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A damned good editor: George Killenberg.

George A. Killenberg looks back, at age 90, with quiet pride at the newspaper to which he devoted 43 years of his life--the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

He retired as its executive editor in 1984, just before the paper began its two-year decline into oblivion.

Born and raised in the St. Louis area, young George was tops in his class at parochial grade school and at McBride High School, which he attended on a scholarship. The Great Depression had arrived, and he had no hope that his family could afford to send him to college.

While in high school, he earned some money by providing the scores of popular softball games at city parks to the daily newspapers. When he delivered them to the paper's sports editors, he would also sit down at a typewriter and write stories about the games. One day in an elevator at the St. Louis Star-Times, something happened that changed his life.

On the elevator with him was a man who was director of sports information at St. Louis University, which in those days had a full sports program, including a football team competing with other college teams. He asked George if he was going to college, and George said his family couldn't afford it. The man said he was about to take another job and would be glad to recommend George to replace him. The pay, he said, would include free tuition to attend SLU.

Of course, George jumped at the chance and got the job, which paid $15 a week plus free tuition, tickets to football games and tokens to ride the streetcar to and from the campus. So, George, the recent high school grad, ran the sports information office while enrolled as a part-time freshman.

Later, when a new university president dropped the SLU football program and eliminated the sports information director's salary, George quit and worked for a time in public relations, which led to his getting a job in 1941 at the Globe-Democrat as a reporter.

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Meanwhile, one of George's friends had told him about a pretty redhead "with really great legs" he thought that George should meet. George eagerly agreed, and, in June 1943, he and Therese Murphy began their long and very happy marriage. He served in the Army during World War II, returning to his Globe-Democrat job and back to SLU as a part-time student, eventually earning a Bachelor of Science degree and a master's degree in American history.

He was the day assistant city editor to whom I reported for duty on my first day at the Globe-Democrat in 1955 as a cityside reporter. I was one of only two women in the newsroom on the 5th floor of the building that now houses the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, at what was then the northeast corner of 12th and Franklin streets, now Tucker and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the years passed, Killenberg became city editor, managing editor and, finally, executive editor, firmly guiding the news policy of the paper every step of the way. As mild-mannered in appearance and demeanor as Clark Kent, he never lost his temper, swore at anyone or criticized a staff member openly. If he had any criticism to make, he did it in the privacy of an office, not in the newsroom.

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Local news was his passion. He insisted on "localizing" national news stories by finding, if possible, an angle that would explain how the subject of the story would impact the St. Louis area.

He came to work every day brimming with story ideas, often triggered by something he had noticed while driving to work or by something he had read in another newspaper or magazine. His finger was expertly on the pulse of the average Globe-Democrat reader.

At his twice-daily meetings with his news editors, he might suggest a story that would evoke little enthusiasm from the editors. That would cause him to say, testily, "Nobody's going to like this story but the readers!" He was usually right.

Killenberg often looked back longingly at the days when reporters on beats like police and courts never wrote their stories but would phone in the facts to a rewrite person who would ask pertinent questions to verify facts and look up background material in the morgue.

When reporters on beats or other out-of-office assignments began writing and sending in stories by computer, Killenberg thought the quality of most stories went down. Some of the best stories in the paper were written by veteran staffers who once had been rewrite men and women. He encouraged enterprise by his reporters and often made suggestions for improving a story.

One day, Bill Feustel, then the City Hall reporter, told Killenberg about a pending aldermanic bill that would weaken the city zoning laws by permitting more single-family houses to be converted into previously illegal rooming houses in residential neighborhoods. Killenberg suggested that Feustel call presidents of all the city neighborhood associations to get their opinions of the bill. Naturally, most of them were unaware of the bill or that it was soon to be the subject of an aldermanic committee's public hearing that was scheduled on a winter evening when the bill's sponsors obviously thought few members of the public would attend.

After the story in the Globe-Democrat ran, outraged neighborhood association members turned out in such overwhelming numbers to object to the bill that the hearing had to be moved to a larger room. After the stormy session reached its close, committee members quickly voted to kill the bill.

Something that irritated Killenberg was to see news stories that reduced human beings to mere statistics, such as reports of the number of people killed on the highways during holiday weekends or a numerical tally of murder victims during a rising crime rate.

