RIP George B. Irish: An homage to a San Antonio newspaper publisher – San Antonio Report

Over my 45-year career as a journalist, much of it as a newspaper reporter, editor and executive, I have worked for at least 10 publishers. None had a greater impact on my career and life than George B. Irish.

Why tell this story now? Irish, the publisher of the San Antonio Light from 1988 until its closure in 1993, died at his New Jersey home on Tuesday from an apparent heart attack at age 78.

When Irish called and invited me to dinner in San Antonio in 1989, I was Newsweek magazine’s chief of correspondents, a job that required near-constant travel around the country and world, overseeing the news magazine’s reporters and support staff in its many domestic and foreign news bureaus.

Before joining Newsweek as a correspondent in the war zones in Central America in 1983, my career had taken me from the Brownsville Herald to the Corpus Christi Caller to the Dallas Times Herald, all in the space of six years.

By 1986, I was based in New York and living with my family across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. My wife Monika was pregnant with Alexander, our second child, and after years of patiently following me through war zones and then to the East Coast, she wanted to build a quieter life together back in Texas close to her parents.

I was in no position to resist. Monika was commuting from our Hoboken home to her own job as a communications and marketing executive on Wall Street each day, and serving as the primary parent for our first son Nicolas. It was getting harder and harder for her to share my excitement over trips to Africa, Asia and Europe.

So I was surveying the newspaper market across her native Texas, looking for a suitable position and a good place for our young family. The Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers seemed to still be recovering from the 1980-82 recession. The San Antonio Light, however, was searching for a new executive editor, and even though it would be filled with an inside hire, it opened up a supporting executive slot.

Irish reached me one evening at my hotel during a visit to the magazine’s San Francisco bureau, where I was attending an informal retirement party. (This was before the advent of cellphones). He convinced me, with what I came to learn was his trademark sincerity and low-key Midwest charm, to come to San Antonio to meet him for dinner.

Unprepared for a job interview, I bought a new suit in San Francisco the following morning and hopped a flight to San Antonio. I still remember seeing jackrabbits sitting on the grassy islands between runways as our plane touched down.

Days later, I flew home with a job offer to become the daily’s deputy managing editor. What I didn’t know at the time was that The Light, the afternoon newspaper, was losing $1 million a month. I was boarding a sinking ship.

Three years later, in one of the strangest business deals I’ve ever witnessed, San Antonio native Frank A. Bennack Jr., the CEO of Hearst Corp., bailed out Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., which was drowning in debt, and acquired Murdoch’s San Antonio Express-News. Bennack simultaneously closed The Light.

All of us at The Light were suddenly out of a job. What had I done, I asked myself, leaving vaunted Newsweek and its global reach for a failing newspaper in San Antonio?

The city’s newspaper war had been a bitter one, and the very few Light journalists invited to join the Express-News were treated like second-class citizens. After some months, Hearst leaned on the Express-News leadership to hire more Light journalists. I became the only senior editor to move over to the Express-News.

I will never forget being shown to a small, windowless office with a broken chairback and a desk with no computer, having also been told my salary would be 30% less, despite doing the same work.

Irish, who had moved to New York to be vice president of Heart’s newspaper division, quietly told me he had arranged to bridge my salary deficit. He counseled me to be patient.

I gritted my teeth. It was undisguised hazing of an unwelcome newcomer, very unprofessional, but time eased (if not fully healed) the wounds of the newspaper war. Within one year I was named managing editor, and then in 1997 I became executive editor, a position I held until my retirement in 2011. Over that time, the newsroom staff and budget doubled in size, and I would argue evolved into a metro daily with a diverse staff producing less sensational, more in-depth print and web editions to better serve one of the fastest growing U.S. metro areas.

My family will always remember Irish for giving us our new life in San Antonio. That was 33 years ago. Our two adult sons left San Antonio to pursue higher education and professional opportunities elsewhere, but eventually both returned to a very different San Antonio.

Irish became a senior executive with Hearst Newspapers in New York after the Light’s closure, and following his retirement in 2008 as the division’s president, he became the eastern director of the Hearst Foundations, a position he held until his death. While his territory covered east of the Mississippi River and a San Francisco-based counterpart represented the foundation across the western half of the country, Irish was given San Antonio.

The list of local nonprofit recipients of Hearst Foundation gifts under Irish’s watch is too long to detail here. His generous spirit and continued engagement with San Antonio will come as no surprise to the many friends Irish made in his years here.

One of them, the former San Antonio mayor from 1995 to 1997, Dr. William “Bill” Thornton, later moved with his wife Carolyn to New York and stayed close to the Irishes.

“I learned early in my friendship with George that he was a deeply spiritual man who was driven by strong personal values,” Thornton said Wednesday. “In his late high school years, George considered a call toward becoming a priest. He didn’t follow that vocation, but he never lost his deeply held spiritual values.”

I asked two fellow retired Hearst colleagues for their thoughts.

“As a mentor, George personally helped advance my career by giving me the opportunity to run the sales and marketing divisions when corporate leadership advised against the change,” said Sergio Salinas, who went to hold senior management positions at the Express-News and serve as publisher of the El Paso Times from 2010-2016. “Through the rest of my career, I always wanted him to be proud of me and confirm he made the right decision. I tried hard not to let him down. When I lost my father, George flew to Dallas to be at his funeral and lend support. He always went above and beyond.”

Tom Stephenson was a newspaper executive in St. Paul, Minnesota, when Hearst hired him to join the Express-News as chief operating officer. He served as publisher from 2005-2012 before becoming publisher of Hearst’s Houston Chronicle.

“I joined Hearst in 1997 largely because of George,” said Stephenson, now retired and living in Fair Oaks. “I interviewed with George, and in a matter of four or five hours discovered a compassionate leader with hometown values and an incredible knack for connecting with people. He was a man of integrity, intelligence, wit and charisma. He helped me grow in so many ways. I will miss him.”

All of us who knew George Irish will miss him. Thank you one more time, George, for bringing the Maeckle-Rivards back to the city we now call home.

According to the Hearst-owned Laredo Morning Times, Irish was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Rettig Irish, who died in 2005. He is survived by daughter Sandra Irish Draper, her husband Kyle Thomas Draper and their son Carson Irish Draper of Denton, Texas; and daughter Christine Irish Sheedy, her husband Malcolm Joseph Sheedy and their sons Samuel Joseph Sheedy and Luke Butler Sheedy of Dallas. A third daughter, Diane Leslie Irish, died in infancy. Irish is also survived by his brothers, Charles Irish of Centerville, Ohio, and John Irish of Toledo, Ohio, according to the Morning Times. He is predeceased by his brother Thomas Patrick “Pat” Irish. He is survived by his wife Jeannie Wetherill Irish; stepdaughter Jayne Ann Puccio, her husband William J. Puccio and their children Natalie and Charlie of Newtown, Pennsylvania; and stepdaughter Amy Wetherill Cooley, her husband Michael Cooley and their children Alexandra and Anna Cooley of Villanova, Pennsylvania, according to the Morning Times obituary.

Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date.

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