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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Hale’

Last week, I recounted some of my favorite stories about a former KC Star Publisher Jim Hale, who died in 2003. (Here’s the link, in case you missed it.)

The post drew a lot of readers and a lot of comments. When I wrote that piece, however, I knew of at least one person in Kansas City who was a lot closer to Hale than I. And that is Mike T. White, development attorney with White Goss Bowers March Schulte & Weisenfels. Shortly after Hale arrived in Kansas City in 1977, he hired White to represent The Star in most business matters. White held the job for many years, and he developed a close personal, as well as business, relationship with Hale.

At the time I posted the blog, I sent Mike an e-mail, asking him to comment on the Hale post. He said he would, and yesterday, Christmas Day, he pulled together some of his recollections and sent them on to me as a “comment” at the end of my Hale story.

Well, it didn’t take a genius to see that Mike’s recollections deserved much higher billing than the comments section of a week-old post, so I’m taking the liberty of publishing them as a “guest blog” for your reading pleasure.

With that, Heeeeere’s Mike!

***

I met Hale in 1977, when Capital Cities Inc. brought him here from The Fort Worth Star Telegram (from which Wesley Turner, another former Star publisher, recently retired as publisher). He brought Gerald Garcia with him to serve as executive editor. Garcia’s main role was to trim excess people from the payroll to make the papers lean and mean. (Editor’s note: In one bloody day alone, Garcia herded 20 or more long-time Star editorial employees into a room and fired them. They didn’t need sympathy, though, because most left The Star as millionaires, having scored big when Cap Cities paid $2 for every $1 of Star stock they owned.)

mikeyI started representing The Star in 1979. One of my first assignments was to defend a regulatory action by the EPA against The Star because it was discovered that we (the paper) had polychlorinated biphenyls (a banned carcinogen) in some of the electrical transformers in the building.  While this was going on, I was surprised to open the paper one morning to read a story about it in which an enterprising reporter simply went around the building interviewing anyone who knew anything about it. I complained to Hale, saying “Good Lord, when you are in litigation, it’s not a good idea to have your employees talking to the other side.” He told me there was not a damned he could do about it. “If I tried to tell a reporter what to write, they’ll all quit,” he said. “You’ll just have to live with it the best you can.”

We settled the case.

When the society editor, Elsye Allison was fired, she sued for age discrimination. We tried the case to a jury in federal court. Elsye’s lawyer tried to intimate that Hale was having an affair with a young, attractive anchorwoman at one of the local television stations. She was married to another young, attractive anchorman who looked like a movie star.

I had Hale sit on the front row while she testified. That killed their theory. All I had to say about that in closing was “Really?” Afterward, Hale told me that he thought that was the first jury trial The Star had won in the last 40 years. I guess their losing streak started with the WDAF antitrust case in the 1950s. Hale always felt bad about firing Elsie, and she literally, but unintentionally, haunted him: After that trial, he said he ran into her everywhere he went and that he would see her driving down the street in her beat up, old Thunderbird.

I remember the episode that you recounted about O.J. Nelson getting fired. Actually, O.J. tells this story better than anyone, and with a great deal of self-deprecation. There was another person (I can’t remember who) involved, and both were sitting in Hale’s office when Hale said to Executive Editor Mike Waller, “And these two assholes should be fired!”

I think O.J. just kept coming to work until Hale started to speak to him again, as if nothing had happened.

I think the guy that asked you to leave the Chamber of Commerce Board meeting was Dino Agnos. Hale hated going to those meetings anyway and absolutely detested attending the dinners because everyone read their speeches. He thought if they were going to write the speeches out word for word ahead of time, they should just send them to him and he could read them in his spare time. The final straw was when they sent him a list of Chamber of Commerce members who were delinquent on their dues. He said, “They want me to call some guy that owns a body shop and tell him to pay his dues. Not gonna happen.”

He would much rather sit around and drink Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch with Charlie Price (the late Charles H. Price II, who was a former U.S. ambassador to England) and the late John Latshaw (a Kansas City investment banker and businessman who died in 2010). That went on until Hale got a little put out with Latshaw after Latshaw called to tell him that he had just bought the prize steer at the American Royal and that Hale owed him half.

Hale thought very highly of Arthur Brisbane. In 2000, when discussions began about the new production plant, Art asked me to handle the legal side. It was very clear that the paper could have saved $10 million to $15 million by building the plant in Lenexa, and Tony Ridder (Knight Ridder c.e.o.), couldn’t understand why, from a business perspective, that wasn’t a no-brainer. Art stuck doggedly to his guns, reasoning that the paper had editorialized against urban sprawl and excessive economic incentives and that it would’ve been hypocritical in the extreme to just look at the bottom line. Furthermore, the incentive package that we finally negotiated was just enough to pay for the excessive costs for building the plant where it is today — which was very difficult. I told Art I could have negotiated a better deal, but he turned it down.

I agree with you that Hale was a character and a reporter’s publisher. That comes as no surprise given that he had about every job in the newspaper business as he rose through the ranks. He was also very successful. But let’s not forget that he took over the papers at a very opportune time, when profits could be increased by adopting modern technology; eliminating The Times (the morning edition of The Star); and raising the price. Brisbane, on the other hand, had the misfortune of being at the helm when the Internet really began to take off.

Hale did two things that, while simple, exemplified his style: He had the first paper off the press delivered to his door every morning, and he signed every non-payroll check.

