you were on the school newspaper, did anybody in particular encourage you toward writing or journalism at that point? Or were there any women journalist role models?
Wille: No. I encouraged myself because it was something I enjoyed doing. The high school had a journalism class as part of its English program and I was enrolled in that class. No, there weren't any women journalists except for Brenda Starr and the lamented Shirley Povich that inspired me.
Gentry: No Chicago women journalists?
Wille: None that I knew of. We got a couple of papers in our house. I don't remember—bylines weren't as common in those days. Today you write two paragraphs and it's a byline story. The bylines were awarded for some special effort and l don't recall seeing female bylines. I don't recall any particular names of local journalists from that era.
Gentry: When you went to Northwestern in the fall of 1949, were there many other women majoring in journalism?
Wille: There were quite a few. Not as many as now, when I think that half or perhaps the majority of journalism students are women. It wasn't just geared to newspaper jobs. The journalism school also had—you could major in advertising, public relations, and perhaps the majority of those students were women. And magazine writing, magazine production—the Chicago area always had a lot of jobs in company publications, various commercial organs. Since the journalism school is much broader than newspapers, we did have a number of women who came there. When I enrolled, it was actually as an advertising major because I felt that there wouldn't be a lot of newspaper jobs; it was unrealistic to prepare for a newspaper job. It wasn't until I was, I think, in my junior year, that my faculty adviser—a man named Jacob Scher, who also worked at the
Page 131 Chicago Sun-Times—encouraged me to major in newspaper work rather than advertising. He was a great influence on me. He said, "If it's something you really want, do it! Don't give up before you try."
Gentry: That's just what you needed, wasn't it?
You worked on the college newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, during those years, too. And you told me that you were involved in one of the few acts of campus rebellion in the fifties on the paper. Can you explain that?
Wille: Probably the only one in the United States of America during the early fifties. I was managing editor of the Daily Northwestern my senior year and a friend of mine, Rick DuBrow, was the editor. Very early in that year we printed a story—I don't even remember what the issue was, it must have been tremendously important and daring at the time but it completely passed out of my mind. It could have involved segregating or banning blacks from campus dormitories or drinking by the Northwestern football team, the other big controversy at the time.
Whatever it was, we went to the printer—the paper, the Daily Northwestern, was printed in Des Plaines. And we laid out the paper in Des Plaines and came back and we heard later that the faculty advisory board of the newspaper, headed by the dean of the school of journalism, had gone out there and pulled the story and substituted another story, which was shocking. Rick DuBrow, I believe, was either fired or quit as editor, and the faculty advisory committee named me editor. And I promptly resigned and led a walk-out of the entire staff. We even got covered by the local Chicago newspapers.
Wille: Yes. It was a big event in my collegiate life.
Gentry: How did you feel about it then? Pretty important, I guess.
Wille: Yes. Momentarily we were big celebrities on campus—for about two hours. It was a big issue. The students who did go to put out [the paper] had to get a whole new staff. We considered them traitors and there was lots of bad feeling in the journalism school among the people who then put out the paper and those of us who had walked out.
Gentry: Was that the end of your newspaper days at Northwestern?
Wille: Yes. Right.
Gentry: You didn't go back.
Wille: I didn't go back to the paper, you mean.
Wille: I think it was around Thanksgiving. It was about November of my senior year.
Gentry: Would you consider yourself sort of a rebel in college, or a little more independent than the average person?
Wille: Well, for the 1950s and for Northwestern, by that one act, yes, I was a campus radical.
[End Tape 1, Side A; begin Tape 1, Side B]
Wille: There was something I was involved in while I was a student at Northwestern that was much more significant than that episode at the newspaper, and that was helping to integrate the campus dormitories. Northwestern had very few black students and those who did come, I was horrified to find out my freshman year, could not live in the beautiful campus dormitories. The girls were relegated to an old white-frame building, a little bit off campus, and the boys to an old white-frame building, also a little bit off campus, that were euphemistically called International House—Women's International House and Men's International House. It was especially cruel because the black students got the same kind of catalogs that everybody else got, with pictures of the beautiful lannonstone dormitories. And then when they got there, they and their parents found that they couldn't live there, they had to live in these other places. I was appalled to find out that this was—nobody thought anything was wrong that this situation existed. And they could not eat in the campus dormitories, either, or in the—I don't think they could eat in the student union, they had to eat—they were given meal tickets and had to eat someplace off campus.
So toward the end of my freshman year when we had to select the dormitories we wanted to live in for our sophomore year, I and two friends of mine put down "International House." We were called in by someone from the dean of women's office, it was the dean of women herself, who said, "You may not realize this, but this is for Negroes." And we said, "Well, yes, but there's nothing in any campus literature that says this. It just says International House, it doesn't say who it's restricted to."
I wanted it for one very practical reason, that it was very close to the Daily Northwestern office where I did a lot of work in the evenings. And if I was leaving campus at eleven o'clock or midnight, it was just a block or two away. Also it didn't have—I don't think it had a resident counselor and it had no particular hours, where the other dormitories were very strictly regulated. So it was appealing for that reason, too. And the three of us insisted that there was nothing in any University literature that barred us from living there.
So finally, maybe to keep us from making too much of a fuss because I think we threatened to call the local newspapers, we were told we could do it as long as our parents, maybe it was even our father, wrote a letter to the dean of women saying that he understood that this facility was interracial as well as international. Horrible, isn't it? So my father happily did that and we were able to move in. The three of us moved in and integrated that dormitory and then encouraged some of the black students who lived there to do the same thing the following fall, using the same [techniques]—just be very firm about it, there's nothing that says you can't do this, and as proof there were we, you know, three white students, living in this International House. One of them, a very light-skinned girl, was able to move into one of the regular campus dormitories and that kind of began integration.
Gentry: I'm sure after that act you were considered a campus radical. That sounds like a Deep South policy.
Wille: I know. Isn't that horrible?
Gentry: Yes, it is.
Wille: I think we were just considered strange.
Gentry: Now, you met your husband, of thirty-eight years almost, Wayne, in a journalism class? He was journalism major at Northwestern. How did you meet him?
Wille: In a journalism class. It was toward the end of my senior year and I had gone to summer school so I was able to take a couple of graduate classes to speed up—this was a five-year program at Northwestern, leading to a master's degree. So I wouldn't have to go a full extra year, I took some graduate courses my senior year and Wayne was in one of those, a reporting course in which we spent a lot of time downtown, at City Hall and court buildings and settlement houses. And that's where we met.
Gentry: Did he graduate a year earlier, or a year before you?
Wille: He graduated in June of '53 with his master's degree and I finished in the following December.
Gentry: Oh, I see. Okay. As he got out of school, were his opportunities greater than yours?
Wille: No, they were much more limited because as he got out of school, he had to go in the army.
Wille: Right. The Korean War was pretty well over by that time but the draft was still in effect. So he didn't have any career choices, other than being a soldier. We were married six months after I graduated and that's when we lived in New Mexico, where he was stationed. He was discharged in—I think it was late summer of 1955, a little over a year after we were married. He then went back to Northwestern and took some radio/television courses. And I worked for a while on a commercial magazine geared to salespeople, called Specialty Salesman, before I got the job at the Daily News.
Gentry: Had you tried to get on a newspaper before that?
Wille: I did in Albuquerque. I applied to whatever the local paper was, the Albuquerque Journal, and also to the Chicago papers. Chicago papers were never that likely to hire someone just out of school with no journalism experience. But the leading way to get onto a Chicago newspaper at that time was through the City News Bureau, which the newspapers and radio and TV stations operate together to just do a lot of reporting for them, covering police news, courts, a lot of other local happenings.
City News Bureau hired women briefly during World War II. You asked me about that. That's when I learned there were more opportunities during those years. Then after men began coming back after they were discharged, they shut off the hiring of women and didn't do it until they were forced to during the 1970s. So the opportunities for newspaper work for me then were limited, perhaps to community newspapers, which I tried and didn't have any openings, or if I wanted to—Northwestern had a placement bureau but if I wanted to go anyplace to work, if I hadn't wanted to stay in Chicago, I might have been able to get on a small newspaper somewhere. But because I wanted to stay here, I took a job in a different kind of journalism.
Gentry: But then Wayne eventually got on a newspaper.
Wille: Wayne, when he got out of school, got on the Sun-Times, a job he got through Jacob Scher, the professor I mentioned who worked there. He worked there for a while and then worked at CBS in Chicago, and then for a magazine, Science and Mechanics, and worked there until he got the job at World Book as managing editor for their Year Book and eventually edited all of their annuals.
Gentry: Yes, you told me, his interests as a journalist, he had such a wide range of interests, wasn't World Book the perfect job for him?
Wille: It was. But by that time, he'd had a taste of newspapers and magazines and public relations. But he's interested in so many different things, a lot like my father in that respect, I mean, just a scholar of everything, that putting out the annual at World Book was ideal because that covers the events of the year. And eventually he also edited their science annual, so he covered the events of the world and special stress on science. Then he started another annual on health and medicine.
Gentry: He was there the majority of his career, then.
Gentry: Throughout most of your career, both you and Wayne held high-pressure, demanding jobs in journalism, with really long hours. What have been some of the keys of the success of your thirty-eight year marriage, when so many marriages fail under that kind of intense career?
Wille: Because we were both Cubs fans. And once you get emotionally involved with a team like the Cubs, you can withstand anything. That was always a good out.
