By: Alexandra R. Moses, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Detroit Free Press Executive Editor Robert G. McGruder was remembered Thursday as a talented journalist, a champion for diversity, and an inspirational leader who helped others achieve their best.
McGruder died last Friday at age 60 after a 20-month battle with cancer.
“Bob was that rare person who walked the path of his principles,” Carole Leigh Hutton, managing editor of the Free Press, said during a memorial service at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church. “He believed in providing opportunities for people of color, and so he did. He believed in providing opportunities for women, and so he did. He believed in fostering excellence, and so he did.”
McGruder broke racial barriers and became a role model, leader, and mentor for others. He became the first black reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland in 1963 and the first black executive editor of the Detroit Free Press in 1996. He became the first black president of the Associated Press Managing Editors in 1995.
Gregory Moore, managing editor of The Boston Globe, called McGruder an inspiration.
“He was the first black professional role model in my life,” said Moore, who worked with McGruder in Cleveland. “He was a great listener and a visionary, able to take an idea, reshape it — ever so slightly — give it back to you and make you feel it was your own.”
Family, friends, and colleagues from around the country packed the church. At times, they wiped away tears. At other times, they laughed as McGruder’s friends told stories about how the serious, dignified, dapper journalist didn’t always take himself so seriously.
Hutton said when McGruder told her that his hair was coming out in clumps because of the cancer treatments, forcing him to cut it close to his head, she bought him a black, acrylic Afro wig. He put the wig on, wore it around the newsroom and even asked for a comb to fluff it with, Hutton said, drawing big laughs.
In doing that, McGruder knew “very well that he was helping all of us,” she said.
It was that kind of caring and selflessness that made McGruder a beloved leader, friends said, and also made his reporters want to work that much harder.
“Whether he was encouraging you or sculpting you, you always wanted to do your best, you always wanted to come back and do your best because you never wanted to disappoint Bob McGruder,” Moore said.
McGruder joined the Free Press in 1986 as deputy managing editor. He was named managing editor-news in 1987 and managing editor in 1993. He became executive editor on Jan. 1, 1996, when the newspaper was in the midst of a strike.
McGruder, who was born in Louisville, Ky., and grew up in Dayton, Ohio, was stricken by polio at age 6 but later became a strong man who stood 6-foot-4.
He was remembered Thursday as a determined journalist who held to high standards regardless of the circumstances.
“Bob was that rare leader who could make us believe we could make it to the highest. In fact, he expected no less,” said Heath J. Meriwether, publisher of the Free Press.
Tony Ridder, chairman and chief executive officer of Knight Ridder, the parent company of the Free Press, said McGruder was “a beloved and self-effacing friend, a wise and caring mentor, and a leader in our industry.”
“He made us laugh, and in his quiet, unassuming way he made us better people,” Ridder said.
U.S. appeals court Judge Damon J. Keith, a close friend of McGruder’s, said McGruder always led by example. “Bob was a good man. He was fair, he was decent, he was understanding. Just being in his presence, you could feel his warmth, his courage,” Keith said.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said McGruder had “great dignity, great honor, great integrity.”
“We know that he’s sitting amongst those former champions that walked the face of this earth,” Kilpatrick said. “They’re having a conversation and he’s writing about it.”