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Correction to This Article
The Nov. 29 obituary of Robert M. White II mistakenly referred to him as "Mr. Smith" on two occasions. This version has been corrected.

Robert M. White II, 93; Ran N.Y. Herald Tribune

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

Robert M. White II, 93, editor and publisher of a small-town Missouri newspaper who for 18 months ran one of New York's greatest newspapers and who in later life was among the finalists for a trip to outer space, died of heart disease Nov. 20 at Lenoir Retirement Community in Columbia, Mo.

A leader in national journalism circles for almost a decade, Mr. White was plucked from his small, family-owned newspaper in the Midwest in 1959 by John Hay Whitney, the blue-blooded U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Whitney, who had taken over the New York Herald Tribune, a once-great rival to the New York Times, chose Mr. White to run the paper on the advice of many leading publishers and editors, including Barney Kilgore of the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. White improved morale, increased circulation slightly and restored the paper's faltering news reputation, but it soon became clear that he was not equipped to run a failing urban newspaper 40 times larger than his old paper.

"Bob White's skills were social, not editorial," Richard Kluger wrote in "The Paper," a 1986 history of the Herald Tribune. Mr. White's fate was sealed, Kluger wrote, when he raised the price of the Sunday edition from 30 to 35 cents without consulting the paper's financial executives. Whitney returned from Europe and took over leadership of the paper; the Herald Tribune, victim of mismanagement, labor strife, and advertising and circulation failures, closed permanently six years later.

Back in Missouri, Mr. White resumed editing the Mexico Ledger and launched the area's first cable-television station.

At age 71, he became the oldest of 15 finalists chosen by NASA for its Journalist in Space program. Walter Cronkite, almost two years younger, was in the group, as were ABC newswoman Lynn Sherr and New York Times science writer John Noble Wilford. The flight was canceled after the 1986 Columbia shuttle disaster.

Born April 6, 1915, in Mexico, Mo., Robert Mitchell White II was the grandson of the founder of the town's newspaper. He delivered the paper as a boy, and after graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., he began his career in the 1930s as a reporter there. He also worked for the United Press wire service in Kansas City, Mo.

During World War II, he served in the South Pacific on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff. His decorations included the Bronze Star.

As publisher and editor of the Mexico Ledger, he won the Society of Professional Journalists' Distinguished Service Award for editorials in 1952 and 1967. In a 1952 speech at the American Newspaper Publishers Association, he denounced President Harry S. Truman's censorship of government news under the guise of military security. While running his own paper, he also served as a special consultant to Marshall Field IV, then-publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. White sold his cable company in 1981 and the Ledger in 1986 and then moved to Washington.

He was a member of the Cosmos Club, Burning Tree Golf Course and the National Press Club. He was also a member of the Bohemian Club, a secretive, exclusive men's organization north of San Francisco. He moved back to Missouri in 2002.

His marriages to Beth Moore White, Barbara Spurgeon White, Peggy Lee Crolius White and Linda Hesse ended in divorce.

Survivors include four children from his second marriage, Barbara W. McClain of Leawood, Kan., Jane See White of Tucson, Laura W. Erdel of Columbia, Mo., and R. Mitchell White III of Dallas; and six grandchildren.

"I think there's nothing I would like better than to be remembered as a newspaperman. Period," Mr. White said in 2005 as part of a Missouri oral history project. "And I could put an adjective in front of that. As a good newspaperman. And not try to define it further than that. Yeah. A good newspaperman. . . . I would be pleased with that. You got a stone here? Let's carve it."

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