Former Garden City Telegram editor and publisher Bill Brown’s colleagues remember him as a solid professional newsman with an engaging wit and a drive to get the story right.
Brown, 91, of Kansas City, Mo., died Sept. 10.
“He knew the craft. He was a good, good newsman, and a teacher,” said Salina Journal reporter Tim Unruh, who also spent two decades working in The Telegram newsroom after studying journalism at Kansas State University, where Brown was one of his advisers.
He was born Oct. 2, 1924, in Burrton, and grew up in Halstead. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
In 1949, he graduated with a bachelor’s of science in mass communications from Kansas State College. He worked as a newspaper editor and publisher with Harris News Group, including an 11-year stint as editor and then editor and publisher for The Telegram, and was the director of student publications and an assistant professor at the K-State College of Journalism from 1970 to 1986. In addition to The Telegram, Brown also worked for the Hutchinson News and at newspapers in St. Charles, Mo.; Kearney, Neb.; and Loveland, Colo.
After earning his master’s of journalism at the City University of London in 1986, he later returned to serve as a writing coach for Harris News Group from 1991 to 2000.
A good friend
Bruce Buchanan, president of Harris Enterprises, parent company of The Telegram and Hutchinson News, said Brown was a close friend — one who he felt would be around forever.
“Bill was a great editor, a wonderful writer, and a had a great wit. He just had a knack for always coming up with the right word. Of any instructor at K-State, he had the most influence on me of anyone. Bill just had a great way of teaching without seeming like he was lecturing.”
Buchanan took Brown’s Reporting II at K-State, a class Buchanan used to argue ought to be a required class for every major on campus. The way Brown taught it, you learned a lot in the classroom, then had to go out and practice it by reporting and writing, Buchanan said.
Buchanan spent a lot of time with Brown, who was advisor of K-State’s student newspaper, The Collegian. Brown also was Buchanan’s advisor, and talked him out of transferring to the University of Kansas at the end of his freshman year.
“I wouldn’t tell him, somebody leaked it to him,” Buchanan said with a chuckle. “So he came into the Collegian newsroom, motioned me over to his office and convinced me not to transfer. He just had this knack for being very persuasive.”
Brown wasn’t a yeller. Buchanan said Brown had an incredible wit and was great with puns. Every day, the Collegian staff would wait anxiously to see Bill’s daily critique of their work on the paper. But Brown never interfered with what the student journalists were doing and often defended the staff to the administration.
“I know he took a lot of heat for some of the things I wrote when I was writing editorials. He always fiercely defended our independence,” Buchanan said.
It’s safe to say Brown had an impact on hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists over his career as a teacher, editor and writing coach.
Sarah Kessinger, editor and publisher of The Marysville Advocate, said Brown was a mentor to her as a student at K-State and later when he visited The Telegram as a writing coach.
“I always smile when I think of Bill,” Kessinger said. “As a college sophomore and newbie to journalism school, I was scared to death of him. Then I learned he had that great sense of humor. He could deliver tough criticism while keeping the writer chuckling. He endeared himself to young reporters because he advocated for them. You could tell he cared.”
Telegram Editor-publisher Dena Sattler was a young reporter at The Hawk Eye, the Harris Enterprises newspaper in Burlington, Iowa, when Brown came through as a writing coach.
“Bill was an ideal journalism instructor,” Sattler said. “He managed to blend needed criticism with the kind of positive feedback a young reporter needs to tackle assignments with confidence. Throughout my career, as I moved forward in various reporting and editing positions, I remembered Bill’s tips and input.”
In 2004, Sattler became publisher of The Telegram, the position Brown had occupied decades earlier. Sattler, like Brown, also served as president of the Kansas Press Association, being elected to that position during the same KPA annual convention in 2013 that saw Brown inducted into the press association’s Hall of Fame.
“There may be parallels, but his career was exceptional,” Sattler said.
Sense of humor
Longtime Telegram photographer Brad Nading also took Brown’s Reporting II class at K-State in the early 1980s. Nading said Brown was an “old-school” reporter who wanted stories to get to the facts early and build from there.
“He was strict on how he wanted things comprised in stories but also had a humorous side about any subject that came up, so there was plenty of laughter in his class,” Nading said.
After college, Nading had occasional contact with Brown through various KPA events, and when Brown came to The Telegram for workshops as a writing coach.
“He always had a way of making people laugh or get in a better mood through his dry sense of humor. One thing that always stuck with me is when I would see him, he always told me to just do my job the best I can, but not to take myself too seriously, you might miss something else that’s going on,” Nading said.
Buchanan, who introduced Brown both when he earned the Clyde M. Reed Master Editor title and when he was inducted into the KPA Hall of Fame, said Brown was humble man who worked hard practicing the basics of good, solid journalism.
