James I. Houck, former managing editor of The Baltimore Sun, dies

James Houck

James I. Houck, former managing editor of The Baltimore Sun who later became managing editor of the Times-Delta/Advance Register in California’s Central Valley, died Dec. 13 of heart failure at Westmark Care Center in Visalia. The former Ellicott City resident was 81.

Mr. Houck was The Sun’s managing editor from 1982 to 1991.


His tenure coincided with the 1985 winning of a Pulitzer Prize for features reporter Alice Steinbach; the 1986 sale of the A.S. Abell Co. (publishers of the Sunpapers) to Times-Mirror Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times; the 1987 observance for the newspaper’s 150th anniversary; and a time when management was planning to consolidate the news operations of The Sun and The Evening Sun, which was under the joint editorship of John S. Carroll.

“I just felt that it would become easier for [management] to plan for the future if I weren’t here,” Mr. Houck explained in an Evening Sun interview announcing his 1991 resignation.


Mr. Houck said: “I came here nine years ago with the intention of staying five,” and added he planned to take off some time to consider what “I should be doing with the last third of my life.”

Other influences of the Houck years included the expansion of “The Sun’s business, sports and features in an effort to appeal to more readers,” according to the 1991 Sun story announcing his departure. “New sections, including Travel, Today in Style, Maryland Live, Maryland Business Weekly, O.C. (Ocean City) and To Your Health were added throughout the 1980s.”

“Jim treated features with respect, gave us an equal seat at the table, and he understood the importance of features not just as a way to attract readers but to give readers another way of understanding the world,” wrote Jan Warrington, a retired psychologist and former Sun features editor, in an email.

“He expected features to be timely and topical, he added staff and expanded the morning and Sunday coverage of entertainment, health and fashion,” Ms. Warrington said.

James Irving Houck — the son of Irving L. Houck, an ice cream maker, and , Mildred M. Anderson Houck, a homemaker — was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, where he graduated from high school and worked as a reporter for the Bakersfield Californian.

He attended Bakersfield College, the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State, and was editor of the student newspapers at all three, but did not obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Mr. Houck began his professional newspaper career in 1963 as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and rose to become news editor. In 1981, he joined the Dallas Morning News as its Sunday editor, a position he held for a year before coming to Baltimore.

After leaving The Sun Mr. Houck and three former colleagues — Jack Lemmon, who had been editor of The Evening Sun, Ken Paik, photo director, and Frank Starr, Washington bureau chief — established New Century Press, purchased three weeklies based in Rock Rapids, Iowa, and acquired two more papers in Minnesota and two in South Dakota.


They sold their share of the company in 1995.

Mr. Houck went back to practicing journalism in 1998 when he went to work for the Times-Delta/Advance-Register in Visalia as its city editor.

He was later named assistant managing editor there, a position he held until leaving the papers in 2013.

Mr. Houck returned to the paper in 2014 as a special investigative projects editor until his 2017 retirement, family members said.

A celebration-of-life gathering is being planned for the spring in Visalia.

He is survived by a son, Christopher Houck of Ellicott City; a daughter, Amanda “Mandy” Houck of Corning, New York; his companion of 26 years, Karen Simpson, who retired as an executive administrator from the Bakersfield Californian newspaper; and four grandchildren.


Another daughter, Caroline Houck, died in 2015. His marriage to the former Patricia Ruth “Trish” Bagley ended in divorce.