Robert M. White II, the former editor and publisher of The Mexico Ledger and a press-freedom advocate whose career took him from war zones to the world’s media capital, has died. He was 93.
White, who had been ill for some time, died Thursday at a Columbia hospital.
While serving as editor, publisher and president of the Ledger from 1945-86, White also worked in nearly every major newspaper organization to promote freedom of the press.
White had a particular interest in foreign affairs and traveled the world, reporting for Missourians about his experiences in war zones and his interviews with world leaders and rebels.
He was an active member and eventually an officer in what is now known as the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, American Newspaper Publishers Association, the Missouri Press Association, the Washington Institute on Foreign Affairs, the Inland Daily Press Association and The World Press Freedom Committee.
That resume earned him a prominent spot in an upcoming public television documentary about the history of Missouri newspapers.
“I think there’s nothing I would like better than to be remembered as a newspaperman. Period. And I could put an adjective in front of that. As a good newspaperman. And not try to define it further than that,” White said in 2005 as part of an oral history project excerpted in the upcoming documentary. “Yeah. A good newspaperman. … I would be pleased with that. You got a stone here? Let’s carve it.”
White was a member of the board of directors of The Associated Press from 1971-1980, chairing the board’s broadcast committee.
“Bob White was a wonderful man and a consummate journalist whose contributions to his city, his state, his country and the world were profound.” said Paul Stevens, Central Region vice president for The Associated Press. “He was proud of his service to the AP in his nine years on our board of directors, and the AP and our members were well-served by Bob. So were all the other organizations Bob so selflessly served. We are thankful for his contributions.”
White was born in Mexico on April 6, 1915 and was a graduate of the Missouri Military Academy. He graduated with a history degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., where he played on the football team. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1972 for his freedom of the press advocacy.
White was the son and grandson of the owners of The Ledger and began his career there as a carrier. In the 1930s he worked as a reporter for The Ledger and later reported for United Press International in Kansas City.
During World War II, he served on the staff of Gen. Robert Eichelberger and Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was a liaison with Australian forces in New Guinea.
While still working as editor of the Ledger, White also served as special consultant to Marshall Field, then publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, from 1956-58 and was president and editor of the New York Herald Tribune from 1959-61. His front-page editorial, “A Letter to Mr. Krushchev,” was published in English and Russian and won the Silurian award for best New York City editorial in 1960.
White returned to Mexico in 1961. He founded See TV in 1966, the first cable television operation in central Missouri, and he sold it in 1981.
White received the Society of Professional Journalists’ Distinguished Service Award for editorials in 1952 and 1967, and in 1970 won its Wells Memorial Key for distinguished service to journalism. He also was a Pulitzer Prize juror from 1964-65 and was chairman of the American Committee of the International Press Institute from 1982-85.
Along with his Kansas City UPI colleague, Walter Cronkite, White was the oldest finalist chosen to be NASA’s Journalist in Space in 1986 at age 71; the flight was canceled after the shuttle Columbia disaster.
In 1999, White followed his father, L.M White, and grandfather, Col. Robert M. White, into the Missouri Press Association’s Hall of Fame. They were the first three-generation recipients of the University of Missouri’s Distinguished Service to Journalism Award.
White also served on numerous state, city of Mexico and private organizations across the state.
He sold The Ledger in 1986 and moved to Washington, D.C., before returning to Columbia in 2002.
White was married to the late Barbara Spurgeon White for 34 years; three other marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by four children, Barbara W. McClain of Leawood, Kan.; Jane See White of Tucson, Ariz.; Laura W. Erdel of Columbia; R. Mitchell White III of Dallas and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the First Presbyterian Church in Mexico, with a visitation following the service.