“When he was at The Telegram, he covered the city commission, wrote a daily page one column, plus ran the newspaper and wrote editorials,” Buchanan said. “He had a very deep faith, he was in the choir at his church, and he ran every day. That’s why I thought he’d be around forever.”
Brown was Unruh’s advisor his first semester at K-State. Unruh said Brown had a lot of patience and was a good motivator.
“Because I knew quite a bit of his history in Garden City, and having worked in Garden City before I went to K-State, I had tremendous respect for him and I listened to every word he told me,” he said.
When Brown retired from K-State and became a writing coach for the Harris group, he would spend about a week at each paper in the chain. On one visit to The Telegram, where Unruh was sports editor at the time, Brown actually came up with a headline that Unruh used that later won an award.
The headline related to a Wimbledon tennis singles final between Australian Pat Cash and Ivan Lendl, from Czechoslovakia.
“He calls me over and goes, ‘I got a great headline for ya. Cash cancels Czech.’ I ran it, got all kinds of accolades for it, but I was honest and said I stole it from Bill Brown,” Unruh said.
Brown became editor of The Telegram in 1959, not long before Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy and Kenyon were murdered at their farm house in Holcomb. In fact, Brown had Nancy and Kenyon in his Sunday school class at the Methodist Church, and they never missed a week.
When they didn’t show up that particular Sunday morning, it was unusual. According to Brown’s son, David Brown, who was 8-years-old at the time, the sheriff and coroner came to Brown’s Sunday school class and the three of them drove out to the farm and entered the house and saw the carnage.
“I think that just embedded a picture in my dad’s mind that was pretty hard to forget,” David said.
David said he doesn’t think his dad avoided talking about the Clutter murders, but it was hard for him to talk about.
One thing that probably annoyed Brown more than anything else was Truman Capote, David said.
“My dad had no love for that man,” David said, adding that it was probably a combination of Capote’s personality and what he wrote that drove his dad’s annoyance for the man.
Longtime Garden Citian Duane West, who attended the same church as Brown and his wife, Lois, said Bill was a good friend.
“It’s sad to see old friends leave. He was a really super, super nice guy. He was just a good old, rock solid journalist. He was ethical, responsible and really worked hard at producing a paper that provided a lot of important information to the public,” West said.
West, who was county attorney at the time of the Clutter murders, said he relied on Bill when dealing with the incredible influx of reporters who descended on Garden City, all clamoring for information, which made it difficult for investigators to do their jobs. Early on, investigators organized twice-a-day press conferences and had West deal with the press.
“He was just an all around, super nice fella, and an excellent example for the media and the journalistic world to follow, in my book,” West said.
With a smile
Unruh said one thing he learned from Brown is to not get wrapped up in self-importance, to be humble and to work hard. Another takeaway was to try to tell stories using as few words as possible, something Unruh says he still struggles to do.
“He made a lot of people into amazing journalists. It didn’t matter how good of a story you wrote, he could always poke holes in it. But he didn’t get mad and chew you out. He wasn’t that way. He could take you down a few notches and still keep a smile on his face. You could walk away and you didn’t feel defeated. You walked away feeling like you learned something,” Unruh said.
David Brown is proud of his father’s legacy of influencing journalists. After going through his dad’s files recently, he found cards former students had written after his dad retired, and various letters from newspaper people around the state, one of which referred to him as a legend in Kansas journalism.
“That’s quite a tip of the hat to be called that. But looking back on it, he really was,” David said, adding that his dad was one of the most humble people anyone could meet. “His whole objective in life was to get the story, get it right, and report it right. Honestly, the legend stuff and all of that, I’m sure he didn’t think twice about that.”
While David grew up around and even worked at The Telegram — including going in on Saturdays to scrub the ink out of the press pit and later as a weekend photographer while attending junior college — he never considered becoming a journalist. Instead, David went to K-State and earned a degree in animal nutrition and another in cultural physical anthropology.
David said he knew his dad was a great writer, and he made it a point to read his columns in the newspaper frequently. But he didn’t grasp the full extent of his father’s influence as a journalist until the past couple of weeks since his death.
Outside of a passion for journalism, David said, his dad took great pride in physical fitness, often running three to four miles per day as late as four or five months ago. Bill also was a voracious reader who loved music, particularly classical English choir and jazz.
“I remember as a kid I used to hear a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett — not really a jazz singer, but he was a big fan. Frank Sinatra, all those guys. Then for a long time, he was a big band fan. We used to have a lot of Glenn Miller stuff around the house when I was a kid,” David said. “And he loved to sing. He sang in the church choir ever since I can remember, from the time I was a kid up to the last couple of months.”
A memorial service for Brown is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 12 at St. Peter & All Saints Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Mo.
Brown was preceded in death by his wife, his parents and a brother, Grover Brown. In addition to his son, he also is survived by a daughter, Kathy Rieger; four grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and two sisters, Cloyce Stanley of South Carolina and Joyce Gassert of California.