Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sam McKeel, former publisher of The Inquirer and Daily News, has died at 97

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Sam McKeel, 97, of Gladwyne, former publisher of The Inquirer and Daily News, retired president and chief executive officer of the Sun-Times Co. in Chicago, former general manager of the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, onetime reporter for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, longtime civic advocate, mentor, and Navy veteran, died Tuesday, May 7, of complications from a stroke at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Mr. McKeel was general manager, president, publisher, and chairman for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., then owners of The Inquirer and Daily News, from 1971 to 1989. He played senior leadership roles in the company’s struggle for financial survival in the 1970s and subsequent rapid growth in the 1980s. He was hired as general manager at The Inquirer and Daily News in 1971, became president in 1975, and was named publisher of the papers and chairman of PNI in 1986.

At 6 feet 2 inches, with a full head of silver hair, Mr. McKeel was a commanding presence at The Inquirer and Daily News building on North Broad Street. He helped resolve thorny labor issues in the 1970s and ‘80s, celebrated Pulitzer Prizes in 1980, 1986, and 1989, and the Chicago Tribune said in 1989: “In his 35 years with [Knight Ridder] papers, McKeel gained a reputation for sensitivity to the bottom line and investors’ return on their dollars without sacrificing an independent news staff or editorial quality.”

During his time as publisher in Philadelphia, The Inquirer expanded its coverage and news staff after the Bulletin closed in 1982, and reader impact and revenue soared. By 1988, The Inquirer and Daily News were the gems of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, and Mr. McKeel had just completed a five-year strategic plan that included a new $300 million printing plant in Upper Merion.

“I’m tremendously proud of taking a marginal operation into a strong operating position,” Mr. McKeel told The Inquirer in 1989 shortly before he left for Chicago. Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit noncontrolling owner of The Inquirer and Daily News, said: “Sam McKeel never lost his passion for public service journalism.”

Mr. McKeel mentored other executives who went on to become publishers, and former colleagues praised his willingness to listen and collaborate. “Sam was an excellent leader and a man of bedrock integrity who recognized and respected excellent journalism,” said Bill Marimow, former editor of The Inquirer.

“I like newspapers. I like trying to inform the public of things they ought to want to know themselves. Let’s give it to them.”

Sam McKeel recently to the National World War II Museum

Mr. McKeel left The Inquirer in 1989 to become president and CEO at the Sun-Times Co., then owners of the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers. He retired in 1994.

Earlier, he was assistant to the publisher and general manager in Akron from 1963 to 1972, and a reporter and editor at the Northampton County News, Greensboro Daily News, and Charlotte Observer in North Carolina from 1950 to 1963. He left the newsroom for senior management when he became human resources manager in Charlotte.

“I loved being head of the companies,” Mr. McKeel said in a recent video interview with the National World War II Museum. “I thought I had a pretty good track record of hiring key people. … I love the newspaper business. I think it is tremendously important to the readers in the United States.”

Mr. McKeel was a fire control man for antiaircraft batteries on Navy landing ships in the Philippines and Japan during World War II, and he told the National World War II Museum that those experiences “made me what I am now. … I’ve had a life beyond the odds.” His own book, Sam Stewart McKeel, A Life Beyond the Odds, written by former Inquirer reporter Martha Woodall, was published in January.

“His leadership and energy were unceasing in the city, at The Inquirer, at the Daily News, and throughout the metropolitan area.”

Former Inquirer executive editor Gene Roberts on Mr. McKeel in 1989

He was active with civic groups and nonprofits in Akron and Chicago. In Philadelphia, he helped found the Greater Philadelphia First Corp., was chairman of the board at what is now the University of the Arts, and served as an elder at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church.

He endowed the Sam S. McKeel Promising Young Artists Scholarship Fund at the University of the Arts in 2010 and the Margarett F. McKeel Educational Foundation Endowment Fund for nursing scholarships at Waverly Heights retirement community in 2017.

“When I think of great leaders,” said Christine Bonanducci, longtime administrative assistant to Mr. McKeel in Philadelphia, “I think of Sam McKeel.”

Sam Stewart McKeel was born Aug. 28, 1926, in Wilson, N.C., 50 miles east of Raleigh. His father died when he was 2, and he grew up during the Great Depression with his mother and three sisters in nearby Walstonburg, N.C.

He played basketball in high school, dropped out to join the Navy when he was 16, and received his high school General Educational Development certificate after his discharge in 1946. He considered a career in engineering but went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

He knew Margarett Fields from the old neighborhood in North Carolina, and they married in 1952, and had sons Doug and Stuart, and daughter Karen. They lived in North Carolina and Akron before moving to Rosemont in 1972 and then to Gladwyne.

He called his wife “an incredible woman,” and they moved back to Gladwyne from Chicago in 1995 and to Waverly Heights in 2007. She died in 2017.

Mr. McKeel and his wife traveled to Europe, Russia, Guatemala, the Galápagos Islands, Israel, and elsewhere. He enjoyed golf, read all kinds of history books, and pored over several newspapers practically every day.

He called himself a “country boy” his whole life. Others called him a “Southern gentleman.” His family said in a tribute: “He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. Kind, disciplined, respectful, tough.”

In addition to his children, Mr. McKeel is survived by seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and other relatives. His three sisters died earlier.

Services are to be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, June 8, at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, 625 Montgomery Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa. 19010.

Donations in his name may be made to the Margarett F. McKeel Educational Foundation Endowment Fund, Waverly Heights, 1400 Waverly Rd., Gladwyne, Pa. 19035; and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, 625 Montgomery Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa. 19010.

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