More later, when I get time.

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Last week, I mentioned that the late Jim Hale was the last truly high-profile publisher of The Star. (Apologies to Art Brisbane, who entered the publisher’s job with a profile that he had molded during his days as a columnist.)

If you knew Hale, you know he was quite a character. When he retired from The Star in 1992, after 15 years as publisher, he left a lot of friends and a trail of stories behind. One the things that endeared people to Hale was his easy-going, loose manner, if you will. Also, he had an endearing southern drawl that he brought with him from his native east Texas.

Hale wasn’t a bit stuffy, his door was open to everyone, and he always had time to chat, when approached. As his slow gait indicated, he never seemed to be in a hurry. You knew he had everything under control, and he delegated exceptionally well. He appointed good people to upper management jobs, and he mostly stayed out of their way.

I was lucky enough to have established a relationship, of sorts, with Hale. Whenever I felt the need or the urge, I’d go up to his third-floor office and take up with him whatever issue was on my mind. He was always receptive.

jimhaleWith that, I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite memories of Hale, who died in 2003.

— One or our top editors was Michael (O.J.) Nelson, who recently retired as editor of the Lincoln Journal Star in Lincoln, Neb. O.J. admired Hale so much that he patterned himself after Hale, right down to walking with shoulders hunched forward, his head slightly preceding the rest of his body. It looked odd, because where Hale was kind of dumpy and had a beer gut, O.J. was slender and had no excuse for bad posture.

At any rate, O.J. was a nervous, smothering type of editor who was always worried that he might be exposed as dispensable, so he worked very hard at seeming to be indispensable. On one occasion, there was a big screw-up in the features department, which O.J. headed, and Hale blew his top. He did that occasionally, but it was hard to tell when he was really mad and when he was just blowing smoke for effect.

As I recall, Hale either told O.J. he was fired or that he was going to be fired. That put O.J. into a frenzy. However, executive editor Mike Waller then stepped in — he knew Hale front and backward and was his equal in histrionics — and went into Hale’s office to talk him down. “If you’re going to fire O.J. you’re going to fire me, too,” he told Hale.

With that, Hale became quiet and turned his attention to other matters…And O.J. was able to continue his very successful career at The Star.

—   One time when I was City Hall reporter (’85-’95), an editor either sent me to cover a board meeting of the Chamber of Commerce or I went on my own because they were taking up an issue that was on my radar. I walked into the meeting in one of the downtown office buildings and got myself a nice, leather-upholstered chair at the big table. About 20 civic big shots were gathered around, and one was Hale, who was on the board. I gave him a smile and a wave, he reciprocated.

Shortly after the meeting got underway, I notice that a few people were engaged in some whispered conversations with one of the board members, who was the manager at KMBC-TV, Channel 9, I believe.

Pretty soon, the station manager came around and asked me to step outside. In the lobby, he apologized for the interruption but told me that board meetings were closed to the press and that, unfortunately, I’d have to leave. I was taken aback but not totally surprised because I’d never been to a Chamber board meeting and didn’t know the drill.

As I recall, I was still in the elevator lobby when Hale emerged from the meeting and came up to me and said something like, “I’m leaving, too. If the place isn’t good enough for you, it’s not good enough for me, either.”

Of course, I was thrilled that the publisher had backed me up. It had to take some courage to get up and walk out of a meeting with some of the most powerful c.e.o.’s in Kansas City. Later, Hale wrote a letter to the Chamber expressing his chagrin at my ouster. I’ll never forget, too, that in the letter he referred to me as “one of our most competent reporters.”

Again, I appreciated the back-up, but from that point on, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t the hotshot that I envisioned myself. I was just competent.

— Around the same period, as I would return to The Star building at 18th and Grand from City Hall, I saw that our dark-brick building was looking very shabby because the green paint on the big window frames had faded and was peeling. I always took pride in our building and wanted it to look first class, in keeping with the paper’s standing in the community.

I marched up to Hale’s office one day, sat down and said, “Jim, our building looks like hell; the windows need painting.”

He laughed and said he’d see what he could do. It was no small project, of course, because it’s a large, three-story building with probably 100 or more windows, each of which is about six feet tall and three or four feet wide.

Within weeks, work crews were out there scraping and painting, and the building regained its eminent appearance.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with Scott Whiteside, who was our in-house attorney and sort of Haley’s right-hand man. Laughing, Whiteside remarked that I was “the most powerful reporter” at The Star because I had been able to initiate a job, not budgeted, that cost the company thousands of dollars.

— One more quickie. Back in the late 80s, I think it was, we had what would have been the first offer of buyouts. Of course, I was many years from being eligible, but it caught my attention because I heard that our architecture critic (yes, we had one back then), Donald Hoffmann — a brilliant writer and critic — intended to take the buyout, while another, much inferior, arts department writer — also eligible — meant to stay.

Once again I marched into Hale’s office. “If Donald Hoffmann leaves and so-and-so stays,” I said, “it’s a miscarriage of journalism.”

Hale leaned back and laughed and said: “There’s nothing I can do about it, Fitz. The offer is out there for anyone who is eligible, and legally we can’t pick and choose.”

As it came to pass, Hoffmann retired and the other writer stayed on.

I didn’t win that battle, but I dearly wished Hoffmann had stayed. For, to me, that was the day The Star started to go downhill.

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