I think it was a tremendous help that our jobs were somewhat similar. I mean, they were both involved with current events and the same kinds of jobs. Our deadlines were different but we both had periods of time where we both had to work exceedingly long hours and had understanding of each other's work. I read and was interested in his product and he did the same with mine, and we were supportive of each other. I would imagine it's a lot more difficult if, say, one is a lawyer or a physician or any other kind of job that's totally different and has different kinds of pressures.
And then also a lot of our friends were drawn from people we had known in college who had similar kinds of jobs. Because we had gone to the same university and at roughly the same time, we had a circle of friends who knew each other. Then when I began at the Daily News, the Daily News in those days, probably because it was the—maybe the smallest paper in town or at least an underdog afternoon paper; it had a small staff and a very closely knit staff and we saw each other all the time. It was our social life as well as our business life. And many of them were people that Wayne knew also, through different kinds of contacts.
And he's from Des Plaines, a town not unlike Arlington Heights. His father also was involved in the construction industry. It turned out that our fathers and mothers had mutual friends and they became great friends and vacationed together. So there's just a great melding of interests and support and appreciation of each other.
Gentry: So throughout your careers, you read each other's work and commented on it?
Wille: Yes. Not to the extent that we would run home and get somebody's advice. But, oh, yes, we were very involved in each other's triumphs and when his book would come out, I couldn't wait to see it, or he would bring home the tear sheets before it came out and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. And he did the same thing with my projects.
Gentry: I think it makes it a lot easier that way.
Wille: Yes. I can't imagine having it—we both had jobs that were very public. What you did was there for everybody to see and comment on and criticize. Having a job like that and living with somebody who was not interested in it or who didn't appreciate it—or even worse, resented the amount of time and effort you put in—would be awful. And I think it would be difficult for that kind of partnership to survive.
Gentry: I think you're right. So many journalists get wrapped up in their careers and are kind of lost when they are not in the forefront of news and under deadline pressure. So it fascinated me that both of you decided to retire early, fifty-nine and sixty, respectively, at the peak of your careers. Tell me about that, when you planned it and why you planned it.
Wille: Actually, we had made that decision a long time ago. I can't remember when it was but probably on one of our trips to Virginia to visit my brother and his wife. My brother is—now he's dean of the school of business and economics at Radford University, which is part of the University of Virginia system. He's been with universities in Virginia since 1976, first in Northern Virginia and now in Southwestern Virginia. The first time we saw that area, the rolling hills and the woods and the little Walton-type farms and the wonderful vistas, we were just enchanted with it. And we thought, this is where we'd like to live, someday.
I suppose because we worked in high-pressure jobs and the pressure increased as we advanced in the job, particularly for Wayne. The last several years, he was putting out three annuals with a staff that did not increase much as the workload went up. He worked longer and longer hours and the pressure was really getting exhausting.
I worked very long hours, too. And the competitive pressure as editorial page editor may seem not to be as great as it was as a reporter, but it was even more so because editorial boards, and particularly editorial page editors, get lobbied the way a politician does. And after a while you feel that everybody wants something from you, and balancing all these, plus the long hours and the kinds of meetings and bureaucratic duties that go along with that kind of job, it just made us both long for it all to stop. And I think we were ready for it to end. We worked to the point where we knew that while we would miss seeing the people and the relationships we had developed in our jobs, we weren't going to miss the work at all. And it just seemed like a great relief.
But you have to be at that point. And some friends of ours understand it perfectly. Some others are just baffled and keep saying, "Well, now, what are you doing now? Do you miss it?" And we feel kind of guilty saying, "No, we're not doing much of anything. And no, we don't miss it." It's not a decision that everybody could be happy with. Maybe it helps to have done what you want to do and not to have anything more that you feel you need to do or want to accomplish.
Gentry: And how wonderful it was that you both felt that way at the same time. How bad it would have been if you had not been in sync.
Wille: Well, actually, no, we could have stayed here. And I know people that have done that, too, where one is retired and the other hasn't. But yes, if one of us had gone to Virginia, it would have been a little uncomfortable. But it's something that we had talked about for years and we knew when the timing was right.
Gentry: Going back to breaking into newspaper journalism, how did you finally break into a job at the Chicago Daily News and what was your first job there?
Wille: I was working, as I mentioned, on a magazine that was geared mainly to direct sales organizations, called Specialty Salesman, which I'd gotten through an employment agency in Chicago that specialized in jobs in journalism. Strangely enough, they happened to have heard about a job on the Daily News.
Usually newspapers don't go through employment agencies for jobs but this job was a little bit out of the direct line of reporting. The fashion editor of the Daily News, Peg Zwecker, needed an assistant. It's somebody that she would have to work closely with and she contacted this employment agency and asked them if they had anybody in mind. What she really was looking for and what her other assistants had been was someone who had done some work in fashion marketing or public relations for one of the department stores, not necessarily anyone with a journalism background. I think that's why she went to an employment agency.
When they referred me to her, Peg and I got along well from the start. She thought that her daughter and I had belonged to the same sorority. We hadn't but when I found out what sorority her daughter had belonged to at Northwestern, I said, "What a coincidence! That's the one I belonged to, too." It's a good thing she didn't ask me for the secret handshake or the secret password. But I liked her a lot.
Now, Peg was someone who was more of a pioneer than I was. By that time—I'm not sure how old she was by then, maybe in her late forties—I think she had started during the war in a business section or a real estate section of a paper and then moved into the women's section. She'd raised two children and gone back to work, which was pretty unusual in those days. But we got along well. And she told the managing editor that I was the one that she wanted to hire. He objected because they really wanted someone with more fashion experience. I had none. But as the managing editor told me later in his chauvinistic way, "Peg stamped her little foot and said, 'This is the one I want.'" So they said okay. And that's how I got on the Daily News.
Gentry: How did you adapt to fashion, since that wasn't something you were particularly interested in?
Wille: One thing I had learned by that time—or maybe I always knew it—is that you've got to be flexible if you want to succeed in this business, especially in those days. A lot of what I did was chores for Peg, in keeping her schedule. She was very much in demand as a commentator in fashion shows and had a wide correspondence and very influential in the world of fashion. There wasn't all that much writing. I had a couple of chances to do some feature stories for what was then called the women's section of the newspaper. The editor of that section knew that I had gone to a journalism school and was interested in doing something more than being Peg's assistant, so he gave me some chances to do feature writing.
Gentry: And then you did do a little fashion, didn't you? I remember you met Halston.
Wille: Halston, the designer—the great designer Halston was Peg Zwecker's discovery. He was a young designer who I believe had studied at the Art Institute or school of fashion design in Chicago and was working at the beauty salon in one of the downtown hotels, maybe the Ambassador East, designing hats that were sold as one of the salon's services, in case you wanted to buy a hat to go along with your new hairdo. Peg thought he was really talented. Later when he opened his own little business, she wrote about him a number of times and then recommended him to a hat designer in New York, Lily Dache, who hired him and he eventually became one of the top U.S. designers.
The days I worked for Peg and I used to go up to Halston's shop, he often sold me some leftover things that no one had wanted, things I could pick up at sales—a coat, other items that I wish I kept through the years. I had all these original Halstons that are gone, given away to various rummage sales over the years.
Gentry: By the mid fifties or late fifties, how many women were actually in the newsroom at the Chicago Daily News and what kind of stories were they writing? When did you finally get in there?
Wille: The writers in the feature section or women's section were almost all women in the newsroom. The Daily News, which I think was typical of newspapers at the time, had two. One covered education, and that was considered, because it was related to children, women's work, so that was okay for women to do. Then it had one woman on general assignment who did a lot of feature stories. The late fifties were the end of what I think of as the Our Girl era in journalism, when papers kept a female reporter to do semi-stunt stories that began maybe a century earlier with Nellie Bly—a woman who used the byline "Nellie Bly" and went around the world in eighty days and wrote about it and did other kinds of adventurous things. Women always seemed to have a role on big-city newspapers doing that sort of thing.
When a job opened up in the newsroom because the general assignment reporter—whose name I've forgotten—enlisted in the Marines, I lobbied for that job. I already had gotten to know the city editor, a man named Maurice Fischer, who was known as "Ritz," because I had done a couple of news stories just on my own, ran into a couple of things I thought were interesting news events, and wrote them up and gave them to him, which I'm sure violated all kinds of protocol. But it was a way for me to get noticed and for him to know that's the kind of reporting I wanted to do.
Some of them were just fortuitous. I remember once coming back from some kind of fashion assignment, the photographer and I heard on his radio to the office of a fire raging somewhere nearby and I persuaded him to drive over there. I thought if I could get there ahead of the reporter the Daily News assigned—actually the reporter was already there but I ran around and got extra material which I then phoned in.
Another time I was waiting for the elevated train to go to work and I saw the station just ahead, the Howard Street station, catching fire. People were screaming. So I interviewed them and got some sidebar material on the fire and phoned that in.
By the time the woman in the newsroom left to go into the Marines, I'd had several stories in the news section and seemed the logical choice to fill in for her.
Gentry: So what year was that that you actually broke in to the newsroom?
Wille: That was 1957, maybe the late summer, early fall of '57.
Gentry: Now, were women accepted socially in the newsroom by the men or was it sort of a gang of men and you were a little bit outside?
