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Former Sun-Times editor Ralph Otwell dies; guided investigations

Editor Ralph Otwell (center, in white shirt and tie) and publisher Jim Hoge (right, in suspenders) say goodbye to the Chicago Sun-Times staff when they left the paper in 1984. | Sun-Times files

When deadlines and explosive investigative stories created pressure inside the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom, Ralph M. Otwell remained calm, thoughtful and judicious, even in a journalism era when it was almost expected that some staffers would occasionally yell and kick wastebaskets, or even pick up a typewriter with the aim of throwing it.

Mr. Otwell, a longtime Evanston resident, died March 8 at 90 at Evanston Hospital.

He was a top editor at the Sun-Times from 1968 to 1984, a golden period of newspaper competition among the Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune and, for a time, the Daily News and Chicago Today.

On his watch, the Sun-Times focused on investigative reporting and won six Pulitzer Prizes.

Sun-Times editor Ralph M. Otwell. | Chicago Sun-Times file photo

In one expose, the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association created the Mirage tavern at 731 N. Wells and staffed it with reporters. Like sharks to blood, the Mirage drew city inspectors seeking bribes. In another exhaustive investigation, the Sun-Times probed whether Cardinal John Cody diverted as much as $1 million in church money to a female friend. The cardinal died before a federal investigation concluded.

RELATED: Read the Mirage tavern series archives

Mr. Otwell stressed accuracy and fairness and was steadfast in his belief that a strong press protected the public, even amid calls and pressure on the Cody case from some parts of largely Catholic Chicago. One of the investigative reporters — former Sun-Times religion editor Roy Larson — described in niemanreports.org a letter Mr. Otwell got from a veteran Chicago priest. It told him to “get your affairs in order. We pray for your sudden and unprovided death every day.”

“Ralph never lost his cool, never shouted, but he would be very firm to whoever was calling and inquiring, that we would not be publishing anything we couldn’t stand behind,” said James F. Hoge Jr., who was Sun-Times publisher at the time.

“He was probably the most fully skilled editor I’ve ever worked with,” said Hoge, retired editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. “He was a very nice writer and had terrific judgment on what constituted news and what didn’t, and he had very high standards: It has to be truthful, it has to be fully checked out it, has to be something relevant, it has to be fair-minded. . . . I had abiding respect for him.”

Mr. Otwell smoked a pipe and spoke softly.

“If you were making a film and wanted someone from Central Casting to portray the dignified editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, you would pick Ralph Otwell,” said former Sun-Times city editor Alan D. Mutter, now a teacher at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Chicago Sun-Times editor Ralph M. Otwell guided the newspaper during a period when it won six Pulitzer Prizes. | Facebook

“He was a man of great principles,” said former Sun-Times managing editor Gregory Favre, now with the Sacramento media venture CALmatters.

Mr. Otwell was editor of the Sun-Times when he left in 1984, along with Hoge, Favre, Mutter and others, part of an exodus following the paper’s purchase by Australian press baron Rupert Murdoch.

He grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas. As a youth, he worked as a gofer at one of the city’s spas.

“It was kind of a roaring ’20s atmosphere,” his son said, with mobsters and “Texas high-rollers” arriving to gamble at the racetrack, Oaklawn Park.

Young Ralph wrote for his student paper at Hot Springs High School, Brian Otwell said. Decades later, a fellow alum autographed his high school yearbook: President Bill Clinton, whom Mr. Otwell met on a visit to the Clinton presidential library.

In World War II, he served in the infantry and later in occupied Germany. The GI bill enabled him to study journalism at Northwestern University, where he worked as a reporter on the Daily Northwestern, where he fell for Jan Smith, his managing editor.

“She was my boss for the first year I was at Northwestern,” he told the Sun-Times in 2015. They got married in 1954.

In 1951, in the same week he received his bachelor’s degree, he was called back to duty in the Korean War, according to a Sun-Times biography. He edited a Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes. At one point, he had to race out without warm clothing to cover the arrival of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The general noticed him shivering, and, Brian Otwell said, “MacArthur told one of his officers to get dad a hat.”

Before joining the Sun-Times in the early 1950s, he worked as a reporter at the Hot Springs New Era and Sentinel-Record. He won a Nieman Fellowship and studied economics and urban affairs at Harvard University from 1959 to 1960. Mr. Otwell became managing editor of the Sun-Times in 1968. He served as a Pulitzer Prize juror in 1976, 1980 and 1981.

One of his proudest moments occurred on Nov. 22, 1963, when the newsroom learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After wrestling with his emotions, editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin created a powerful cartoon of the Lincoln Memorial statue, head in hands, that seemed to capture the nation’s grief. It became known as Grieving Lincoln.

“Back at his cubicle, he took a snort of Jack Daniels from a bottle in a filing cabinet and went to work,” Mr. Otwell recalled in a memoir. “What he produced in a short time was a drawing that the news desk instantly recognized as a must-carry cartoon.”

Ralph M. Otwell | Provided photo

In his office, Mr. Otwell had the beginning phrase of the First Amendment, which covers freedom of the press, set in type in a typesetter’s tray: “Congress Shall Make No Law.”

“He was very committed to the notion the First Amendment puts responsibility on newspapers to inform the public,” said former Sun-Times Springfield bureau chief Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

After resigning from the Sun-Times, Mr. Otwell tried to organize a group of people to start another Chicago newspaper. He also taught classes in a Learning in Retirement program at Northwestern.

Mr. Otwell’s wife died in 2015. He is also survived by his sons Douglas and David, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild. A memorial service is planned at 2 p.m. May 7 at Lutkin Hall, 700 University Pl., Evanston.