Kirkpatrick, Clayton (“Kirk”)

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Kirkpatrick, Clayton (“Kirk”)

(b. 8 January 1915 in Waterman, Illinois; d. 19 June 2004 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois), editor credited with ridding the Chicago Tribune of its partisan Republican image and turning it into a nationally respected, centrist newspaper.

Kirkpatrick was the son of Clayton Matteson Kirkpatrick, who ran a machine shop and garage, and Mable Rose (Swift) Kirkpatrick. He graduated from Waterman High School and only three and a half years later, in 1937, received his BA with honors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kirkpatrick yearned to write and after college set out to acquire what he thought would serve him best in his career: life experience. He traveled the nation, hitchhiking or catching freight trains and taking the occasional odd job. In Cincinnati, Ohio, he sold stovetops door to door. In Birmingham, Alabama, he found temporary work in a meatpacking plant. In California, Kirkpatrick worked in the mess hall of a lumber camp. He returned to Chicago hoping to become a journalist. In early 1938 Kirkpatrick was hired by the City News Bureau, a wire service providing news to Chicago newspapers and radio stations.

Kirkpatrick tried to get a job at the afternoon Chicago Daily News, a journal he considered vibrant and objective, but found no openings. In late 1938 he took a reporting job at the morning Chicago Tribune, also a vibrant paper but far from objective. Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the longtime publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and made the newspaper a Republican Party mouthpiece and voice of ultraconservatism for the first half of the twentieth century.

In March 1942 Kirkpatrick enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent most of World War II as an intelligence clerk for the Army Air Forces in England. On 13 February 1943 Kirkpatrick married Thelma Marie De Mott of Chicago. The union lasted until her death in 1998 and produced four children. In the army Kirkpatrick rose to the rank of master sergeant and was awarded the Bronze Star before his discharge in November 1945.

Kirkpatrick returned to the Chicago Tribune and impressed supervisors with his cool professionalism. In 1954 he was switched from reporting to editing, working up the ladder from the copy desk to top newsroom supervisory posts. On 1 January 1969 Kirkpatrick took over as editor of the newspaper, which faced a challenge. The world was changing, but the Chicago Tribune was not, and the publication was beginning to pay the price in declining circulation and tarnished prestige. It had remained a partisan political organ in which decisions often were influenced from the grave. Managers would ask what McCormick would want to do in a situation, and then they would do it, even though the powerful publisher had been dead since 1955.

Kirkpatrick made it clear he planned to set the newspaper in a new direction. “Readers who have come to regard the Tribune as an old friend can expect to see some changes,” he wrote in an editorial on the first day of his new job. “None will be so startling as to suggest that the old friend has become a stranger.” Kirkpatrick vowed, however, that partisan reporting would be replaced with balanced, objective coverage. The paper’s cluttered, old-fashioned typography was streamlined, the daily editorial cartoon was moved from page one to the editorial page, and the newspaper launched a daily features section, Tempo, to attract younger readers. “He [was] the pivotal figure in moving the Chicago Tribune out of the Colonel’s shadow, but doing it in a way that was intimately respectful of institutional traditions,” Richard Norton Smith, who had written a history of the newspaper and McCormick, told the Chicago Tribune after Kirkpatrick’s death. “Kirkpatrick understood that if the Colonel were alive ten years later, he would have been the first to understand it was a different climate, a different journalistic universe,” Smith said.

The newspaper became a trendsetter in news design. Simplicity ruled. Reporting Neil Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon, the front page of 21 July 1969 contained only three short paragraphs of large type, a picture of the moon’s surface, and the headline “Moon Walk Completed.” The Chicago Tribune had clung to another vestigial imprint of the McCormick years: a penchant for phonetic spelling. Words like “photo,” “thorough,” and “phone” became “foto,” “thoro,” and “fone.” Kirkpatrick told editors the experiment in recasting English was “thru.”

By February 1974 the Chicago Tribune had regained respect for balance and innovation. Time listed the paper among the nation’s ten best dailies. Before the year was out the newspaper demonstrated once and for all that the era of strident Republicanism was over. Embroiled in the Watergate scandal, the White House agreed to release 1,300 pages of transcripts from the secret taping system in the Oval Office. The Chicago Tribune launched an army of secretaries, typists, reporters, and printers to get the contents of the recordings into type. It was the only newspaper in the nation to publish the entire transcript the day after it was released. The effort required a forty-four-page special section and was called by the National Broadcasting Company anchorman John Chancellor “a publishing miracle.” A bigger surprise was to come. Kirkpatrick, long a supporter of President Richard Nixon, called for Nixon’s resignation after reading the transcripts. “We saw the public man in his first administration, and we were impressed. Now in about 300,000 words we have seen the private man, and we are appalled,” Kirkpatrick wrote in a 9 May 1974 editorial titled “Listen Mr. Nixon.” Coming from the Chicago Tribune, so long viewed as in lockstep with Republican values, the editorial attracted international attention and signaled that Nixon had lost his base in middle America.

In 1979 Kirkpatrick was promoted to president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Tribune Company. He retired from that post on 1 June 1981. Kirkpatrick in 1979 received the Fourth Estate Award of the National Press Club. After retirement he served on the board of governors of Central DuPage Hospital and as a trustee of Rush–Presbyterian–Saint Luke’s Medical Center (later Rush University Medical Center). He died of congestive heart failure in his Glen Ellyn home on 19 June 2004.

Lloyd Wendt, The Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper (1979), describes Kirkpatrick’s role in the evolution of the Chicago Tribune at a pivotal point in its history. Richard Norton Smith, The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880–1955 (1997), describes McCormick’s influence. An obituary is in the Chicago Tribune (22 June 2004).

Mark Washburn

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Kirkpatrick, Clayton (“Kirk”)

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