Wille: Because there were only two of us, we were different, obviously. But I never had any problems of getting along or surely never felt any resentment. A lot of help and support from a lot of them. It was a good group, very talented writers, and some who are still my friends today and some who were particularly helpful to me, who inspired me to do the kinds of serious reporting I eventually ended up doing. In the early days there were a lot of the stunt stories I mentioned. And everybody did—because I was a new reporter, I had to do my share of obituaries and what we called fillers, little tiny stories, and covering conventions. You know, we'd get two or three assignments a day.
My first big assignment—I think I'd been in the newsroom about a week when I was assigned to fly with the Navy Blue Angels stunt team who were in town for an air and water show. That was really before the age of commercial jet travel. I had a chance to break the sound barrier and flip around in the air with them.
Gentry: That was exciting, even though it was an "Our Gal" story, wasn't it?
Wille: Sure, if I recall, the paper ran a picture of me on the front page in a flight suit, powdering my nose, and the headline was "Our Gal Soars with Blue Angels," or whatever. I was probably too thrilled that I had the job to be offended at it. I just enjoyed it.
Gentry: And then you got in with some animals, too, didn't you, in those "Our Gal" stories?
Wille: One of the things I did was go to Brookfield Zoo for a day and brush the teeth of a rhinoceros and file the toes of an elephant, and wrote about it. And I shot pool with a pool champion, or a billiards champion, named Willie Hoppe. I didn't do these that often, maybe three or four times a year, interspersed with what was more typical, reporting on some sad thing that happened, some tragedy. They were at the time called sob-sister stories; even when men did them, they were sob-sister stories. Children dying in a slum fire and interviewing the families.
That was good, that was useful, it was helpful to me, because it was a chance to turn them into more serious reporting and to find out why this happened, why this building burned. Had it been inspected? Had the city building department been doing its job? Had the city housing court been enforcing the restrictions on violations of the housing code?* So it was that kind of story that really led me into what I specialized in later.
Gentry: Sure, the urban reporting. Good field work.
Gentry: Didn't you also get assigned quite a few celebrity stories, when people came into Chicago?
Wille: That's right. That was another, the celebrity interview. Sometimes it was at airports. More likely, because those were the days when a lot of Hollywood stars in particular took trains from Los Angeles to New York
* Wille later defined "restrictions on violations" as "procedures and penalties."
and stopped over in Chicago. I often would go out to the railroad station, which has since closed, on Dearborn Street—or La Salle Street, I forget which one—and interview celebrities between trains or as they dashed from the train to the Ambassador East Hotel and lunch at the Pump Room. I met the Duke and Duchess of Windsor there one time, with all their little dogs, and Baron Rothschild. And then there were also interviews with movie stars, as they came through. Papers did more of that sort of thing then than they do now; they're a lot more serious now than they were then. Circulation was bigger then, whatever that proves.
Gentry: Yes. I remember that comment you made. Newspapers are much more sober and responsible now but circulation was bigger then. Do you think sometimes that newspapers are going to have to go back to more features in order to attract the younger readers?
Wille: No, television was still—well, there was television news but the logistics of newspapers became much more difficult, especially for afternoon newspapers. As the urban area grew, it was difficult for afternoon newspapers to get out to the far-flung suburbs. People became busier and more women worked outside the home. They didn't have time to read a newspaper after dinner, and people began to rely on television for their late-day news. So I think that's why afternoon newspapers began dying off.
Gentry: Before we forget about your celebrity interviews, I'd like you to tell the story of your interview with Cary Grant.
Wille: Oh, yes, one of my movie star interviews, and also one of the few times I can remember putting something in a story that was censored. Cary Grant was charming, just as he is on the screen, and talked a lot about clothes and fabrics. I had on some kind of cotton thing and he felt the fabric of that. And that led us into a discussion of the kind of fabrics he liked. And he told me that he always wore ladies' underpants because he liked the feel of the silk or satin next to his skin. He didn't like men's underwear. That was really intriguing.
So I came back and somehow got this into my lead, that Cary Grant only wore ladies' panties next to his skin. And my city editor—Ritz Fischer—called me up and said, "You know, Lois, this is a family newspaper and I really don't think we're ready to tell our readers that Cary Grant wears ladies' undergarments." So that was an item that I saved to relate just to friends; it never saw print.
Gentry: Yes, it did. It came out in your retirement story. That's how I first saw it.
Wille: Oh, that's right. That's right, it did. Jim Warren put that in, didn't he?
Gentry: In 1991 it came out. That's a long time in coming, from the fifties, probably when you interviewed him.
Wille: After much more revealing things were written about Cary Grant, poor Cary Grant.
Gentry: Right. One—I don't know if you'd call it a sob-sister story but one big tragedy in Chicago was the Lady of Angels school fire, which I remember, too, where ninety-two children died and three nuns died, and that was in 1959. How were you assigned to cover that big tragedy?
Wille: That was a couple of years after I got into the newsroom. Actually, the afternoon that the fire broke out, I was filling in as the phone receptionist on the city desk. The person who normally did that, Margaret Whitesides, was on vacation. And it was customary when Margaret went on vacation that a female would have to fill in for her because you couldn't have a male reporter answering telephones and taking messages. So one of the things I did as a reporter was to fill in as the receptionist when Margaret was on vacation.
I was working in that job when the bulletins of the fire came over. So in a way I felt I was right in the center of it, as the horror built, from just a fire in a school to this horrible tragedy. But everybody was assigned to it that night. And when I got off that shift, about five or six, my assignment was to find the parents of a child
who had died and interview them. I went out to the fire scene and it was all still very chaotic at that time. Parents who couldn't find their children right away were making the rounds of hospitals and then eventually the morgue.
I think it was at the morgue that I met parents of a girl who had died. And they were agreeable to my going home with them and talking about her. It was middle of the night by that time. That's something that I found all through doing this kind of reporting, that while it may seem to readers or to TV viewers terribly intrusive and cruel to talk to a family when they've been hit with that kind of tragedy, often they want to talk and it's something that I think they want—to feel people care about them, and care about how they're feeling and what they're experiencing.
I was at that home most of the night because the parents got out her scrapbooks—she was their only child—got out her scrapbooks and the pictures of her first confirmation, and her dress that she'd worn for her first confirmation. It was just painful and moving. But I didn't feel that I was intruding on them in their sorrow. I felt that what I could write about them and about their daughter could be a tribute to her and to their little family.
So I got back to the office about four or five a.m. Because we were an afternoon newspaper, our deadline was maybe seven in the morning, so there was time to write something before the first editions, unlike the morning newspapers that would have had to be already in print by that time.
Gentry: Now, when I talked to Mike Royko, syndicated columnist, about you, he said that the first time he ever saw you was in the inquest after that fire. And you were bobbing up and down interviewing people twice as fast as he was. He thought he was the big, hotshot, young Chicago reporter until he saw you and saw the competition you had. Yet over the years, you have been best friends with Mike Royko and I imagine you admire each other's work very much.
Wille: I've heard Mike tell that, too. He was with City News Bureau, the organization I've told you was closed to women at the time. I don't remember him but then that's probably because there weren't many female reporters running around but a lot of men reporters at that inquest. Mike came to the Daily News a couple of years—the fire was in '59, he must have come like the following year or maybe even later that year, and was one of the group at the Daily News that I told you saw each other all the time, and were friends socially as well as at work. We have been friends through the years.
Working on a paper like the Daily News that you knew fairly early on was doomed—and that was something we'd picked up not long after we started working there. You worked harder and you formed—it's like being marooned on a raft and you get to know each other well before you're picked up and saved. The group of us who moved from the Daily News to the Sun-Times, and then later when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times went over to the Tribune, were like a tight little clan that had been through a lot together.
Mike was covering, I think, the Cook County building in Chicago when he first came to the Daily News or soon after he came to the Daily News. He did a couple of columns in addition to his reporting that immediately caught my eye as just having a special spark and a special feel for Chicago politics, just delightful, wise, witty writing. So that's why I've been a fan of his all along.
During the civil rights movement, we did a lot of the same kind of writing. Mike was a columnist, full-time columnist by that time. I as a reporter, got to know—we used the same sources, covered the same kind of people.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Gentry: By 1959, you were getting far better stories, because they assigned you to cover Khrushchev at an Iowa farm. Tell me about that story. That's a fascinating story.
Wille: Again, this was to do feature stories, not the main news stories of Khrushchev's visit. The Soviet leader, Khrushchev, came to the United States, really to address the UN. But as part of that, an Iowa farmer named Roswell Garst, who had been a guest in the Soviet Union, invited him to Iowa to see a typical U.S. farm, although the Garst farm was huge and hugely successful, probably not typical, but anyway, to see how the U.S. could produce corn, which Khrushchev was interested in.
The Daily News at that time had an agricultural editor who was assigned to it, George Thiem, as well as Peter Lisagor, the head of our Washington bureau who was covering Khrushchev's visit. I had never met Peter Lisagor until then, but George Thiem and I went out from Chicago. My job was to write about the community's reaction to Nikita Khrushchev and his wife, and the community's preparation for it. We were there a couple days in advance and I did, you know, the little sidebar stories of the town's excitement and anticipation.
