Bill Mead RIP: He Loved Journalism and the St. Louis Cardinals

William B. Mead, who worked for United Press International as bureau manager in Detroit and as a reporter and editor in Richmond, Chicago, and Washington and then moved into magazine work as Washington correspondent for Money magazine and as a writer and editor for The Washingtonian, died unexpectedly on Thursday, December 14. Born in St. Louis in 1934, he was a longtime St. Louis Cardinals fan and he authored six books on baseball history. Bill lived in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife Jenny, once an editor with Mademoiselle magazine in New York City.

Jenny, in telling friends that Bill had died, ended her email by saying, after 61 years of marriage, “He was so much fun to live with.”

A memorial service for Bill will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday, January 6, at Maplewood Park Place, 9707 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD. Contributions in his memory may be made to www.ScotlandStorm.org

Here’s a 2014 post Bill wrote about his early life in journalism:

Getting Started in Journalism: “Okay, You’re Hired, and Expect to Work Overtime Without Pay”

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UPI’s Bill Mead with Governor George Romney in 1966.

 I was a liberal arts student, whistling along with B’s and C’s while enjoying college life at Northwestern. It was during the Korean War and employers weren’t that interested in young men like me because we faced the draft—two years in the Army—upon graduation. I thought newspaper work might be fun but didn’t know anyone in the business, and I hadn’t worked on the Daily Northwestern, our college newspaper.

The Army trained me as a Morse Code radio operator, a skill with a past but no future. After training I was posted to Staten Island, New York. Jenny Hilton, my college sweetheart, was already in New York, working for Mademoiselle magazine.

Through Jenny I met several journalists including Bill Greeley, a reporter for Variety, the showbiz newspaper. I asked Bill how I could get a newspaper job when I got out of the Army. Work for the wires, he advised. AP and  UPI often hired beginners, and wire service work was good training.

Jenny and I got married in 1956 and we lived in Greenwich Village while I commuted to Staten Island. We saved money and after discharge in July 1957 we traveled to Europe, returning home in October so broke that I could job hunt only in Richmond, Virginia, where we could live with her parents, or in St. Louis, where we could live with mine.

St. Louis came first. I applied to the AP and UP bureaus. No openings, kid, and besides, what are your qualifications, if any? In Richmond, Jenny’s father lined me up for an interview with Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch; he advised me to apply to newspapers in smaller towns. The AP bureau was equally uninterested.

But at the UP bureau I walked in the door just when a warm body was needed. With the Virginia General Assembly about to meet, the UPI bureau manager, H.L. Stevenson, had wheedled approval to hire another staffer, swelling the bureau roster to four, beginning January 1, 1958. Steve was working 70 or 80 hours a week so he didn’t have time to mount a recruiting drive. Okay Mead, you’re hired, at the Guild beginner’s wage of $67.50 a week, which included a bonus for working six days. And expect to work overtime without pay.

For two months I came to work every day expecting to be fired. But Steve proved to be tolerant even while sometimes sputtering at my performance,  and he was a great mentor, rising to become UPI’s executive VP. He taught me how to report and write in the UPI style and how to love the work. He became a close and valuable friend. He died in 1995 and I still miss him.

Remembering the Detroit bureau and all those new cars:

In 1965, I was named Detroit bureau manager. Detroit was then the fifth most populous city in the US and its economy was strong, thanks to the Big Three auto makers–General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

For UPI in Detroit, the auto industry was the most important beat. The companies eagerly demonstrated their new models to the press by offering “loaners”—new cars you could borrow, often with no deadline for return. I harbored the suspicion that this amounted to bribery, but the friendly public relations men assured us that they were not investing in favorable coverage. No, they just wanted journalists to be familiar with their latest products.

I first tried to discourage the use of loaners but our UPI staffers were underpaid, often driving clunkers, and the system was ingrained. Old-timers told me that new Frigidaire and Philco home appliances used to be appear at the UPI bureau at Christmas time: Help yourselves, gents. And these weren’t loaners. Frigidaire was owned by General Motors and Philco by Ford. Chrysler made tanks for the Army but never offered us one.

Glitches were quickly smoothed over by friendly public relations reps. A new reporter came to work one day, temporarily leaving his wife and family behind. He latched on to a loaner, hit the roadhouses, wisely took a taxi back to his hotel, and awoke the next morning wondering where he had left the car. He sheepishly confessed to the PR guy, who assured him they’d find the car, don’t worry, call any time.

Our auto writer, Dave Chute, sometimes needed two cars once his daughter reached driving age. One day the daughter’s Chevy loaner backed into Dave’s Ford loaner in a memorable double-loaner-fender-bender. The PR men sent tow trucks.

