Creed Black: 1925-2011

Creed Black, former Herald-Leader publisher, dies in Miami hospital at 86

jhewlett@herald-leader.comAugust 17, 2011 

  • The arrangements

    Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kendall United Methodist Church, 7600 SW 104th Street, Miami. Burial will be in Paducah. Stanfill Funeral Home in Miami is in charge of arrangements.

    The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Community Partnership for Homeless, 1550 North Miami Avenue, Miami, Fla. 33136.

Creed Carter Black, who dramatically changed the face of the Lexington Herald-Leader when he was publisher from 1977 to 1988, died early Tuesday at Baptist Hospital in Miami.

Mr. Black, 86, had suffered two massive hemorrhagic strokes two weeks ago.

As chairman of the board and publisher of the Herald-Leader, Mr. Black secured the land and oversaw the construction of a new newspaper plant at Main Street and Midland Avenue.

He led the consolidation of the Lexington Herald and The Lexington Leader into one newspaper in 1983.

Under his watch, the Herald-Leader won the first of its three Pulitzer Prizes. Daily circulation grew 28 percent and Sunday circulation increased 61 percent as the Herald-Leader became the dominant regional newspaper for Central and Eastern Kentucky.

All the while, Mr. Black, a conservative who had been an assistant secretary for legislation in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, never let his personal politics show through in the news pages, according to those who knew him. And he never gave in to advertisers and others who tried to influence news articles, they said.

"I really admired Creed. He was a crusty, very independent news person," said veteran Kentucky journalist Al Smith, former host of the KET show Comment on Kentucky. "He gave the paper a new reputation for independence."

"Creed built the modern Herald-Leader, both literally and figuratively," said Tim Kelly, who retired as Herald-Leader publisher in June.

Mr. Black's impact in the region continued after he left the Herald-Leader.

Black became president and chief executive officer of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, one of the largest private charitable foundations in the country, which brought grants approaching $10 million to Kentucky during his tenure. Much of the money benefited education.

"Creed set a very high standard for those who came after him; he was a great journalist and leader for whom I have the utmost respect," Kelly said.

Eastern, Western Ky. roots

Mr. Black took over the helm of the Lexington Herald and The Lexington Leader in 1977, moving to Central Kentucky from Philadelphia, where he had been vice president and editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But he was no stranger to Kentucky.

He was born in Harlan County and grew up in Paducah, where he moved with his mother when he was 5 after his father was killed by lightning, according to John Carroll, who was editor of the Herald and the Herald-Leader under Mr. Black. Mr. Black's mother, Mary, married Stuart Johnston, who was Paducah's mayor for several years.

Mr. Black got his first taste of the newspaper business in 1941 as co-editor of the West Kentucky Bell, the student newspaper at Tilghman High School in Paducah.

When he was 17, he became a part-time reporter at the Paducah Sun-Democrat, working under his hero, city editor Henry Ward, who went on to become a state parks and highway commissioner and a Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

"Those were the days, my friend, for a teenager who discovered he had ink in his blood. Covering the police beat, sounding the siren in the fire chief's car, reporting Tilghman ball games, interviewing the mayor and even reading the news now and then right from the Sun-Democrat city room for the WPAD radio audience," Mr. Black wrote in a farewell editorial at the time of his retirement from the Herald-Leader.

Mr. Black's life path included several twists and turns between his days as a teen journalist and the time he landed at the Lexington newspapers.

When he was 19, Mr. Black went off to fight in World War II, receiving a Bronze Star for heroism.

He was a copy and makeup editor for Stars & Stripes during the occupation period after the war.

He returned to the Paducah newspaper for a time, then he went on to study journalism and political science at Northwestern University, where he edited the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper. He graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in 1949 with highest honors. He received a master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1952.

While in college, he worked on the copy desks of the Chicago Herald-American and Chicago Sun-Times.

During the 1950s, Mr. Black was an editorial writer and executive editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. Later came stints as vice president and executive editor of the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News and Evening Press; vice president and executive editor of the Wilmington (Del.) Morning News and Evening Journal; and managing editor and executive editor of the Chicago Daily News.

He went to The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1970 after working 18 months in the Nixon administration. He won the top award for editorial writing in Pennsylvania in his first year with the Inquirer.

The Inquirer was owned by Knight Newspapers, which bought the Herald and Leader in 1973. The move from editor in Philadelphia to publisher in Lexington was a natural one.

"I think it appealed to him to return to Kentucky," Carroll said.