Then when Khrushchev arrived, of course it was with a horde of the world press that was traveling with him and a lot of Secret Service people. The security was incredibly tight. The Garst family was giving a picnic for Khrushchev for people from the town and for Khrushchev and his party to which the press was excluded. And it was pretty tight—Secret Service rings around the house to keep the press out. So there were hundreds of reporters milling around outside and maybe thousands. And it was really important to me to get inside, to do something beyond what the great crowd of reporters was going to do.
So I spotted at one end of the field a place in the bushes that didn't look too heavily guarded. And I thought if I could crawl through those bushes, I could get into the picnic area where the townspeople were gathered. I took off my press badge and was crawling through these bushes, which seemed to go on and on for a long stretch, and ran into somebody else crawling through the bushes without a tag. We introduced ourselves and I discovered it was Peter Lisagor, my famous Washington colleague whom I hadn't met. We both got into the picnic grounds.
I don't know what became of Peter. I think he may have run into—possibly the Secret Service people knew him. Peter was quite well-known in Washington, recognizable. They may have snatched him and thrown him out. But I was able to mingle with them a while, with the guests, and then went inside the house. I was in the living room where Khrushchev was dangling a little Garst grandchild on his knee and Khrushchev's wife was showing Mrs. Garst pictures of her grandchild. And I pressed my luck too far because I was so excited about getting this and I wanted to get it—this was in the mid-afternoon and the time for a home delivery edition, or at least our last afternoon edition. So I went upstairs and used one of the Garst phones to phone in my story when a Secret Service agent heard me and snatched me off the phone and threw me out. But I got a little bit of a story in it.
Gentry: Did they get most of it?
Wille: Yes, I think so.
Gentry: That's a wonderful story. Shortly after that, or within the late fifties, early sixties, the newsroom finally was accepting more women, I believe. Weren't you somewhat instrumental in getting Georgie Ann Geyer?
Wille: It accepted one more, and that was maybe 1960, but it was quite a struggle, too. Georgie Ann Geyer, who also was a Northwestern graduate, had been a Fulbright scholar in Vienna, lived in Mexico for a time, and was fluent in several languages—a wonderful writer, just a bright person. She wanted to get on a newspaper, was hired by the feature section, as I had been, but as an assistant to the society editor covering parties and was just dying on that beat. I lobbied our city editor, Ritz Fischer, to bring Gee-Gee into the newsroom. It would have broken this rule of having two women on general assignment at a time, as though it would have been a revolutionary thing to do.
Ritz was pondering it and uncertain of it. And finally—I had been there not quite a year, maybe about nine months at the time, and he said, "One thing I like about you and it's reassuring is that you've been here
almost a year now and you've never cried." And he said, "Now, would Gee-Gee cry?" And I said, "Oh, not a chance. Gee-Gee hasn't cried since she's been an infant." So I went back and told Gee-Gee I thought things were going well, but whatever she did, she must never cry in the newsroom.
Gee-Gee eventually was transferred back and quickly made a name for herself as a reporter, not just in urban affairs but then as a foreign reporter. She got a fellowship to do some writing and studying in Latin America and ended up spending several years there as the Daily News foreign correspondent. Then also the Middle East, covered Vietnam, now does a syndicated column, based in Washington, but still does a lot of foreign traveling.
It wasn't till years later that a colleague of ours was giving a talk at the University of Missouri School of Journalism when the dean of the school of journalism there, Roy Fisher, who had been an assistant city editor at the Daily News when Gee-Gee made her historic breakthrough, being the second woman on general assignment—actually, it was Mike Royko who was giving the talk and who told me the story; Roy was reminiscing to Mike about the things that had happened at the Daily News when he was there, including the day when a second woman was permitted on general assignment. And he said to Mike, "You know, the reason we moved Gee-Gee over is that we really felt sorry for Lois because she had no one to go to the bathroom with. And you know, girls like to go to the bathroom together." So it wasn't the fact—here all along I thought it was because Gee-Gee didn't cry—but it was really because they felt sorry that I needed a bathroom companion.
Gentry: As you few women progressed toward equality, you didn't have any variance of salary with men in similar positions, did you?
Wille: Not much, because the Daily News was a union newspaper. All the reporters belonged to the Chicago Newspaper Guild, which was part of the American Newspaper Guild. And our contract specified salaries and everybody got the same. There was no differential in a union contract between men and women. There were step-ups; you know, you got first, second, third, up to the fifth or sixth year before you became a journeyman reporter. And during those early years, the salaries—the Daily News didn't make that much money. Most of us were paid the minimum, specified by the Guild contract. So I got the same as men did.
Gentry: You spoke about covering civil rights. What aspects of the civil rights movement did you cover?
Wille: By the early sixties, I was able to develop some of the stories of city tragedies and do investigative reporting of a social welfare nature. And of course a lot of that involved the conditions of Chicago's black ghettos, particularly in housing and in health care opportunities. And in 1962, I did a series of stories on health care for women who relied on public health care for their medical care, women on public aid or women below the poverty line, particularly on the fact that they had no access to birth control information or facilities in Chicago. Both the state public aid department and the city public health clinics, as well as Cook County Hospital, the big public general hospital, refused to give women birth control information if they relied on them for their health care. That series eventually won a Pulitzer Prize in public service and did change, in that respect, at least, the health care for women.
And that kind of reporting led—I did a series on children suffering brain damage from eating lead-based paint in tenements, even though it was against the city building code to have exposed lead-based paint—actually, children dying, dozens of children died every summer from lead poisoning in those years.
So when the civil rights movement began in Chicago, say in about '64 or so, I was already doing stories that dove-tailed right into the kinds of things that were issues in the civil rights days. And a lot of the people that I had covered or who were my sources on these stories were people who were very instrumental in the civil rights movement.
Gentry: In going back for a minute to your Pulitzer stories, you really faced a lot of taboos. For one thing, Chicago's a very Roman Catholic city and this was a story on birth control in the early sixties. Wasn't it difficult to get this series published?
Wille: It was. My city editor, Ritz Fischer, whom I mentioned before, who helped me a lot, a man with a wonderful heart far ahead of his time in recognizing urban problems and who gave me great freedom in writing about them and who was a great progressive on many issues, was very nervous when I first suggested these stories. I had run into, by that time, a lot of public aid caseworkers and physicians at Cook County Hospital and the public health clinics who were frustrated at this ban of discussing contraception with their patients. And Ritz just kind of put me off in assigning or giving me time to work on it, a series on it.
Then poor Ritz developed a bad case of stomach ulcers and was away for a long time in the hospital recuperating. His assistant, his first deputy, Bob Rose, was not as inhibited as Ritz on that topic. Ritz was a Catholic and that may have had something to do with his fear. Bob was not. Bob gave me time to work up the series and I did. But by the time I finished, Ritz was back and fretted about publishing it. And it sat around and finally—there was an old trick that reporters used in those days when there was more competition of getting things into print—I told Ritz that I had heard that the Chicago American, our afternoon competition, was working on a similar series and was about to go into print with it. So Ritz got more interested in it.
But then he did something that today I would have been horrified at. He told me he had given it to a friend of his, a monsignor in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to read to see if he approved of it or not. Fortunately, Ritz's associates in the Roman Catholic hierarchy were progressive and liberal, and this particular monsignor, John J. Egan, who later became a good friend and source of mine—whom I still see occasionally—thought that it was done fairly and it was okay with him if we printed it. He had a few suggestions, to make sure I had correctly interpreted Roman Catholic teachings, and they were helpful. It was all right. So this was probably the first series to have been co-edited by our city editor and a monsignor.
So with Jack Egan's approval, the series was almost ready to print. And then just a day or two before the day—I guess it would have been a Monday—that it started, I was called in to see Marshall Field IV, the first and only time I ever met him. He was a very nervous man, very bright, but deeply troubled, who eventually—not too many years after that—committed suicide.
He told me that he was worried about printing the series. Marshall Field owned both papers, the Daily News and its morning competition, the Sun-Times. He was worried about running it and he said there was a chance that the Daily News was going to be denounced in every pulpit in the area on that Sunday, and by some Protestant ministers as well as Catholic priests, but he felt it was a public health issue that had to be openly discussed and therefore he was going to run it. And I really admired him for doing that. I don't think any paper in town at the time would have done that.
And the series ran—it turned out there was surprisingly little adverse reaction. The anticipation of people like Ritz and others at the paper was far worse than the reality—and including from politicians. The old Daley, Richard J. Daley, was still mayor then. And while he was a Catholic, he also knew that it was in his best interests to give women a way of limiting their families when they were on public aid, if they wanted to. So there was no real opposition from him. And eventually the policies were changed at the state level and the city level and the county level.
Gentry: Did you have a feeling after writing that series, which was really a monumental series—did you have a feeling you had that Pulitzer, did you have that in the back of your mind?
Wille: Oh, no. It never—I knew, I guess, what Pulitzer prizes were but it never occurred to me. What I had in the back of my mind was changing public policy. I felt it was—it bothered me that women who were so poor that they had to rely on government for their medical care could not get the same quality of care that I could.
That troubled me deeply. Women were dying because of it. There were women who were aborting themselves and dying. Children who were being abandoned because they were unwanted. So that's what motivated me.
Gentry: No, I realize the Pulitzer didn't motivate you. But I wondered if after it was done and published, and it had achieved—
Gentry: —some real accomplishments, if you thought in the back of your mind, well, maybe this just might win a Pulitzer.
