James C. Dowdle, a born salesman known for his flashy ties and sharp intuition about the television industry, played a key role in the transformation of Tribune Co. into a major media conglomerate.
In 1981 when Mr. Dowdle joined the company, Tribune was focused, as it had been for more than a century, on its newspaper holdings, particularly its flagship Chicago Tribune.
By the time the charismatic Mr. Dowdle retired nearly 19 years later as the company's second-ranking executive, Tribune owned 18 television stations, reached more than 75 percent of U.S. households, held a minority share in the WB network and was also aggressively involved in virtually every aspect of the information industry, including cable television, the Internet and new media.
“Jim was truly a great leader who made tremendous acquisitions, entered into content partnerships and joint ventures, and brought in great talent,” said retired Tribune Co. CEO John Madigan. “He led the way in making us a major player in the broadcasting business.”
Mr. Dowdle, 79, died of congestive heart failure on Monday, Feb. 17, at his Wilmette home, said his son, Jim Jr.
The son of a building contractor, Mr. Dowdle was raised with his sister and three brothers in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood and graduated from Loyola Academy. At the University of Notre Dame, he played varsity basketball and graduated in 1956 with an accounting degree.
In 1956, Mr. Dowdle married a South Shore neighbor, Sally Sayers. The same year, Mr. Dowdle got his first job, as a classified advertising salesman for the Chicago Tribune, and entered the Marines.
After leaving the Marines in 1959, Mr. Dowdle launched a nearly four-decade career in broadcasting with a job selling commercial time on TV for clients of Edward Petry & Co. in Chicago.
He went on to sales positions for TV stations in Oklahoma City and Minneapolis-St. Paul before Hubbard Broadcasting Co. sent him to WTOG-TV in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was vice president and general manager for eight years.
Hired away by Tribune Co. in 1981, Mr. Dowdle was given the task of consolidating and developing the company's three television and six radio stations as Tribune Company Broadcasting.
Already in motion were the great changes such as cable television that, over the next 20 years, would radically alter the industry. Mr. Dowdle's comments at the time were prescient.
“These are confusing times but very interesting times,'' he said in a 1981 interview. “I think it's so challenging, and there are so many opportunities out there, that if you don't put your head in the sand and if you accept some of the changes that are definitely going to happen, the opportunities are unlimited.''
That warning against having a head-in-the-sand attitude was one he would issue again and again to colleagues and the industry in general over the next two decades.
Retired Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons, whom Mr. Dowdle hired in 1982, remembered Mr. Dowdle as a “visionary” who saw consolidation coming in the industry. Another way Mr. Dowdle placed his stamp on Tribune Co. was through the company’s June 1981 purchase of the Chicago Cubs.
“Jim was an integral part of advocating the purchase of the Cubs, because he knew the value of having 150 games a year on TV and radio but also beyond that in enhancing WGN-TV’s national stature and expanding its cable coverage,” FitzSimons said.
In 1982, Mr. Dowdle hired Harry Caray away from the Chicago White Sox to give an entirely different look and feel to WGN-TV's broadcasts of Cubs games.
Twelve years later, Mr. Dowdle was given responsibility for overseeing the Cubs and, in little more than a month, enticed Andy MacPhail, the widely respected Minnesota Twins general manager, to jump to the Cubs as president and CEO.
Chicago Blackhawks President John McDonough, who was formerly with the Cubs and worked with Mr. Dowdle, remembered him as being “just a Chicago guy” with a booming voice who “had the touch of a common man.”
“He had a lot of responsibilities, but he was very relatable, and you pulled for him because you felt ‘Hey, it’s one of our own that’s really achieved a lot.’ And he was there for a really dominating era of Tribune broadcasting,” McDonough said. “He was very, very friendly, but boy, you knew he was the boss, and you could hear that booming voice.”
In July, 1991, Mr. Dowdle was named executive vice president of Tribune Co. He retired from the company in December 1999.
In 1992, Mr. Dowdle was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame. In 1994, the Broadcasting Advertisers Club of Chicago named him Person of the Year.
In retirement, Mr. Dowdle spent considerable time with his 18 grandchildren, including attending many sporting events, his son said. One grandson, Conor Dwyer, was part of a gold medal-winning swim relay team in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
“You name the sport and he and Mom were attending it,” his son said. “From kindergarten sports to Conor winning the gold medal, he was there.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Dowdle also is survived by three daughters, Colleen Burke, Jeanne Dwyer, and Sarah Tyrrell; and 18 grandchildren. Another daughter, Pati Lehman, died in 1993 when she was struck by a car while bicycling.
A visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 21 at Donnellan Family Funeral Services, 10045 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie. A funeral mass will take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22 at Saints Faith Hope & Charity Church, 191 Linden Street, Winnetka.
Tribune reporter Paul Sullivan contributed
Patrick T. Reardon is a former Tribune reporter and Bob Goldsborough is a freelance writerCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun