Lois Wille, 2-time Pulitzer winner who wrote, edited for 3 Chicago papers, has died at 87
Having covered welfare for the Daily News, she’d heard poor women in Chicago ‘had no access to birth control services as part of their medical care.’ That led to the first honor, in 1963.
Lois Wille, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, Daily News and Chicago Tribune, was known for graceful writing and taking on tough subjects.
Ms. Wille, 87, died Tuesday at the Clare retirement community downtown after a stroke on Thursday, according to her nephew Eric Kroeber.
Her first Pulitzer, in 1963, was in the name of the Daily News because it was for public service — the highest honor, always awarded in the name of the newspaper. But Ms. Wille wrote each of the five stories in the entry on failures to provide contraceptive advice to low-income women.
Her second came in 1989 for editorials in the Tribune on a variety of local issues.
She was a finalist, for editorial writing, in 1984 at the Sun-Times, for “editorials which stressed ways to make Chicago city government more economical and efficient.”
Ms. Wille also wrote the book “Forever Open, Free and Clear: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront.”
WMAQ-NBC5 political editor Carol Marin called her a “guiding force” for Chicago journalists and “a fearless investigator” at a time when societal attitudes were dismissive of young women doing that job.
“She had this kind of quiet forcefulness,” Marin said. “And she rejoiced in other people’s successes.”
“Her super power was the ability to write remarkably tough, righteous coverage of corruption and injustice while conveying extraordinary kindness and decency,” said former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. “That was all captured in her distinctive voice, which conveyed this soft, melodic cadence, wrapped around denunciations of the city’s worst scoundrels and abuses.
“Looking back at her first Pulitzer,” Lipinski said, “it’s remarkable to see how courageous that work was at the time. Writing in 1962 about the unfairness of denying birth control information to poor women, in a city as Catholic as Chicago, could not have been easy.”
Columnist Mike Royko, who worked with Ms. Wille at all three papers, admired her deeply, and she became his closest friend, according to Judy Royko, his widow.
Ms. Wille grew up in Arlington Heights, the daughter of Walter and Adele Kroeber. Her father was an architect who left Leipzig, Germany, because he worried about Adolf Hitler’s rise. In the United States, Kroeber “had to start off as a bricklayer,” the nephew said. “But eventually he owned his own firm in Arlington Heights,” home to many German immigrants.
In a 1991 interview for the oral history archive of the Washington Press Club Foundation, Ms. Wille said, “My mother didn’t particularly like housework, and, when I had to help her clean and dust, I didn’t like to do it either. So whatever kind of silent signals passed between us, it was that, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t have to grow to do housework.’ ”
Ms. Wille went to Northwestern University. After working for two business publications, she started her newspaper career in 1956 as an assistant to Daily News fashion editor Peg Zwecker. She left the women’s section to become one of just two female news reporters at the paper.
Having covered welfare, she’d heard poor women “had no access to birth control services as part of their medical care.” At Cook County Hospital, she said in the oral history, doctors couldn’t even tell patients about contraceptives: “If a woman said, ‘Is there any way I can avoid getting pregnant again?’ they had to refuse to answer her.
“It was an issue that none of the papers wrote about because they feared that the policy was entrenched because of the dominance of the Roman Catholic church among Chicago’s political leadership and also because the church was just very powerful in the city itself . . .
“I had wanted to write about this problem for a long time. It was difficult, though, to make any inroads because the city editor . . . who had a good conscience on so many issues, was a very ardent Roman Catholic.”
That editor “developed stomach ulcers and was out for extensive surgery and away a long time.” His deputy Bob Rose filled in, and, Ms. Wille said, “Bob Rose said, ‘Go right ahead.’ ”
Within three months after her birth-control series ran Sept. 13-18, 1962, the Illinois Public Aid Commission agreed to pay for birth control for women on welfare.
Ms. Wille is survived by her husband, Wayne Wille, whom she met while both attended Northwestern, and nephews Eric Kroeber and David Kroeber.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Eric Kroeber said Ms. Wille and her husband, an editor for the World Book encyclopedia, would go to Austria each year “to de-stress and hike around the Alps.”
Ms. Wille joked in the oral history interview that the couple’s devotion to the Cubs helped their marriage survive high-pressure careers: “Once you get emotionally involved with a team like the Cubs, you can withstand anything.”