Wille: Never. The things that I thought won Pulitzers were investigations. I guess my first year at the Daily News, the paper won a Pulitzer for exposing some wrongdoing by the state comptroller. That's the kind of story that I thought won Pulitzers. But as it turned out, when the paper got its Pulitzer entries together—today papers have marketing divisions that do all this but they didn't then, and Ritz asked me to do a covering letter and to paste up the stories to send in. Wayne and I were getting ready to go away for a weekend trip and it was something I dashed off very quickly. But even then I never thought of it in terms of a Pulitzer winner.
Gentry: Then weren't you in Egypt when you found out?
Wille: We were. That would have been the spring of 1963. We were in Luxor, staying in a dusty, little hotel on the Nile, and about to leave for some kind of tour in a small boat with a guide down the river, when someone from the hotel came running down the bank to the river and said, "You have cables, you have cables." No, I think he said he had telegrams. And we were all ready to push off and couldn't go back. And it ruined the whole day for us because we thought no one could send us a cable or a telegram unless somebody died, you know. It's got to be dreadful news. And we were really nervous by the time we got back.
So Wayne went up to the—I was waiting in the boat because we were going someplace else, and he went up to the hotel to get these terrible messages. And he came running down the riverbank, waving them and hopping up and down happily, and I couldn't imagine what was in them. The first one I read said, "Congratulations on a job well done," or something to that effect. "Planned Parenthood Association." I thought, "Why on earth is the Planned Parenthood Association sending us a cable congratulating us on our vacation?" It was the second one that was from the staff, telling me about the Pulitzer. I was stunned, I really was.
Gentry: I'll bet. And did that change your reporting? Were you offered any more really challenging assignments?
Wille: It changed it a lot. But by that time, I had done a couple of series that I thought were of some significance. One on the shortcomings of juvenile court in Cook County and another on commitment procedures to state mental hospitals that resulted in some change in tightening the state commitment procedures. And the birth control series was really the third of that type that I had done. So I was beginning to specialize in that kind of reporting but after the Pulitzer I was just given a lot more freedom to create my own assignments. Then also, as I said, the civil rights movement was beginning and I got involved in that kind of reporting. So it does change your stature in the newsroom a lot.
Gentry: I would think so.
Wille: And I had only been there about six years, so it meant a great deal.
Gentry: Sure. I've noticed that in your stories, like on the juvenile court system and many stories you do, you tend to choose to write in series, you know, a series of four or five stories. What advantages do series have over running very long stories and how do you keep that interest in the people day after day in a five-part series?
Wille: There are some topics that just are too complicated and have too many facets, I think, to put into one story unless it would—it would cover a couple of pages which I think looks intimidating for a reader and just visually it's better to break it up, I think. Also, I think you can hold the reader's interest better if you can use anecdotal information, highlight it more in individual stories than in one long one. But I do think it's important that they not run too long. A lot of newspapers today, when they do projects like that, I think tend to span a couple of weeks with stories that are much longer than the ones I used to do.
The newspaper readers do not—it's a very rare newspaper story where a reader is going to jump a couple of pages and keep reading. They do have to be tight and relatively short, and that's something that reporters as well as editors may not like, but it's true. And it was also the Daily News policy to contain it in one week, and have them of a length that did not look too intimidating or too unappetizing for a reader. And that requires some—well, you have to pay attention to organization to be sure you're not just saying the same thing five different ways but to come up with a number of different aspects of the issue.
Then also, what I liked to do, if I could, was to conclude with some—what experts in the field thought were recommendations for change, so that you're not just telling people of this awful state of affairs but showing them that there are ways to make it better and there is some hope for improving whatever it is you're writing.
Gentry: Now, in some of these series, several of them, you went under cover. The juvenile court story, the mental health clinic, a story on boarder babies at Cook County Hospital. Tell me about some of those and how you got into those stories.
Wille: That's still a matter of a lot of controversy in newspapers, whether it's proper to have a reporter pose as something other than a reporter to get information. In years past it was abused by a lot of people and when I first started, there were some reporters who never portrayed themselves as reporters. They were always deputy coroners or police detectives, or something other than they really were. They used it as shortcuts and they deceived people. That bothers me; I would never do that.
But there are also some conditions that are damaging to public health and safety that I think cannot be portrayed as they are unless you're undercover. You're not going to see them as a reporter. The Chicago Tribune in years past did that a number of times, having people work in nursing homes years ago, exposing some brutal and dangerous practices. They had a reporter who worked at—I think it was the Chicago Board of Elections who saw election fraud first-hand, which you're not going to see as a reporter, calling up and saying, "I want to come over and see how you operate."
The first time I did this it was kind of semi-undercover. I had done a story involving a custody case at the juvenile court, a woman who—it's the kind of thing that still happens today—a single mother who had no child care was worried about her little boy and chained him to the bed when she went off to work in the morning. Someone came into her apartment for some reason or other and saw this child chained to a bed. And the state moved in and put him in a foster home and she fought to get him back. It was a story that exposed, I think, a lot of the shortcomings both of the juvenile/legal system and of daycare facilities for working mothers.
After that story appeared—and it was played back in the paper, not a particularly long story—I had a phone call from a lawyer named George Leighton who did a lot of work in the juvenile court, a black lawyer who today—who then went on to become a federal judge, one of the first black federal judges. And I think he's retired from the federal bench now. Anyway, he asked me if I would like to see more of the workings of the juvenile court, which was closed off to the press at the time. And I definitely would. I had first visited it as a student in a graduate reporting class and had heard over the years about how awful it was but how you could never see it because the only time they would let reporters in would be in some kind of showcase hearing.
So George Leighton suggested that I go there as his secretary or his legal aide. And I did and through him had access to a lot of records and a lot of hearings, and did a series on the juvenile court. I guess it was the first series of substance that I did. And that led to the formation of a committee of civic leaders to reform the court.
That was a case in which if I had just said, "I'm a reporter, I want to see what your court is like on the inside," I could never have done it.
The Cook County Mental Health Clinic was somewhat the same way. I was approached by some people from the American Civil Liberties Union, some lawyers, and I think a social worker who worked there, who said that there's an adjunct to Cook County Hospital, euphemistically called the mental health clinic, which is really like a staging ground for commitment to state mental hospitals. Police bring people there who are acting out for various reasons or families bring a troublesome relative or someone who seems to be crazy. They're kept there for two weeks while they're supposedly observed by psychiatrists. And then they have a hearing and if they're deemed in need of mental treatment, they would get legally committed to a state mental hospital.
The lawyers and the social worker who came to see me said that it was a sham, they did not have trained psychiatrists, the hearings were a farce, and that people were being sent off to hospitals who shouldn't be there, people who should be there weren't having the help they needed. And a number of stories had been done on this place over the years but they were reporters who had contacted the director and were shown model hearings and model wards. And I knew that if I wanted to see what it was like, I couldn't go in as a reporter.
So with the help of the social worker there, I got keys to the wards, because they were locked, and I got a white jacket and a legal pad and a clipboard so I could roam around with keys and the jacket and the clipboard and look like I belonged there. There was such a big staff turnover and people coming in and out from Cook County Hospital proper that a new face wasn't recognized, except by some of the patients who recognized somebody different.
Anyway, I did stories on some of the interviews with psychiatrists I witnessed. For example, I remember a Polish man who spoke no English who was committed after being examined by a psychiatrist who spoke no Polish. There was not really a psychiatrist but a physician who was filling in as a psychiatrist. Again those are stories that resulted in some necessary change but couldn't have been done without going undercover.
Even today, before I left the Tribune, I had a long discussion with the editor, Jack Fuller, whether this is proper or not. There was some kind of story where Jack debated letting a reporter go in as undercover. But it bothered him; he felt it was wrong.
The Sun-Times lost a Pulitzer because of the debate over that issue. Some years ago, they'd bought a tavern, called it the Mirage. It was a legitimate tavern, set up in the city not far from the Sun-Times office. One of the Sun-Times reporters, Zay Smith, went to bartender school, learned how to tend bar. The Sun-Times chief investigative reporter, Pam Zekman, who conceived this project, worked in the tavern also. Then they just waited for city inspectors to come in and ask for bribes to get the licenses. They had notified the Illinois law enforcement authorities who monitored the whole thing to make sure there was no question of entrapment.
It was the first time anyone ever had that kind of conclusive proof of the sort of bribery that went on as a city licensing procedure. It was a marvelous series. The initial Pulitzer judges recommended it for a Pulitzer prize, but on the full Pulitzer board, a few people, notably Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor at the time, and James Reston from the New York Times felt that it was unethical for the Sun-Times reporters to portray themselves as something other than reporters to get the information. So it didn't get a Pulitzer.
Gentry: I take it you feel differently about that.
Wille: Yes. There wasn't a question of entrapment and the public wasn't defrauded. There was no question of cheating the people who came in. They were served drinks and it was an operating tavern. But it would have been very difficult to get that information any other way.
Gentry: Just as it would have been very difficult for you to get the juvenile courts any other way.
Wille: Right. You're presented a sanitized picture if you go in as a reporter. But that does have to be used very judiciously. And as I said before, not as just a shortcut to get information.
Gentry: Do you think newspapers are generally more ethical and responsible than they used to be?
Wille: More than they were when I started out?
