A Damned Good Editor: George Killenberg

Article excerpt

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. …