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Clayton Kirkpatrick, 89; Chicago Tribune Editor for 10 Years

June 23, 2004|From Times Wire Services

Clayton Kirkpatrick, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune who was credited with overseeing vast improvements in the paper in the 1970s, has died. He was 89.

Kirkpatrick, editor of the Tribune from 1969 through 1979, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his home in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, his family said.

In its obituary on Kirkpatrick, the paper said he "rescued the Chicago Tribune from its hidebound and potentially debilitating traditions to return it to its place as one of the nation's most influential newspapers."

Kirkpatrick's first lead editorial, on Jan. 1, 1969, signaled that the paper formerly known as the "Republican bible" would aim for more balanced, objective coverage with less of the partisan writing and reporting that had been associated with the Tribune under its longtime editor and publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick.

"No political party should take the Tribune for granted," Kirkpatrick wrote.

Kirkpatrick angered his opponents on the Tribune Co. board of directors in 1974 with a series of decisions related to the Watergate scandal, including an editorial that called for President Nixon's resignation and publication of the entire transcript of Nixon's Watergate tapes.

"There was real resentment," Kirkpatrick said years later of the Tribune's board. "I had been under attack from the board for a long time. They didn't like the changes I'd made at the Tribune."

The newspaper's Watergate coverage surprised the country and the White House and signaled that the president's support in the nation was fading.

In 1974, Time magazine named the Tribune one of the 10 best newspapers in America.

"Kirk was the one who really established and imprinted the newspaper with what we think of as modern journalistic values," said Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co. and a former editor of the Tribune. "That was absolutely vital for its credibility and its long-term economic health."

Kirkpatrick grew up in Waterman, west of Chicago, and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1937. He joined the City News Bureau in 1938 and not long after went to work for the Tribune. He served in the Army in England during World War II, rising to master sergeant and receiving the Bronze Star.

After years as a reporter, Kirkpatrick began an apprenticeship in editing at the Tribune in 1954, working first on the copy desk. He was appointed city editor in 1961, assistant managing editor in 1963, managing editor in 1965 and executive editor in 1967.

In 1979, he was promoted to president and chief executive officer of Chicago Tribune Co. He retired in 1981.

A widower, Kirkpatrick is survived by two sons; two daughters; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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