Wille: Absolutely. They write about a broader range of things. Investigative stories years ago used to be concentrated on the wrongs of government, private business was rarely looked at, and also newspapers seemed to be—at least the larger newspapers, the ones I was familiar with, and maybe this was true even more so in smaller newspapers—seemed to be more civic boosters than they are today. And editors and business managers of papers seemed to be much more cooperative with city officials or major advertisers. There was much more collusion. I think papers today really police that sort of thing.
In my early years as a reporter, I did a lot of stories that were in essence promotion of major department store advertisers that a newspaper wouldn't think of doing today. They write about social issues that weren't reported on in the same responsible fashion.
Gentry: As a reporter in the sixties when you did a lot of these wonderful series, how far had technology come by then? Were you still typing on typewriters instead of computers and were you using notebooks instead of tape recorders for most of these large series?
Wille: In the sixties, sure. We also used rewrite banks. You know, we would cover a number of stories a day and papers had many more editions per day. So often on stories, you'd scramble around to get the information and then phone the office and dictate to one of the people in the rewrite bank or give your information in spurts to the rewrite bank. Often I would write the story in my head or on a note pad on the way back to the office in the photographer's car and then put it on a typewriter. We wrote stories a few paragraphs at a time on a typewriter. Computers didn't come in, at least on the Chicago Daily News, until—I guess it was about 1976, 1977.
Gentry: I imagine there's a certain amount of discipline in the old way, wasn't it, in the difficulties of writing in the old way, by the typewriters?
Wille: It forced you to organize things in your head. You couldn't just punch a few buttons on the computer and move paragraphs around, so you had to be well-organized. Also having more editions forced a certain discipline, too, because you had to be skilled at updating stories. That's true.
Another thing that early on we didn't use much, or we used very rarely, were tape recorders. So you had to be very careful about your pen and pencil note-taking. The wide-spread use of tape-recorders by reporters has been good. I mean, it certainly helps you to get more accurate quotes. I always try to get quotes that reflect the way a person speaks and something about that person. It's hard to do if you're taking pen-and-pencil notes, much better with a tape recorder. There are just lots of things you'd miss, otherwise. So that was the first real change. Before computers there were tape recorders.
Gentry: In your reporting days, there's one other kind of story that I want to talk about. You did some very moving interviews of people. And one of my favorite stories is the Memorial Day story about the parents of boys who had been recently killed in Vietnam. Can you tell me about that?
Wille: Yes. That must have been maybe 1970-71, when there were an increasing number of deaths. And instead of the usual Memorial Day story paying homage to veterans from past wars, I thought it would be good to do something about Vietnam and about the kinds of young Chicagoans who were being killed in Vietnam.
And my city editor thought that was fine. So I just checked the death notices for about a week or so. And I tried to pick the kind of ethnic mix that you get in the city—a young Hispanic soldier, a young black, one from the suburbs, there was a young Polish soldier.
It was one of the—for me, one of the most wrenching emotional things. For one thing, my brother had recently been in Vietnam, so that the worry that a family goes through was fresh in my mind. Of course, there also were a lot of Vietnam protests on campuses and elsewhere by that time. What struck me so much was that without trying to—I did want to get an ethnic mix, but in almost every case, these were—except for the young black soldier, these were families fairly new to this country and the young men who had died were first-generation Americans. And the families were—it was so important to them to feel that their sons had died for something worth while.
The one exception, the father of the black soldier—this was a family who lived in Cabrini Green, one of Chicago's public housing projects, a very rough place to grow up. And this family really wanted to raise good, responsible citizens, and the mother was so proud of her son and of his sacrifice. But the father—I think he was the only parent who expressed the bitterness. I was surprised that more of them hadn't. What did my son die for, look where we live, what kind of future do we have, what did he give his life for? I think he stormed out of the apartment during that interview, he was just so overcome with the waste of it all.
Gentry: Those must have been very hard interviews for you.
Wille: Yes. They were. The parents opened up so much. One boy's mother died—his parents were from Poland and I think she had a heart attack not long after he was killed, and she was quite young when she died.
Gentry: Well, Chicago has always been a melting pot and I notice that in many of your series, where it involves multiple people, you have chosen this ethnic and racial balance. And similarly you have chosen to live in neighborhoods that had different races and different ethnic groups, when many people would have chosen to live out in the suburbs where you grew up or some other lily-white community. And I was just curious to know what makes living in these neighborhoods so important to you?
Wille: There are a couple of things that dictated where we lived. I always wanted to be close to the office, for one thing, because I often worked late hours, election nights maybe all night long, or if I was working on something that kept me there late at night, I wanted to be within a cab ride home if it was too late for public transportation, because I am one of the city people that has never learned to drive. And we wanted to live close into the city and not be tied to suburban train schedules. Wayne and I both grew up in the suburbs so we knew what that was like. And we loved the kinds of resources and amenities you get living in a big city and wanted to live close to the downtown area.
But for another reason I felt since so much of the reporting I was doing involved civil rights or equality of treatment for various people, I thought it was important for me to live in a neighborhood that was integrated. And for a long time Chicago had precious few of those. But about thirty years ago, we moved to a neighborhood called Lake Meadows, just south of the downtown area, which was one of the first big integrated middle-class rental apartment developments, a big urban-renewal project. I liked living in a neighborhood that had blacks, some Hispanics, some Asians, as well as some whites.
Then when we decided to buy a townhouse, we wanted something similar that was also close in. The neighborhood we selected, where we live right now still, was basically Italian. It's kind of sandwiched in between the University of Illinois at Chicago and a big medical center west of the downtown area. The Italian community is still there but it's wonderfully racially and ethnically and economically integrated, which is important, too.
There's a lot of public housing, a lot of subsidized housing. There's an increasing number of blacks in the townhouses, as well as in the public housing, a lot of Asians, as there always are in a medical center, and a mixture of old European white families—a good neighborhood, what I wish every urban area could be, because people get along well, there's a good sense of community, a good place to live, good schools, even.
Gentry: Now, by 1971, you and many other reporters had written a lot of stories on what was wrong with Chicago and some of these went back to City Hall and Mayor Richard Daley. Yet your paper endorsed him in 1971. You and others protested to the publisher, Marshall Field, and what happened after that?
Wille: Papers always endorsed Daley. By 1971—you're right, there had been stories on inattention to public health care in the city, on the withdrawing of services in black neighborhoods, on the sad state of the Chicago public school system, which was increasingly black and Hispanic, on the state of public housing. Basically, though, Chicago had this reputation as a city that works but it worked, really, for half of its population, for the half that was white and had the clout that could get good services.
And then there were also some of the usual kind of corruption stories—financial, political corruption that never went back to Mayor Daley himself but to a lot of his top cabinet members. And a number of reporters, including me, were really concerned when the paper endorsed Daley because there had been editorials on the need for reform and the need for change and then they end up endorsing the man who presided over all this inattention and malfeasance.
But we knew that a publisher and an editor of a paper have a right to endorse whomever they please. And we went to see first our editor at the Daily News, Daryle Feldmeir, and a similar delegation at our sister paper, the Sun-Times, went to see their editor, Jim Hoge, and said that we were concerned about the endorsement. We felt that it negated a lot of the work that we had done and undercut the kind of work we had done; it was the wrong decision but we knew that the paper had the right to make that decision.
So we asked whether we could buy an ad to give our counter to that endorsement. And they said, both editors said that's up to the publisher, who was Marshall Field V. A group of us from both papers wanted to see Marshall Field and told him the same thing. And he said, "Sure, if you want to buy an ad and print your editorial, go ahead." So we thought, "Great!" And we even asked him for an employee discount. He said no.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Wille: So we raised a lot of money. The Sun-Times, a tabloid, sold a full-page ad for perhaps—I don't know, a thousand dollars?—on the Daily News it was a half-page ad, which would have been the same size for about the same amount. And the reporters on both papers nominated me to write the editorial which was the first editorial I ever wrote. And I felt I should do this on my own time. I didn't want to use company time to write an editorial denouncing the Daily News's editorial.
Then there was a question of signing it. The Daily News ad just said something about, it was generalized from the staff members, the Sun-Times felt—no, I guess both papers had people signing it, but we felt they should not be reporters. It gives people a reason for questioning credibility. So I think on both papers, it ended up being signed by copyeditors, people whose bylines weren't familiar. However, a lot of the politicians knew I had written it. Anyway, that was something I really enjoyed doing because it was a chance to say how I felt about many of the things I had written about and what I felt were the solutions and what Chicago's government wasn't doing to work for these solutions.
Gentry: Did you spend a lot of time on it?
Wille: Well, it had to be done fairly quickly. Maybe an evening or two at home. And then it was passed around to the other people that helped raise the money to make sure it reflected our feelings.
Gentry: Your first editorial must have been a blockbuster because when I talked to Mike Royko, I said, "What is your favorite piece that Lois has done?" and he said, "That first editorial."
Wille: It was an unusual thing. It created a lot of attention because it still was a bizarre thing for the papers to do. But I give a lot of credit to Marshall Field for saying okay, we had a right to do that, and to the two editors for letting us do it. I don't believe we endorsed Daley's opponent, Dick Friedman, his Republican opponent, as much as said why we felt Daley should not be reelected—which he was, of course, easily.
Gentry: Then right after that, not too long after that, in '72, you wrote the book, Forever Open, Clear and Free, which was on Chicago's lakefront, which was a departure from the kind of work you've done, obviously, writing the one and only book you've written in your life. Tell me about that and how it came about.
