Wilma Wall kept the Chicago Sun-Times features department running smoothly.
She could organize a meeting, screen calls from overeager publicists and wheedle a last-minute reservation for an editor at a hot restaurant.
And she was the go-to person who knew where to find the office cache of pens and Post-it Notes.
As statuesque as she was efficient, Mrs. Wall, at 5 feet 11, cut an elegant figure in the features department, where she worked as an administrative assistant. She wore chic clothes with just the right amount of tasteful jewelry.
She died April 7 at her Northbrook home. Mrs. Wall, 88, had Alzheimer’s disease.
“She used to come to New York all the time,” said her son, Chris, who lived in Brooklyn Heights. “She walked across the Brooklyn Bridge when she was about 84.”
Born in Union City, New Jersey, to a Dutch father and a mother of German descent, the young Wilma Grace Vrancken studied art at the Cooper Union, a historic college in New York’s East Village that until 2014 had a 155-year tradition of free tuition. It’s known as the birthplace of the American Red Cross and the NAACP.
After marrying journalist Ned Wall, she moved with him in 1959 to the Chicago area, where he took a job with a city managers’ organization. The couple divorced later in life, but first they had three sons, Glenn, Gregory and Chris. Like their mother, the boys grew tall. All are over 6 feet, and Chris Wall topped off at 6-foot-10.
For a time, she worked at the Northwestern University Technological Institute in Evanston.
In 1979, Mrs. Wall joined the Sun-Times, where she kept things organized with innate dignity, courtly manners and a sometimes acerbic sense of humor. When Australian news magnate Rupert Murdoch owned the paper, her son said, “I remember her telling me about taking the Murdoch kids to the opera one night.”
“Wilma was forthright,” said her friend Marlene Gelfond, a former editorial assistant who worked for film critic Roger Ebert. “She was very confident, and she knew how to get along with all types of people in the office. And she wasn’t afraid if she had to confront someone about something. She didn’t back off. If something was wrong, it was wrong. And she did it in a very gracious way.”
While at the Sun-Times, she attended evening classes to earn a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. “When she decided to do something, she would just do it,” Chris Wall said. “One day she announced she was going to take classes at Northwestern and she went to night school.”
Mrs. Wall also occasionally wrote for the Sun-Times, turning nice phrases about her travels. After interviewing friends about living in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, she wrote in a 1990 story, “the country is so rich underground that, after 50 years in operation, the very first well to strike oil is still sucking it up as if the well were a straw draining a bottomless glass of cola.”
After her 2001 retirement, Mrs. Wall worked part-time at Pioneer Press. She enjoyed trips to Paris and watching Julia Child on TV’s “The French Chef.” About 12 years ago, she took up painting but lost interest as Alzheimer’s took hold.
Mrs. Wall is also survived by her sister, Barbara Mahnken. Services will be private.