- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - William A. Hilliard, who became the first black reporter at The Oregonian newspaper and later its editor in a pioneering 42-year career, has died at age 89.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reports (https://goo.gl/96WEYx) that Hilliard died Monday. He was one of the first African-American newsroom leaders at a major U.S. newspaper.

He was once denied a paper-route at The Oregonian because managers said whites did not want blacks delivering their paper. But after serving in the Navy and graduating from college, he was hired as a copy boy at age 25. Through talent and hard work he made his way up from there, becoming executive editor in 1982.

In 1993 he served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the first African American to hold the post. He retired in 1994.

“Every day was exciting,” he said in a 2010 interview. “It was a heck of a job.”

He was always aware that he was being judged twice, he said: once as a journalist and again as a black man in a white world.

Hilliard’s family moved from Arkansas to Portland when he was 8. A neighbor, Stephen Wright, was a black businessman who ran the only hotel in the city that allowed blacks. He became a mentor to Hilliard.

“I cut Mr. Wright’s grass and he took a liking to me,” Hilliard recalled. “At his hotel I met black entertainers and businessmen. Mr. Wright told me, showed me, that there were blacks doing things with their lives. He told me to do what I wanted to do. Get good grades in school, go to college and don’t pay attention to what anyone else says.”

Hilliard became a sports reporter at the Oregonian - the only full-time sports reporter never sent outside the office to cover a story - and also had religion and general assignment beats before being named an assistant city editor in 1965. He became city editor six years later and editor in 1982.

Among the major challenges of his tenure arrived just four months after he got the job. Publisher Fred A. Stickel closed the Oregon Journal and merged the staff into The Oregonian. Stickel said no staff members would lose their jobs, so Hilliard had to merge the staffs.

“Bill started having weekly meetings,” said Judson Randall, an assistant city editor when Hilliard ran the operation. “We had good, focused discussions on where the paper should go. Then bam, it was over. He really didn’t get to make his mark. Events overtook the paper and him.”

Another challenge: In 1992, the paper was scooped on the story that 10 women had accused Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment. The Oregonian came in for even more criticism when it was revealed that one its own reporters had been kissed on the lips by Packwood.

“I was in the dark about all of that,” Hilliard said. “Some lower level editors in the news operation knew about it, and knew the Washington Post was out here looking into allegations. But the editors did nothing about it. They didn’t pass the word on to me or the publisher.”

John Harvey, the paper’s former news editor, said Hilliard’s major accomplishment was building “the modern Oregonian.”

“Don’t underestimate what Bill did in putting that staff together after the merger,” Harvey said. “Before the merger the paper made a lot of money, but the owners ran it as if we were in the Depression. We couldn’t spend money. Overnight, the news hole grew by 80 percent. He was the editor during what I would call the paper’s fat years when the paper devoted whatever resources were needed to cover a story.”

No funeral is planned, but the family has scheduled a celebration of his life for Feb. 25.


Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, https://www.oregonlive.com

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