Excerpts from a tribute to Creed Black written Saturday by Rod Petrey

Below are excerpts from a tribute to Creed Black written Saturday by Rod Petrey, former Collins Center director in Miami and longtime Knight Foundation counsel.

Today was a walk among giants: some of the major giants of the “Golden Age” of American newspapers, important agents of democracy that appear to have — to our detriment — their best days behind them.

Many of these giant redwoods of leadership have fallen — my dear personal friend, Jim Batten, former CEO of Knight-Ridder, among them — and growth of new leaders has not taken strong root beneath their mentoring branches.

Today’s walk was a memorial service for Creed Carter Black, president of the John S. and John S. Knight Foundation, a leader in journalism innovation. Creed led the Knight Foundation for a decade of its formative years when I first served as the foundation’s general counsel and advisor. He died last week. He was 86 and had been seriously ill for a long time. His wife, Elsa Black, a superb journalist, was his best friend and caretaker. Among his many important roles, Creed also had been a courageous publisher of the Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader, head of the editorial board for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Walking with me today to honor Creed was Eugene Patterson, former managing editor for The Washington Post, and editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the St. Petersburg Times and a founder of the Poynter Institute, where the Collins Center for Public Policy established offices last year under my leadership and that of a Collins’ Senior VP and former journalist, Jon DeVries. Gene Patterson was a friend and colleague of former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, namesake of the Collins Center and my personal mentor. Gene won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his civil rights editorial work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Speaking at the service was David Lawrence, Jr., my personal friend since high school in Bradenton where his father, David Lawrence, Sr., served as one of Florida’s most respected newspaper editors and publishers. David Jr. was publisher of the Miami Herald. It began: “As one gets older, as time flies by, it is always tempting among us mortals to see the people and the past now behind us as somehow “golden” and “legendary.” So often that is shaped by forgetfulness or perhaps by what we would like, or need, to recall. But, in fact, there were and are “golden days” and “golden eras” and genuine “legends.” Creed Black, for example.”

Next to speak was Rolfe Neill, former publisher of the Charlotte Observer, a touchstone Knight-Ridder newspaper, and a long-time Knight Foundation trustee. As Rolfe remarked, Creed Black’s important contribution — both to the newspaper business and to the philanthropic enterprise — was:

  • To find and hire the very best people;
  • To give them “their heads” – to let them do what they thought best without strict control; and
  • To hold everyone to the highest standards of truth and integrity.

As Rolfe said, Creed didn’t need to “invent” all of the good ideas. He knew them when he saw them and was ready and willing to support good ideas, regardless of their origins, and to give credit where credit was due. What insight for a foundation president and a journalism leader!

Those are lessons that I learned from Creed and from others before him, like Governor LeRoy Collins, and tried to apply to the work of the Collins Center for Public Policy.

With us today were Alberto Ibargüen, current Knight Foundation president and former Miami Herald publisher; Paula Ellis, former VP for operations of Knight-Ridder and current Knight Foundation VP for strategic initiatives, and Eric Newton, former newspaper editor and current adviser to the president at the foundation. There was Joe Natoli, former publisher in San Jose and Philadelphia, now senior VP for business and finance and CFO at the University of Miami; former Knight Ridder publishers Tim Kelly (Lexington) and Mike Maidenberg (Grand Forks Herald, N.D.),; foundation trustee Paul Grogan and board chair Rob Briggs; current Miami Herald publisher David Landsberg – and so many others it is impossible to list them all. But I can’t omit legendary newspaper editor John Carroll, editor in Lexington when a courageous series on widespread cheating in the University of Kentucky basketball program won a Creed’s paper a Pulitzer Prize. And there was University of Georgia president Michael Adams, inspired by the Lexington stories to take up the cause of NCAA reform with the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

A very special person to honor Creed today was Tina Hills, wife of the late Lee Hills, former editor and publisher of the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free-Press, president of Knight-Ridder and the Knight Foundation adviser and trustee. Lee was a special friend and mentor to me. He was a person of the highest standards of truth and integrity. I remember vividly our debates about whether he should preserve and transcribe his personal shorthand notes of many interviews with very famous people over the decades.

The Miami Herald called Creed Black a “curmudgeon” who was “…wickedly witty and Southern gracious, tough but fair-minded….” The New York Times said that he was “…peripatetic … pugnacious….” He was all of that and much more — a dear friend and colleague who always included me in both in serious planning and fun social gatherings. What a privilege it was to work with him and to know him.

Rolfe’s remarks ended with a quote from Horace Greeley, the famous 19th Century American journalist, to illustrate Creed’s basic value (his “creed”): Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character.”

That has very special meaning for me these days. A walk among giants — people of great character — today was a stark reminder of the elusive and temporary nature of everything except our basic values. Thanks to all who stay true to that idea.