While studying journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the 1950s, Lois Wille dreamed of being a newspaper reporter whose stories would make a difference in people's lives. In that era, her goal seemed unlikely. Beginning her newspaper career at the Chicago Daily News in 1956 when most women were assigned "Our Gal" stories, society and celebrity interviews, Lois was so thrilled at being a journalist ona major Chicago daily newspaper that she endured sexist beats, making the stories interesting. Soon she worked her way into the newsroom as one of the token two women and convinced her city editor to let her do serious reporting.
By 1963, she had won the first of her two Pulitzer Prizes, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for a series of hard-hitting stories on the failure of public health institutions in Illinois to provide birth control information to indigent women. In the 1960s, Lois was already a strong voice in Chicago journalism. Her stories led to important changes in health care, housing, the juvenile court system and many other antiquated and corrupt institutions in Chicago.
While many journalists move to different cities to work, Lois spent her entire 35-year newspaper career in Chicago writing about the city's people, problems and politics as well as national issues. She was a reporter on the Chicago Daily News from 1956 to 1977, then promoted to editorial page editor in August of 1977. When the newspaper folded in 1978, Lois became editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times until Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1984. She was immediately hired as the Chicago Tribune's assistant editorial page editor in 1984. From 1987 until her retirement in May of 1991, she was editorial page editor of the Tribune.
Upon being offered the position of editorial page editor of the Daily News in 1977 after writing and heading a team of reporters on a major series of in-depth reports on the future of Chicago after Mayor Richard J. Daley's death, Lois wondered if editorial writing was the right job for a long-time reporter. After a day in the position, she realized that twenty years of reporting on Chicago's urban ills was the perfect prerequisite for taking a strong editorial stand to right wrongs and improve life for Chicagoans. In 1989, while editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, Lois won her second Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
"Lois Wille has absolutely no weaknesses as a journalist," says Mike Royko, syndicated columnist, who has been a colleague of Lois's on all three newspapers. "Over the years, I've seen lots of Pulitzer prize winners in action, but I have never seen anyone who is superb at everything, except Lois. She's brilliant, with the best analytical mind I've ever seen. She's a superb writer, great reporter, marvelous organizer. If she had been a man she could have been editor of the Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times."
Because Mike Royko knows more about Lois Wille's career than any other journalist, he was my most valuable personal contact prior to interviewing Lois. Before talking to him, I had read all her Pulitzer prize winning stories and editorials and her acclaimed book on Chicago's lakefront, Forever Open, Clear and Free. Royko graciously talked about Lois for one and a half hours by phone, going on to say, "Lois is the most respected person at the newspapers, and the smartest person I know. People loved working with her and for her."
When I wanted to talk to a young journalist who had worked with Lois, Mike Royko led me to Sarah Synder, now a financial reporter at the Boston Globe. Synder had worked under Lois for a year as an assistant editorial writer on the Chicago Sun-Times at age twenty-one. "Lois has the most dazzling intellect of anyone I have ever met. No one was better informed than Lois on almost any subject; she made it her business to be. As editorial page editor, she had power. She could have used that power for her own gain, but she used it for the public good—to do good. Lois could have been arrogant and egotistical, but she wasn't. She respected other journalists, editors and co-workers. Lois had a gift of conveying confidence in young writers like me. She made us feel gifted, as though she was lucky to be working with us. It is a management style I've never seen in a man."
According to Synder, Lois was a mentor to both men and women. "She made us all feel like respected parts of the team. I felt solidarity, valued and stretched to do my best work. Everyone did their very best work for Lois. Lois genuinely cared about our ideas and careers, and it instilled in us a huge affection and loyalty for her. I worked for Lois thirteen years ago, and since then journalism has never had the luster it had that year. It was never as much fun after that."
As I interviewed Lois for the Washington Press Club Foundation, I immediately sensed the intelligence in her that Royko and Synder had told me about. Her recall of names of people she had worked with and written about decades before was flawless. She remembered details in stories she had not seen in twenty years. It was a joy to interview someone with such a fine memory.
Lois wanted to do the initial interviews on one trip for continuity. For three afternoons in a row in October 1991, she energetically answered questions for three to four hours straight without a break in my hotel room at the Inn at University Village in Chicago. In between, Lois opened up all her story files to me. They wer so carefully organized that I could study her work in the appropriate years before each interview, adding questions about specific stories. This made the interviews far more interesting. In addition, I found it a great personal advantage to have grown up an hour's drive from Chicago. I was familiar with Chicago politics, knew some of the city's problems and had grown up with its newspapers.
After doing three lengthy interviews in October, we met again in early April 1992 at Lois's home to choose illustrations and do the videotaping. By then our rapport was even easier. During the interviews we had learned we had similar backgrounds growing up near Chicago and knew many of the same people. We were both journalists as were our husbands, and we both planned to build homes in the Blue Ridge Mountains just a three-hour drive apart.
Perhaps the significance of Lois Wille's career in journalism is best summarized by her colleagues at the Tribune in the introduction they wrote with her Pulitzer Prize winning editorials. "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 part of its past, while reaching out eagerly to make even more of its future—for all of its people...."
Diane K. Gentry
© 1992, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.