Wille: The idea came from a civic agency called the Metropolitan Planning Council, which had been around for a long time and was involved in sort of monitoring and making recommendations for urban planning. It was concerned about keeping Chicago's wonderful lakefront parks open to the public. And I think it was motivated a lot by the building of McCormick Place on the lakefront, a bad site for a convention center, to use parkland for a project like that.
The Metropolitan Planning Council wanted someone to write a history of the lakefront parks, how Chicago alone of almost any city in the world managed to keep its lakefront open for recreational use. And they asked me if I'd be interested in writing the book. I had done some reporting on issues concerning lakefront preservation—not a lot but it was something I was interested in. I had always been interested in Chicago's architecture and a lot of that involved lakefront and city planning, too. I used some vacation time and took a leave of absence of about four or six weeks to do research. I enjoyed it a lot. But it was the Metropolitan Planning Council that published the book and it's recently been reissued by the University of Chicago Press.
Gentry: I saw a lot of your dad's influence in that book. I think the love of architecture and city planning.
Wille: Well, that's probably true. But by that time I'd gotten to know a lot of prominent Chicago architects who always seemed to be involved in various civic crusades—people like Walter Netsch who designed the University of Chicago campus and Harry Weese, a very creative architect who fought for good lakefront development. Architects for years, going back to Daniel Burnham and before that, have been very much a factor in Chicago's development.
Gentry: Now, women did not do a lot of political reporting, I take it, on the papers before the seventies or even in the seventies. I remember you drew up a petition and a complaint to the editor because no women were sent to cover the 1972 Democratic convention, which is the one that had so many women delegates.
Wille: That's right. Before that, I always worked election night, as did other women who were on the staff by that time, but it was usually covering wives of politicians, and most political spouses were wives at that time. I don't know how many election nights I spent with Eleanor Daley or a governor's wife.
But the 1972 convention, as you said, the Democratic convention, stressed the number of women delegates and women's issues. And the women's movement was, you know, fairly well along by that time. The Daily News sent its usual contingent of all-white men to that convention. And while the convention was going on—I think it was in Miami—I drew up a petition to our editor, complaining about the makeup of that delegation to the convention. It was a wonderful experience because I believe every woman on the editorial staff signed it—I mean, the food editor, and her assistant, women who were in jobs not even related to news reporting.
We gave it to our editor, Daryle Feldmeir, when he came back from the convention. And Daryle was very sympathetic to it. It was kind of a revelation to him. I guess he hadn't really realized why we'd be upset. But he understood quickly and tried to remedy that. One thing that happened very rapidly is, a few weeks later
when the Republican convention was held, I got assigned to it. But I covered the demonstrators outside the convention hall and got gassed. But that's okay, it was a good assignment. I got to meet Jane Fonda and Allen Ginsberg and Tom Hayden and some other protestors.
Daryle Feldmeir had a number of meetings with women on the staff. By that time, the papers were being fairly good about equality in hiring because there were a battery of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations, state and federal, by that time. They had to be fairly careful about it. And on some other papers, women were filing suits—the New York Times, I believe Newsweek—but it was still very limited in the kinds of assignments we had and in opportunities to advance into policy-making positions.
But one thing that happened as a result of that petition and in our subsequent meetings with Daryle, was that a woman, Linda Lenz, was assigned to be an editorial writer. That was a first. Another woman, Diane Monk, became an assistant city editor. A few women got to work the night shift, which may seem a strange reward, except that it's a way to advance on the editing side that had been closed off to women because people thought it was too dangerous.
And Daryle also held a number of what he called sensitivity sessions in which we met with the male news editors and copyeditors to point out the kinds of things that upset us, the way the women's movement was treated in news stories, with almost a light, making fun of it, and just a lot of ways women were portrayed in the newspaper. So there were some very substantive changes as a result of that.
Gentry: You always appeared to be very much a leader, if not a leader of all the people, at least a leader of the women on the staff.
Wille: Oh, there weren't that many to lead, for a long time.
Gentry: Was it personally very important to you to improve the situation of women journalists on the newspapers?
Wille: Sure. It was—yes, I guess I never thought of it in those terms. It just seemed to me something that was right. And I knew that for most of my career as a reporter, there were certain avenues that were closed off to me. The business staff was all male, the sports staff was all male, the photography staff was all male, the arts staff was all male. Political writers were all male, the labor writers—just so many. The kinds of reporting I was interested in doing on social welfare issues, I could do. So I can't say that, you know, I yearned for one of these jobs and didn't get it. But it still bothered me that those were all-male jobs and there weren't any women advancing in the editing positions. And as I said, there were more women reporters being hired then and we began to talk about it more.
It was also motivated, we were helped a lot, by women outside the paper. By that time there was a woman's movement and it was apparent to leaders of that movement as well that, you know, they didn't see female bylines on certain kinds of stories, they didn't like the way women were often portrayed in news stories. So the pressure came from both inside and outside. But I guess it was natural that I would take a lead role in that because I had been there a long time and had been through it. It was easier for me; I didn't have anything to lose. I wasn't going to be fired, surely, or given awful assignments because I created a fuss where some younger, newer female reporter may have worried about that. I don't think it would have happened, anyway, but it was easier. I mean, I could do it without worrying.
Gentry: As the women came into higher positions in the paper, did you see any discernible changes in stories or their focus or the editorials? Could you tell any difference?
Wille: Sure. Not necessarily because of the women who went into policy-making positions but because women on the paper made the editors more sensitive to issues like that. Some of them sound, you know, kind of trite now. The Daily News used to run something called "Today's Chuckle," a little joke on the front page or page three
every day which seventy-five percent of the time was making fun of women in some way or other. That died. There were the usual woman-in-a-bikini-on-the-beach pictures in warm weather, for no reason, just a gratuitous body shot. That sort of thing died. The women's movement was treated more seriously. Women political candidates were treated more equitably. But I can't say it's because of women in management positions as much as just the newspaper management being sensitized.
Gentry: And the women's movement and the civil rights movement.
During your latter years at the Chicago Daily News, after Mayor Daley died, you led a team of reporters to produce an ambitious set of articles, really a tabloid, called "Chicago and Its Suburbs, the Future of the City." It was a beautiful piece of journalism and turned out to be very important to your career. Tell me how the idea was conceived and the kind of material that was included.
Wille: This is what you were talking about, reprinted in a tabloid-size supplement. It actually was born the night Mayor Daley died, which was in December 1976. Jim Hoge, who had recently been named editor of the Daily News as well as the Sun-Times, thought that—the assignment he gave me that night, of the Mayor's death, was to do a story on how the loss of this man who had formed a coalition of government and business and labor, and ran the city from his office in city hall for more than twenty years, what his death would mean to the city and to the future of the city.
And it was a difficult thing to do at night because, you know, a lot of people I wanted to talk to were not available. But I was very grateful to Jim because not too many years before, my assignment probably would have been to do a feature story on the impact of how the neighbors in Bridgeport felt about the loss of the mayor.
But I worked hard on that story and worked all through the night and went home about eight in the morning. I came back a few hours later and Jim called me in and said something to the effect, "That was a very sophisticated story you did on the future of the city without Mayor Daley." I didn't know Jim well enough to know whether that was good or bad. It turned out that was good. And he said he thought because of this point in the city's history—Chicago was going to have a different mayor for the first time in twenty years, Illinois had just elected a new governor, Jim Thompson, the country was getting a new president; Jimmy Carter had just been elected—that he thought it would be a good time to take a look at the metropolitan area, not just the city but also its growing suburbs, and what kind of changes needed to be made to keep it healthy and how a new president and a new governor and a new mayor could effect these changes.
And it was a wonderful assignment, it was a dream assignment, because he said, "Pick the people you want in the newsroom to help you and take as much time, you can have as much space as you want." So I think I had three reporters working with me on it and we spent probably a couple of months.
One of the things we discovered—or one of the things that emerged from the material we were putting together was that for almost a decade a flow of jobs and tax base and residents from the city to the outlying areas had devastated the city's economy and Chicago wasn't doing the kinds of things it should have been doing to build up its job base and retain the jobs that it had. The suburbs had economic development commissions. Practically every other major city did. Chicago didn't because the old Mayor Daley felt that, you know, if you didn't love the city enough to stay here then get out, you know, I don't want you. So one of the things that came out from our series was the need for an economic development commission and the need to be more competitive in seeking jobs in the city. Also some changes in state legislation that would benefit the city and the kinds of urban policies at the Washington level that would benefit it.
This series of stories that ran—remember I told you earlier that I didn't believe a series should ever run longer than a week and be fairly short and concise—this was different. It ran several weeks and each story was quite long. But it created quite a stir because Chicago's problems had really been swept aside. It was the mayor and the business people who formed his supporters, his main supporters, just didn't like to talk about them. It was one of the first times that—it was the first time that a newspaper wrote about them so bluntly, especially the economic problems.
It was a wonderful opportunity for me to do some editing as well as reporting and also to try to develop solutions to some of the problems and write about these possible solutions.
Gentry: Another fascinating thing was that shortly after that piece you were offered the job of editorial page editor of the Chicago Daily News, probably because of the work you did on that piece.
Wille: That was a stunning surprise. This series appeared in May 1977. I enjoyed doing it, thoroughly, and didn't relish going back to—well, actually, before working on that series, I had been doing a lot of national political stories and more national reporting and traveling quite a bit. We had a new editor of the Daily News, Jim Hoge, and I didn't really know what he had in mind for me.