Edward Lechtzin, a UPI colleague, ascended to the auto beat in 1971 and to the public relations staff of General Motors in 1977. Why? GM tripled his salary. So Ed knew loaners first as a borrower and, with GM, as a lender. Here’s Ed:

“The most interesting loaner I ever had while in the UPI bureau was a top-of-the-line Mercedes. It must have cost around $20,000 when a Ford Mustang started at under $2,400.

“I was around 25, with hair almost to my shoulders and a full beard. They would have described me as a hippie. The bureau’s sports reporter, Rich Shook, and I drove the Mercedes across the Ambassador Bridge that connected Detroit with Windsor, Ontario. This was long before 9/11 and crossing the border in either direction was no big deal except when the customs agents thought you might be smuggling drugs.

“So picture one very scroungy looking guy (me) with another not-so-savory character coming across the bridge around one in the morning in a luxury Mercedes.

“The usual repartee was a quick ‘Are you a U.S. citizen? Where do you live? Thank you.’ But not on this night. The agent asked me if the Mercedes was my car. When I told him I had borrowed it from Mercedes, he ordered us to pull up by the customs office. Asked for proof that I had borrowed it from Mercedes, I pulled out the release form and discovered that it said in big letters, ‘NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM THE USA.’

“The agents prepared to take the car apart in search of drugs. My pleas got me a brief reprieve and I called the Mercedes PR guy at 1:30 a.m. He came and reclaimed the car. We took a taxi home and I was never loaned another Mercedes.”
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Bill had a website where he wrote about his life. He described his e-book, Come Back Moo, as “a biography of my grandfather, an extraordinary man whose life is a window on American life in the late 19th century and most of the 20th. (He was born in 1881; died in 1973.) The ancestral cast includes Indian fighters, slaveowners, Confederate heroes, progressive smalltown Kentucky journalists, and Moo, who was orphaned at 13, made his fortune as a colleague of William H. Danforth, and blessed my brother and me as a father figure after our father died three months after I was born. His first wife was his first cousin in rural Kentucky; his second was a heroic refugee from wartorn Estonia who somehow brought five children to the United States, surviving the horrors of Soviet and Nazi imprisonment. Come Back Moo introduces the reader to Tom Mix, the first cowboy movie hero; Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president; Luther Youngdahl, the Minnesota governor who became a noted scourge of slot machine gambling; and the great Stan Musial. Read reviews on Amazon Kindle, where you can buy Come Back Moo for $3.95. It’s also available on Barnes & Noble Nook and other ebook platforms.”

Comments

  1. Bill was such a lovely guy and wonderful mentor.

  2. David Beckwith says:

    One morning in the Time bureau, Bill and I were getting our mail at the same time. He showed me a letter addressed to “Bill Meat, Money Magazine.” He vowed to use the name when he covered agricultural issues. I called him “Meat” for years, to his amusement. Always good humored, a man of stellar character, and a great colleague.

  3. Larry Van Dyne says:

    So sorry to hear of this. Bill was one of my favorite people—warm, smart, and witty. The best that Missouri offers, and a loyal fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.

  4. Mike Feinsilber says:

    Bill loved the stuff of everyday life – the poetry of Robert Service, especially “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” the legend of Billy the Kid, barbershop quartets and slot machines, magicians and manual typewriters and baseball. Especially baseball.

    • Carl Leubsdorf says:

      Shocked to hear about Bill, a great guy, good journalist and fellow baseball fan. Also, author of frequent complimentary notes on my weekly column. I met Bill when we worked together _ or, rather, as competitors _ on Capitol Hill, Bill with UPI and I was with AP. Though rivals, most of us were friends and remained so.

  5. I was in the UPI Detroit bureau in 1963, a couple of years ahead of Bill, and the big three auto companies liked wire service guys, maybe because so many of their PR people once were journalists. Another Detroit UPI staffer—each of us making about $7500 a year—came in one day and said he was leaving for Chrysler PR. He didn’t want to leave—he got choked up telling us about it—but said, “I can’t turn it down. They’re paying me $15,000 a year.” Adjusted for inflation that salary increase was from $60,000 a year at UPI to $120,000 a year at Chrysler.

    I think Bill, like many journalists, subscribed to the old saying, “Money is how people with no imagination keep score.”

    • Avery Comarow says:

      I was in awe of Bill when we were both at Money magazine. I was the first writer on staff but came from a small upstate NY daily and had no idea how to write for a magazine. Bill came on board cheerful and unneurotic, machine-gunning stories with two fingers and never seeming to experience an hour’s worth of writer’s block. I wondered how he managed to look so relaxed.

      That was just Bill, as those of us who came to know him quickly realized. Smart, fast, without an ounce of pretension.

      He never did learn to say my last name right, which from a different guy would have irritated me. Not from Bill. Wish I’d stayed in touch more faithfully.

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