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Stanton R. Cook, former Tribune Co. CEO, dead at 90

Stanton R. Cook (pictured in 1992). | Sun-Times Library

Former Tribune Co. CEO Stanton R. Cook, who led the Chicago-based national media company through a period of great change, has died.

Mr. Cook, 90, died of natural causes Thursday at his home in Kenilworth, according to Northwestern University, where he was an alumnus, life trustee and benefactor.

During his 16-year tenure as chief executive of the media giant, Tribune became a publicly traded company, bought the Chicago Cubs and built the Freedom Center printing plant near downtown Chicago.

Mr. Cook also led the company through a printers’ strike in the mid-1980s, extensive cost-cutting and the acquisitions of broadcast outlets across the country.

“His legacy was enormous to Tribune Co.,” said John Madigan, who worked under Mr. Cook in high-ranking roles for decades and later became CEO. “He was a deliberate person, with an engineering background, who measured every decision carefully. But once he took a position, he was fearless in pursuing it to its execution.”

Born in Chicago, Mr. Cook grew up in Park Ridge, graduated from Maine Township High School, served in the military during World War II and joined the Tribune in 1951 as a production engineer.

He was named a company vice president in 1967 and elected CEO in April 1974 after stints as general manager and publisher of Tribune’s flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. Cook supported the Chicago Tribune’s decision to be the first newspaper to publish the entire transcript of the Watergate tapes of President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office conversations, despite the newspaper’s history of staunchly supporting Republicans.

“It certainly ranks as one of the most historic events affecting government in this century,” Mr. Cook said at the time.

As CEO in the 1970s, he was credited with centralizing and professionalizing management of the company.

Among his biggest moves, according to the author of a 1998 profile in The New Yorker, Ken Auletta, was the decision to promote Charles Brumback, who led the slashing of 1,000 jobs in production and 700 more in editorial and other departments.

“With Cook’s concurrence, Brumback took up his knives,” Auletta wrote.

Madigan said those decisions were absolutely essential to the company’s growth.

“He had an eye for underperformance and was all about making the company more efficient,” Madigan said. “When I joined the company, the profit margins were minimal — in the mid-single digits. The profit margins increased significantly, and the changes he made gave us the cash flow that allowed us to make meaningful acquisitions.”

Madigan and former Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller said Mr. Cook nevertheless sought to support the journalists who worked for him.

“As a journalist, you couldn’t want anybody in charge to be any different than him,” said Fuller, who was the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page editor while Mr. Cook was CEO. “People would do what people do and try to muscle the newspaper, but he would never allow it.”

In a speech in 1975, Mr. Cook said, “We are just beginning a time when people will find newspapers, properly edited newspapers, simply too valuable to live without.”

Mr. Cook also was involved in high-level positions in the Commercial Club, the Economic Club of Chicago, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, The Associated Press, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, according to Northwestern, where he received a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1949.

The university said he and his family gave a considerable sum in May to what is now known as the Bobbie and Stanton Cook Family Writing Program at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. That gift came more than 25 years after he “played a key role in obtaining” a $30 million pledge to Northwestern’s engineering school from the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust.

Mr. Cook is survived by daughters Sarah Shumway and Nancy Cook; sons Scott, David and Douglas; and seven grandchildren. His wife of 44 years, Barbara “Bobbie” Wilson Cook, died in 1994.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday at Kenilworth Union Church in Kenilworth.