Gil Spencer, former Daily News editor, dies at 85

Posted: June 24, 2011

Former Daily News editor Gil Spencer was, first and foremost, a newspaper man.

Scratch that. A tabloid newspaper man.

But the Pulitzer Prize winner, who died at age 85 Friday morning in Manhattan, was also a father of five. A dad who refused to let an illustrious, adventure-filled career in journalism get in the way of face time with his kids.

"He never missed a basketball game that I played in," Gil Spencer IV, 56, said Friday. "He was an avid fan of sports and he made sure to go to my games. Then he'd go back to work."

Spencer's death - and his 45-year career in journalism that took him from Philadelphia to New York and Denver - was mourned Friday by family, friends and colleagues. They reminisced about the man who had a passion for horse racing, tantalizing headlines and great reporting.

"Gil was that rare and marvelous creature, a fallen aristocrat. He loved race tracks and tabloid journalism and to a young reporter who loved those same things he was absolute catnip," said Daily News city editor Gar Joseph, who was hired by Spencer in 1981.

"Most of all, he was enormously fun. That sense of playfulness and humor became ingrained in the culture of the Daily News, where it remains to this day."

Isabel Spencer, Spencer's second wife, said, "He had such a young outlook on things and a youthful sense of outrage on when he saw some things being done wrong," according to Gil Spencer IV.

Frederick Gilman Spencer was born to F. Gilman Spencer, a prominent lawyer and a Pennsylvania assistant deputy state attorney general and the former Elizabeth Hetherington.

After World War II, in which Spencer served as a radio man on a Navy flying boat, he was hired as a copy boy at the Inquirer. He learned the craft of reporting at the Chester Times, now the Delaware County Daily Times. He worked briefly as a sports reporter for the Mount Holly Herald before returning to Chester.

Spencer married Patricia Ann Ballagh in 1951, but the marriage ended in divorce and in 1965 he married Isabel Caroline Brannon.

Spencer became editor of the Main Line Times in 1959 and worked for a time at the old Philadelphia Bulletin.

Spencer tried his hand at broadcast news, but returned to the comfort of dailies after three years, becoming editor of The Trentonian in Trenton, N.J., where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for editorial writing.

The Pulitzer Board cited Spencer "for his courageous campaign to focus public attention on scandals in New Jersey's state government."

One year later, Spencer bolted for the Philadelphia Daily News, where he was the editor for nine years. He told an interviewer that Philadelphia was "the best town in the country to be in if you're a newspaper man."

Spencer left Philly to become the editor of the New York Daily News. In 1989, he joined the Denver Post, where he was editor until 1993.

Funeral services will be followed by a celebration of Spencer's life at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Avenue at 10th Street, in New York City.

Donations may be made to the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and can be sent to the Gil Spencer Scholarship Fund, CU Foundation, 4740 Walnut St., Boulder, CO 80301.

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