'A complete overhaul'

Mr. Black, a short, stocky man who liked to smoke cigars and play a round of golf every Wednesday afternoon, was known for being impatient and demanding. He didn't like what he found at the old newspaper building on Short Street in Lexington.

"He felt that, generally speaking, the paper needed a complete overhaul," Carroll said.

"He made a lot of changes, a lot of personnel changes, although he had some people he thought were good," he said.

The most significant personnel change was to bring in Carroll as editor of the Herald. Carroll had been metro editor of the Inquirer when that paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in Pennsylvania.

"When I first arrived, he was very frustrated with the paper, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to meet his expectations soon enough because he was very impatient," said Carroll, who went on to become editor of the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times after leaving the Herald-Leader in 1991. "But his impatience led to a much better paper."

The Herald and the Leader, owned for many years by the Stoll family of Lexington before the papers were sold to Knight, were about as "hidebound" as any newspaper in Kentucky, Smith said. For example, they thought if they ignored the civil rights movement, it would go away, Smith said.

The Herald was considered a Democratic newspaper, and the Leader was considered a Republican publication in those days.

Mr. Black, Smith said, opened up the Herald-Leader to news stories that "were really fearless, without favor to any special interest."

Under Mr. Black's leadership, Smith said, the paper began to look aggressively at several issues, including coal industry practices in Eastern Kentucky.

The Creed Black era also marked the beginning of a Herald-Leader editorial page that Kentucky Republican politician Larry Forgy referred to as "the fang and claw," Smith said.

Early on, Mr. Black, who said the old newspaper building — once voted the ugliest building in downtown Lexington — was the worst newspaper plant he'd ever been in, began working on plans for a new one. The newspaper company, which became part of the Knight Ridder group in 1974, opened its new plant at Main Street and Midland Avenue in 1980, and the Herald and the Leader merged into one daily paper in 1983.

Backlash from readers

On his desk at the Herald-Leader, Mr. Black kept a framed copy of a statement by newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope, which read: "I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure — which is: try to please everybody."

No doubt, many people thought Mr. Black and the Herald-Leader went out of their way to displease University of Kentucky sports fans with the series of articles that won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

The series, "Playing Above the Rules," exposed cash payoffs to basketball players in violation of NCAA regulations.

"There were boycotts of the advertising and circulation, and there was at least one rally against the paper," Carroll said, adding that there was at least one bomb threat and almost daily attacks on talk radio.

"He never wavered," Carroll said. "If you're an editor, that's the kind of person you want to have as a publisher."

Mr. Black was not surprised by the public outcry, but he was disappointed, Carroll said.

Mr. Black apparently kept his sense of humor through it all. His favorite angry letter concerning the basketball series was from a woman who wrote: "Dear Sir: May the sprays of a million polecats fall upon your presses and linger there through eternity. Go Big Blue!"

Smith recalled when local car dealers became angry after a Herald-Leader reporter wrote about shady practices of used-car lots and decided to teach Mr. Black a lesson by withdrawing advertising from the newspaper.

"Creed didn't back down. ... Creed did not knuckle under to the business interests in this city at a time when they were used to having their way with that paper," Smith said.

A.F. Dawahare, former president of the clothing chain Dawahares LLC and a close friend of Mr. Black, said Mr. Black was an intellectual who saw the future of the newspaper business, particularly its place in electronic communication.

"I treasured his friendship and his business relationship," Dawahare said. "I appreciated his sense of humor. ... Whenever I got ornery, he always said 'Wait a minute; I'm going to cut off your advertising.'"

While in the top job at the Herald-Leader, Mr. Black also held top positions in professional organizations. He was elected president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1983 and president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in 1987. He was a former president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was a Pulitzer juror several times. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1986.

The foundation years

At the Knight Foundation, started in 1950 by Knight Newspapers founder John S. Knight and his brother James L. Knight, Mr. Black was instrumental in starting a commission to propose reforms in intercollegiate athletics. He also helped launch a national community-revitalization initiative. The foundation moved from Akron, Ohio, to Miami during Mr. Black's tenure as president.

Among the Kentucky entities and projects that have received Knight Foundation grants — many during Mr. Black's tenure with the foundation — are Lexington Children's Theatre, Thoroughbred Park in Lexington, a child-care center in Georgetown, job-training programs and UK's main library. The foundation provided relief after heavy flooding in the state in 1997 and has financed projects to enhance education reform in Kentucky.

Mr. Black is survived by his wife, Elsa; sons Creed Jr., Steven and Douglas; and daughter Michelle.

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