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William F. Schmick's bottom line was integrity

At 5 p.m. every weekday afternoon, when I first began work here 35 years ago, a tall, balding gentleman, fully suited, would walk slowly, slightly bent forward, through the newsroom. He would pass the quarters of The Sunday Sun, walk past the editors and reporters of The Evening Sun, and the editors and reporters of The Sun and finally seat himself in the office of the managing editor of The Sun.

This somewhat austere-looking figure was William F. Schmick Jr., president of The Sunpapers, as they were then known, chief executive of the A.S. Abell Co., which had founded the newspaper in 1837. His father had been publisher before him. Schmick's daily afternoon visit was to the late Paul Banker, then managing editor of The Sun.

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In the decade that I watched this daily ritual in the progress of my own career at the newspaper, I never once heard, or heard of, Banker emerging from the meeting to say, "Schmick didn't like that story," or "Schmick wants this story to be done."

It was a testimony to Schmick's abiding integrity that he never interfered with the news. He was a man of dignity, patience and single-minded determination. All he wanted was the best newspaper he could possibly publish; and he was progressive, presiding over the liberalization of the editorial pages, a huge expansion of The Sun's presence in Washington and overseas, bringing in the most innovative technology.

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All these cost a fortune, but this was back when good publishers took their constitutional entitlement as seriously as the need to operate in the black.

Bill Schmick died shortly after noon Friday. He was 90 years old, and he passed away quietly with his wife and sons and daughters and grandchildren close by. He was three months younger than my father, who is alive and well, but in some ways he had a greater impact on my life, certainly on my career. For if The Sun had not been the widely respected newspaper it was under Schmick's helmsmanship, I might not have been attracted to it.

Two stories that are part of the Schmick legend have always amused and impressed me.

One, I was told, involved a young James W. Rouse trying to get some attention in the newspaper for his first mall at Mondawmin. As the story goes, Rouse, or his representatives, made a presentation to Schmick in the hope of getting some big news coverage. Schmick listened attentively and suggested they call the advertising department so they "can give you our rates."

Apocryphal or not, the story was told by both Schmick's admirers and his less admiring successors, who felt it reflected the complacency of The Sun.

Another story was about the head of one of Baltimore's great department stores ranting about some coverage in the newspaper, and threatening to withdraw his advertising. At the time, several department stores were prominent in Baltimore, and they were important advertisers.

After listening to the rant, so the story goes, Schmick made an internal call to inquire how much advertising the newspaper billed the department store in a year. A lot, he was told. And then he instructed that no more advertising should be accepted from the store.

Complacent? Perhaps. But what a guy!

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My relationship with Schmick was different from that of many who worked at The Sun because it had two most important dimensions. One, of course, was as his employee. In his time at The Sun, I did not occupy any positions of responsibility. This may have been a great relief to him.

The other was my relationship to him and his family because his son, William F. Schmick III, has been my closest friend for more than three decades. So he was the father of my best friend. Certainly, young Bill and I were technically adults when we first met, but we resisted this technicality with passion, sometimes to the enormous displeasure of his father, his mother and probably all of his siblings.

Young Bill was appointed to the then-lofty position of city editor of The Sun in 1970. In those days, most of the news staff, including the editors, stayed late into the night. We all worked hard and loved it. But after work we ate and drank too much, as newsmen were wont to do in those days. And we slept late into the morning.

The night young Bill was appointed city editor, we celebrated into the early morning at his father's and mother's house while they tried to sleep. In the morning, the boss found my car blocking his and tried to find me somewhere in the house. This was the first time we had a one-on-one conversation, so to speak. Very inauspicious.

Later, we became better friends, though I would never have dreamed of calling him Bill, as my seniors and betters at the paper did. Young Bill and I aren't youngsters anymore, or even trying to be, which must have relieved the old man.

But wait, did I say "old man?" What can I be thinking?

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Recently, young Bill and I were together talking about our ages, both of us now over 60.

"Do you realize I am now older than your father was when I started at the paper, and I thought he was the oldest man in the world?"

Old he was, and he was wiser and the holder of far greater responsibility. We had the fun while he carried the burden of making certain no one interfered with our work.

So long, Mr. Schmick. And thanks.


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