Sometime in the middle of the summer, I had a talk with Jim and he said that he wanted to make a number of changes on the Daily News in an effort to keep it alive and vital. As I said, afternoon newspapers were in trouble, grave trouble, by that time. And one of the things he wanted to do was give the editorial page much more of a local focus and make it more relevant to the metropolitan area, you know, with just more zest and more bite to it.
Jim felt that a lot of the issues that we wrote about in the series could form the basis of an editorial policy for the Daily News. And he told me he wanted me to be editorial page editor. It was a direction I had never seen my career going in. I had never been interested in writing editorials. The only one I had written was the one I told you about on why the paper should not endorse Mayor Daley. At first I was kind of appalled. I thought the Daily News editorial page was dull and flabby. I hardly ever read it. When I did read it it made me mad. But this is what Jim said he wanted to change.
I was a little concerned, too, because it meant sweeping into early retirement the man who had been editorial page editor. It was a small staff. I knew them but I didn't know how they'd react to my coming in in those circumstances. Jim gave me only about a week from the time he told me about it to the time when I had to move in and take it over. It was a different kind of writing and managing a staff was different than I had been doing. There also was a column page, an op-ed page, to produce. But it seemed almost from the first day a very natural step for me because by that time I'd written on so many things that I had formed opinions on, I couldn't really say them very bluntly in news stories. It was something I loved after about one day.
Gentry: And sadly, six months later the old Daily News died.
Wille: Right. Right. The Daily News died. All of Jim's frantic moves didn't help to keep it alive.
Gentry: What finally killed it off? You said it was terminally ill for a long time.
Wille: I don't know. I think when Jim was named editor, Marshall Field told him he would give him maybe two years to turn it around. But Marshall got impatient and it ended up being six months to turn it around. And you couldn't do that. There were forces at work that killed a lot of afternoon newspapers and I think it was probably inevitable. It was impossible to get advertising. The circulation was fairly respectable but it was too tough. Field Enterprises also owned the Sun-Times, the morning paper, which was healthy and thriving and big.
Jim transferred me from editorial page editor of the Daily News into the same job on the Sun-Times. Again, it was a little difficult because Don Coe who had been editor of that editorial page had to step down to be my deputy and it was a blending of two staffs. And there was a lot of resentment in general when the Daily News closed by people at the Sun-Times because while they had expected the Daily News to fold, they hadn't expected that so many Sun-Times people would lose their jobs also and that the two staffs would be blended, as they were. But the people who worked with me, in particular Don Coe, were wonderful about it, and we put out a really good, scrappy, lively editorial page.
Gentry: So it worked; that blending of staff did work.
Wille: It did.
Gentry: Did you write quite a few of these editorials for the Sun-Times yourself?
Wille: Sure. Our staff was not big enough to allow me the luxury—I would have wanted to in any case. But we had five people, including me, and we put out seven editorial pages a week, so we all had to write. And I did maybe three or four a week, mainly on urban issues, what I had specialized in as a reporter.
Gentry: Do you think in the long run that you preferred editorial writing to reporting, looking back?
Wille: Oh, you know, I think that's impossible to say. At the point in my career where I did it, I did, but I wouldn't have been able to do editorial writing, or at least not do it effectively, if I hadn't had all those years as a reporter. You have to know what you're talking about and you have to have the resources and the experience. While I wouldn't have traded those years as a reporter for anything, it was wonderful fun and very satisfying and exhilarating and challenging. But then so was editorial writing. I cherished them both. I wouldn't have wanted to miss a day of either one.
Gentry: The ingredients of the editorial board that worked were a lot of divergent opinions?
Wille: More so at the Tribune. I shifted to the Tribune when the Field brothers sold the Sun-Times to Rupert Murdoch. And that sale became effective in January 1984. When I realized that the sale was going to go through, I had decided I didn't want to stay and work for Rupert Murdoch at the Sun-Times, and he probably wouldn't have wanted me to run his editorial page, anyway. He told somebody I was a Marxist.
Jim Squires, editor of the Tribune at the time, called me the day that the sale was announced and said, "Any time you want to come over, just put on your coat and walk across the street." So I did. Jack Fuller, the editorial page editor, was someone who had worked briefly at the Chicago Daily News as an intern. I knew Jack and respected him a great deal, and I went to the Tribune as the associate editorial page editor. Then when Jack became editor—or executive editor—in 1987, I took over the editorial page.
The Tribune had, under Jim Squires, a policy of having divergent views. The editorial board was bigger, the Tribune has a lot of more resources than the Sun-Times and they had the luxury of having a bigger editorial board. Jim liked having those sessions full of vigorous debate and sometimes our editorial board meetings—on both papers, the editorial board met every morning about 9:30 or 10:00 to discuss the issues and assign editorials for the day—sometimes we'd be in there for hours, arguing on what the whole society argues about: abortion, capital punishment, free trade versus managed trade, politics, race relations. It was wonderful.
There were a couple of things the Tribune believed in, which Jack Fuller told me before I got there, and he was right. The Tribune was founded as an abolitionist paper, opposed to slavery. It retained a progressive attitude on social issues. The other thing was free trade, and it retained kind of a fiscal conservatism and a belief in free markets. Within those two, a belief in free markets and reasonably fiscally conservative, plus social progressivism, we still formed our editorial policy. And that was fine. I felt very compatible with that.
Gentry: And that was a very stimulating experience, at the Tribune, for you, wasn't it? You enjoyed working there.
Wille: Oh, it was. It was different from the Sun-Times. The Sun-Times was a much newer paper. It changed more over the years. As its editors changed, so did its editorial philosophies. The Tribune is a bigger paper, has got a much bigger role in the community. I think probably the business and political leadership maybe paid more attention to what we said at the Tribune than at the Sun-Times, though that's hard to judge. Sometimes I think they always ignored us. But no, we did get more feedback, I guess.
Gentry: And of course, you were extremely successful there because you won your second Pulitzer prize in 1989 for Tribune editorials that you had written.
Wille: That's right. They were mainly on local political issues. I feel I accepted that prize under false pretenses. I mean, it doesn't take much creativity or skill or talent to write editorials commenting on Chicago politics or state politics. I mean, it's fun. But I think I was able to give the Tribune more of a local political focus. I did a lot of editorial writing in Harold Washington's years as mayor and then on his successors.
Gentry: I loved the things that your staff said about you in the beginning of those editorials—when they presented the editorials to the Pulitzer board. In part it said, "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 while reaching out even more eagerly to make more of its future for all of its people. Her editorial voice is so strong, so clear, so persistent and invariably so right that in a real way she does have a hand in how this town is run." And it goes on, just praising your career.
Wille: Doug Kneeland, my deputy editorial page editor, wrote that. And our editor at the time, Jim Squires, was fond of saying that after reading that letter, the judges couldn't resist, that they had to give me the prize. But that's all right, because I wrote the covering letter for Jack Fuller's entry when he won the Pulitzer for editorial writing. Writing those letters is tougher than writing the editorials.
Gentry: Well, they did a great job.
I want to conclude with just a few questions, reflections on your career. Looking back on women's progress in journalism from the time few people were in the newsroom to the time when women held management positions, how do you see the future for women in journalism? Do you think women have progressed enough? Do you think there might be a sliding back?
Wille: I don't see a sliding back. I think there's been a dramatic improvement. If I look at, say, the Chicago Tribune today, take that as an example, there's a woman who's metropolitan editor, one of the most demanding jobs on any newspaper. You know, you're right at the heart of deadline pressure every day, you've got the biggest staff on the paper—that's Ann Marie Lipinski. A woman who's the deputy editorial page editor, Ellen Soeteber. A woman, Colleen Dishon, who headed the whole features operation of the Tribune and now is head of the new unit that the Tribune Company has formed to develop new sections and new concepts for all the newspapers the Tribune owns. There's a woman who's assistant financial editor, there're women sportswriters, women photographers. Women are advancing in every phase of the paper.
There's one interesting thing—as women have advanced on major newspapers the avenue that I had, editorial page editor, seems to be favored. There are a number of papers now that have women editorial page editors. Of course, Meg Greenfield at the Washington Post has been there for a number of years. And a number of other papers have women on that staff. And that bothers me a little bit because it suggests that perhaps women aren't suited for the competitive deadline pressures of the newsroom but that this reflective job of editing an editorial page is better. That's why I was so happy when the Tribune appointed Ann Marie to head the metropolitan staff and before that, another woman, Ellen Soeteber, headed the metropolitan staff. And there are a few more women now moving into managing editorships. Still precious few at the top. It was a male-dominated field for so long and there are just a few newspapers that have opened up enough, although I think newspapers have a better record than either radio or television in that regard. While both radio and TV have women on camera and on the air, you don't see many in top management jobs.
Gentry: Finally, let me ask you: In your thirty-five-year career as a journalist, what would you most like to be remembered for?
Wille: By my colleagues or by the community? I don't know.
Wille: I guess that I was a fair and honest and responsible reporter and maybe that I made a little difference. While if you look at the problems of a city like Chicago today, it's hard to point to any improvements, but I'd like to think that maybe some facets of city government or state government are a little more responsible because of some of the work that I did. Probably they're not, but it would nice if people thought that.
Gentry: I think you made a difference. Thank you.
© 1992, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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