F. Gilman Spencer Jr., 85, former Philadelphia Daily News editor

Posted: June 25, 2011

"The Daily News was a real zoo. It was a circus" during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rich Aregood said by phone Friday from a roadside stop in North Dakota.

F. Gilman Spencer Jr. was its ringmaster, with a long leash and a passion for tabloid journalism.

"Unlike some of his predecessors, he didn't try to fix it," Aregood said, instead letting characters like columnist Pete Dexter help create a must-read daily newspaper.

The loose leash certainly worked for Aregood, who earned a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for his editorials in Mr. Spencer's last year at the Philadelphia Daily News.

On Friday, June 24, Mr. Spencer, 85, editor of the Daily News from September 1975 to August 1984, died at New York University Hospital.

When Mr. Spencer announced that he was leaving to become the top editor at the New York Daily News, Eugene L. Roberts Jr., executive editor of The Inquirer, told a Philadelphia Daily News reporter, "It's a major loss. . . . He's a weird and wonderful editor."

Between fiercely competitive newsmen like them, "weird" was a compliment.

Mr. Spencer was not just a terrific editor. He was a pretty good writer, winning a 1974 Pulitzer Prize for his editorials at the Trentonian in New Jersey's capital.

But he was also a lover of lost causes, some of whom turned out pretty well.

Like columnist Dexter, who after his Daily News days went on to earn a 1988 National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout.

In Spooner, his 2009 memoir thinly disguised as a novel, Dexter named himself Spooner and named the editor who changed his life . . . well, what else?

"Gilman was lying on the davenport with his eyes covered when he called Spooner in to inform him of the change," Dexter wrote of the moment that he became a columnist, a moment that did not exactly thunder throughout the building.

"A cigarette was going in the ashtray on his stomach.

" 'Nine hundred words,' he said, 'three times a week. That's it.' "

"Yes, Gilman loved the lost causes, and yes, Spooner saw the connection, but took no offense. You might even say that he loved Gilman back."

Mr. Spencer did not come from the community of blue-collar workers at whom his newspaper was aimed.

A 1950 obituary for his father, F. Gilman Spencer, stated that he was a special deputy attorney general in charge of state inheritance-tax matters.

Aregood, now a communications professor at the University of North Dakota, recalled that "he wore impeccably tailored pin-striped suits, with a camel-hair overcoat hanging over his shoulders," when he came to the office.

Michael Pakenham, a former Inquirer editor who went to the New York Daily News with Mr. Spencer, recalled that he did not rely on his blue-blood pedigree.

When he resigned from the New York tabloid to head the Denver Post, Pakenham recalled, "he got a call from Si Newhouse, one of the super barons of American publishing."

Newhouse invited him to lunch at the Four Seasons in New York City with an executive from Syracuse University, which houses the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

When Newhouse asked him to become dean of the school, Pakenham said, Mr. Spencer's reply was as deflating as a biting editorial:

"There could be a problem. I never got a high school diploma. Of course, I could take one of those GEDs, if you wanted."

The offer, Pakenham said, was withdrawn.

Christopher K. Hepp, The Inquirer's Pennsylvania editor and a former Daily News political reporter, recalled that Mr. Spencer kept on his desk a broken lamp that he used as an ashtray in the days before smoking was banned from the building.

So there was the day when U.S. Sen. Gary Hart (D., Colo.) came to Mr. Spencer's office to be interviewed by writers who would decide whether to endorse him in the 1984 Democratic primary.

"I remember Gil sitting at his desk," Hepp said, "and nonchalantly flicking his ashes into the base of his lamp, while interviewing this powerful senator who wanted to be president of the United States."

Hepp's takeaway: "He was completely uncowed by anyone of power and influence."

William K. Marimow, who would go on to become the top editor at the Baltimore Sun and The Inquirer, recalled that Mr. Spencer's strength extended beyond his management style.

In editorial-page writings for the Daily News, Marimow said Friday, "Gil was a really lyrical writer and an incisive thinker, and his columns were memorable as much for their wit as for their insight."

Marimow was a City Hall reporter who competed against Mr. Spencer's crew in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"Gil was a ferocious competitor when it came to beating The Inquirer," Marimow said.

At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon attended by Mr. Spencer and Roberts, it was disclosed that the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel was not likely to be reopened because of fatalities caused by Legionnaires' disease there. All in the room were told not to share that fact.

"Gil returned to his newsroom," Marimow recalled, "and immediately passed along the tip to his staff. Gene, on the other hand, never said a word.

"The story broke in the Daily News."

In reporting his 1984 departure, the Daily News stated that he had "entered the newspaper business in 1947 as a copyboy at The Inquirer after brief periods in Groton (a fancy prep school), Swarthmore High and the U.S. Navy.

"Then he went on to become a reporter at the Chester (now Delaware County) Daily Times, a sportswriter-photographer at the Mount Holly Herald, back to the Chester Times, then editor of the Main Line Times (a weekly), a city desk toiler at the Bulletin, editorial director at WCAU-TV," then editor of the Trentonian from 1967 to 1975 before heading the Daily News.

Mr. Spencer is survived by his wife, Isabel; sons Gilman and Jonathan; daughters Amy Becker, Elizabeth Mergel, and Isabel; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Information on services was pending.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or wnaedele@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the New York Times News Service.

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