He wanted stories to reflect the human loss of life and to demand of officials the causes and possible solutions to the problems that caused it. The nation's extremely high total of highway deaths in the 1960s appalled him, and he hated reading quotes from safety experts who blamed most car crashes on driver error. He thought the cause of many accidents was poorly designed highways and automobiles, which then had no safety belts or airbags.

One day, he assigned me the task of doing research and writing a series of articles that would report the actual causes of most highway deaths and what could be done to reduce their number. Dutifully, I began interviewing safety experts in government and the insurance industry and read stacks of reports that soon revealed to me the little-known fact that fully half of all highway fatalities were the result of drunken driving.

I went to Killenberg and told him I wanted to focus the series on drunken driving, the lack of effective laws and enforcement and the need for court sentences that required treatment programs for alcoholics, who were the most persistent repeat offenders.

While it wasn't what he had originally wanted, he gave me the go-ahead. The series, and the follow-up news stories and strong editorial-page demands for law reforms, brought the Globe-Democrat a prestigious Alfred Sloan Award for newspaper stories about highway safety.

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While Killenberg was city editor, the Globe-Democrat won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative stories on corruption in the St. Louis Pipefitters Union. Killenberg had turned over his office to Denny Walsh and Al Delugach, the prize-winning reporters, during the months they worked on the investigation.

In addition to the Pulitzer, the Globe-Democrat won other awards, including a gold medal from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and was the only newspaper in the country to be among the top 10 finalists for the coveted public service award from the Associated Press Managing Editors Association for five consecutive years, of which George was very proud.

A devoted family man, Killenberg kept his private life carefully separate from his professional one. He never let his religion (Catholic) or political views (Democrat though the Globe-Democrat was Republican) influence his decisions, and he demanded that the news pages give fair and equal coverage to all local, state and national election candidates, regardless of which ones the editorial page was endorsing.

His hiring policy greatly increased the number of women and minorities on the staffs of the news and features departments, including the first woman reporter on the sports staff. He also promoted women, including me, to some top editorships that women never held before at the Globe-Democrat or at most metropolitan newspapers in the years before the mid-1980s.

After his retirement, Killenberg became an Internet surfer, sending on to family members and friends articles about medical and political subjects that interested him most. Although his beloved wife Therese was in fragile health during the past few years, his health problems began to restrict his activities only recently.

He had a happy celebration of his 90th birthday last March 30, surrounded by his wife, all five of his children and many of his 12 grandchildren. However, the death of his wife on Nov. 10 hit him hard. He had a setback that put him in the hospital and a rehabilitation unit for a short time. But he recovered in time to be back in his north county home by Christmas.

One of his favorite things is to get together with other old Globe-Democrat employees and talk about their newsroom days. Asked how he would sum up his feelings about those days, he says, with quiet pride: "We put out a damned good newspaper."

RELATED ARTICLE: Not a fan of SJR.

George Killenberg didn't like his St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporters contributing information to the St. Louis Journalism Review, which was established to scrutinize the media, mainly the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat.

One reporter at the Globe-Democrat, the late Gus Lumpe, was one of the organizers of SJR in 1970, when the first issue explored the joint operating agreement of the Globe-Democrat and Post. Lumpe was later let go from the Globe-Democrat. And SJR was told by Killenberg it was not allowed to use its morgue.

Killenberg, a Democrat at a Republican newspaper, was sensitive to complaints about the paper's angry editorials. He also was quick to complain when national publications, such as the Columbia Journalism Review, slighted the Globe-Democrat in any articles about St. Louis journalism.

Editors at the Post respected Killenberg for his knowledge of the city, savvy news judgment and aggressive reporting. With a smaller and feisty staff, the Globe-Democrat was able to overtake the Post in daily circulation by more than 20,000 subscribers. This helped the Globe-Democrat's owner, the Newhouse chain, when it negotiated the shut down of the paper in 1984 and entered into a deal to share profits with the Post.

For a time, the Post used Killenberg as a consultant.

Roy Malone

Sue Ann Wood was a reporter, city editor and managing editor of the St Louis Globe Democrat until it first closed in 1984. She later became a St Louis Post Dispatch writer, editor and reader's advocate.
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Author:Wood, Sue Ann
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Words:1847
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