The call came in May 1981. I had been out of the newspaper business for three years and was earning an honest living as a carpenter, but the economy was crapping out and the Philadelphia Daily News needed a night city editor.
Several days later Gladys Fisher, the editor-in-chief's secretary, led me into the office of F. Gilman Spencer III on the 7th floor of a building that the feisty tabloid Daily News shared with the button-down Inquirer. There behind a modern oak desk slouched an Ichabod Crane-like figure who seemed to be seven feet tall.
He was wearing an Oxford cloth shirt open at the collar, necktie slung over his right shoulder, with pin-striped suit pants and tassel loafers. His head and torso were cosseted by a leather swivel executive's chair bent back at such an angle that it seemed on the verge of tipping over, while his long legs and big feet covered much of the desk. A cigarette -- an unfiltered Camel, if I recall correctly, hung from his lips as he chatted on the phone and gestured me to sit in a captain's chair with a two-foot-high stack of newspapers on it.
Gil hired me on the spot and without formality. We spent the rest of the hour chatting about baseball and other stuff having little to do with newspapering, but mostly about horse racing and Rufus Primus, a thoroughbred nag he owned that had distinguished himself by finishing last in every race he ran before being mercifully put out to pasture.
Our discussion was interrupted twice by wastepaper can fires ignited because of Gil's incurable habit of emptying his ashtray -- the brass base of an old lamp, really -- with not quite extinguished butts. Each time there was a flare-up, Gladys, whom Gil kept on despite her advanced dotage, ran screaming into his office with a pitcher of water, which she would dump in the can.* * * * *I had a pretty good run of bosses at the newspapers where I worked over a 32-year career. I disliked only one, whom I concluded was afraid of me, or perhaps jealous of the long shadow that I cast in a newsroom where she was deeply unpopular.
But Gil was the best of my bosses, the ultimate hands-off boss, and a real piece of work, to boot.
I never heard him raise his voice or chew anyone out. He protected us from the publisher and the chicanery of the owners. If in his judgment you made a mistake you might not find out until months later when he would insinuate his view into a conversation over oysters at Old Original Bookbinders in so subtle a way that it wasn't until later that you'd realize your screw-up.
We were absolutely and utterly loyal to Gil and he to us. You just wanted to do your best for him and we did, earning him a couple of Pulitzer Prizes on top of the one he had won himself years earlier for taking on a corrupt New Jersey political machine. We also won him a slew of other awards that earned the Daily News a reputation as a street-smart newspaper with brass balls and an intimate relationship with its readers that was the envy of other papers who never seemed to grasp that journalists are not god-like figures sent to Earth to chronicle the fate of the planet.
"He insisted that the paper not take itself too seriously but that it be a serious newspaper," is how a colleague put it.
When the Philadelphia Phillies won their first World Series in October 1981, Gil chain-smoked his way around the newsroom soliciting ideas for the all-important page one headline. None of them worked. Then the bell in the elevator lobby rang and the midnight-to-8 custodian ambled off with broom, mop and trashcan in hand. Gil raced over to the guy and asked him what he thought the headline should be.
WE WIN! shouted the front page the next day.
Gil left the Daily News in 1984 to run tabloids in New York City and Denver and earned a reputation for pulling struggling newspapers back from the brink. Ensconced as editor of the New York Daily News, he reveled in that city's tabloid wars, and when Long Island-based Newsday launched a New York edition, he famously dismissed the competitor as "a tabloid in a tutu."
Gil was a mentor who brought out the best in me as well as being a friend who helped teach me the quiet power of humility. He died yesterday morning at New York University Hospital after doctors were unable beat a persistent infection that had followed a bout of pneumonia.
New York Daily News file photo