By TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY
WATERBURY — The newspaper industry and Connecticut lost a titan of the free press and devoted patron of the community Saturday with the death of William J. Pape II.
The longtime editor, former publisher and president, and chairman of the board of American Republican Inc., was 87.
He had also been the publisher for the Bristol, Southington, and Plainville Observers.
As recently as last month, despite deteriorating vision and hearing, he was at his grandfather’s roll-top desk in his beloved newsroom, dressed in his customary charcoal gray trousers, crisp white shirt and navy blue blazer. Daily, he pinned an American flag to one lapel.
For years, Pape hung onto a gold nugget his adventurous grandfather picked up on a trip to investigate mines in Butte, Mont., at the turn of the century. That connection to his namesake was deep and abiding. Though Pape could be taciturn and diffident, and shunned attention on himself, he shared anecdotes about his grandfather liberally and with infectious mirth.
It was that kind devotion to his grandfather, who bought The Republican in 1901, that underscored Pape’s commitment to his family and fierce support for press freedom.
“Mr. Pape represented the best in family stewardship of a newspaper, upholding the Republican-American’s long tradition, as he was principled and fearless, unafraid to protest the long misdirection of Connecticut’s public policy no matter how many people would consider him politically incorrect. Thank God he was!” said Chris Powell, a columnist and retired managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, and a director of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
“Just as important, he steadily improved the Republican-American, even as civic engagement was declining in the state and financial pressures were forcing curtailment everywhere else in the newspaper business,” Powell said.
“His legacy is not just the vigorous, civic-minded news organization he led, but the example he set for independent journalism.”
Like his grandfather, Pape was a lover of the sea, history and newspapers. Among his many awards, including his 1999 Yankee Quill Award, in recognition of his lifetime contribution toward excellence in journalism in New England, he may have been most proud of his lifetime membership in the Liverpool Nautical Research Society. For decades, he helmed his sailboat, Sundance, generally with an assembled crew of occasionally boisterous family members.
A graduate of the Taft School in Watertown and the U.S. Naval Academy, Pape began working at the newspaper in 1959, just after graduating from Harvard Business School. He was the third generation of Pape men to take the helm of the newspaper, maintaining its feisty independence in the face of growing corporate ownership in the newspaper industry.
Like his father, William B. Pape, he was a tireless fighter for press freedom. Pape enjoyed telling the story of the reporter who was denied access to the minutes of the Torrington School Board in 1950. When the Republican-American won a national Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2012, Pape took the occasion to recount the tale of long-ago reporter Jiggs Donahue. He sent an email to the company’s board of directors, noting the Sunshine Award was the paper’s latest example of fighting for public information.
The paper took the 1950 case to the Connecticut Supreme Court and lost. Nevertheless, the uproar after the defeat eventually led to what became the first Freedom of Information legislation in the state.
Pape recoiled at the term “journalist,” preferring instead the grittier “newspaperman,” suggestive of a flinty reporter who knew how to dig deep, hit hard and still craft an elegant sentence.
He loved the rough-and-tumble ferocity of newspapering and was never averse to litigating for the public’s right to know.
Pape’s newsroom is famous for the 1928 quotation from his grandfather he had framed, which began, “There are no sacred cows at this newspaper,” and ended, “No one can keep his name out of our papers if it belongs there.”
Pape was neither a sentimentalist nor a glad-hander, and the list of editors and reporters on the receiving end of his ire is long. He could not abide careless mistakes or tiresome excuses. “CAN’T ANYONE PLAY THIS GAME?” he once emailed the entire news staff, all in capital letters, before proceeding to question why coverage of key local events one weekend was unacceptably absent from the newspaper’s pages.
His responses to readers, too, were legendary in both their manners and bluntness. “I am sorry to hear you are unhappy with our newspaper,” