Clayton Kirkpatrick, 89, the Chicago Tribune editor who transformed the newspaper from its legacy as a nasty, partisan broadsheet to a professional, centrist publication, died of congestive heart failure June 19 at his home in Glen Ellyn, Ill.
As the top editor at the paper from 1969 to 1979, Mr. Kirkpatrick's most noticeable impact came in 1974, when his paper was the first to publish the full transcripts of President Richard M. Nixon's Watergate tapes in a 44-page special edition May 1, 1974. A week later, he wrote a scathing editorial headlined "Listen, Mr. Nixon," which called for the president's resignation.
The editorial said, in part, "It is a lack of concern for morality, a lack of concern for high principles, a lack of commitment to the high ideals of public office that make the transcripts a sickening exposure of the man and his advisers. . . . He is humorless to the point of being inhumane. He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane. He is willing to be led. He displays dismaying gaps in knowledge. He is suspicious of his staff. His loyalty is minimal."
For a paper that for a half-century was considered the bible of Republicanism, the turnabout was shocking.
John T. McCutcheon Jr., who was editorial page editor at the time and who remained a close friend of Mr. Kirkpatrick, said most of the Tribune's staff was ready for the changes that Mr. Kirkpatrick initiated. Among other things, he removed political cartoons from the front page and replaced partisan writing and reporting with balanced, objective coverage.
But wresting the paper from the clutches of devotees of the longtime isolationist, eccentric and rock-ribbed reactionary publisher and editor, Col. Robert R. McCormick, was not without drama. McCormick died in 1955, but his successor editor ran the paper as if McCormick still was issuing orders.
Although McCutcheon described him as "easygoing," Mr. Kirkpatrick was described as "almost evangelical in his journalistic purity," said Lloyd Wendt in a 1984 history of the Tribune.
Born and raised in Waterman, Ill., he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After bumming around the country as a hobo and itinerant laborer in the late 1930s, he was hired at the legendary City News Bureau of Chicago, which provided breaking crime news to local newspapers and radio stations.
After serving in the Army as a clerk in England during World War II and receiving the Bronze Star, Mr. Kirkpatrick returned to Chicago. He wanted to work for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, which he regarded as "a good, objective newspaper," according to a 1999 interview, but it had no openings, so he joined the Tribune as a reporter. He switched to editing in 1954 and in 15 years rose up the ranks to the top newsroom job.
The editorial on the day he took over warned readers that changes were afoot. While the transformation of the news and editorial columns were his most dramatic changes, Mr. Kirkpatrick also oversaw an overhaul of the paper's design, increasing the use of photos and graphics and adding sections designed to appeal to readers' interests, which influenced many other American papers.
Mr. Kilpatrick was appointed president and chief executive of the company in 1979, the same year in which he won the Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club. He retired in 1981.
His wife of 55 years, Thelma DeMott Kirkpatrick, died in 1998.
Survivors include two sons; two daughters; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.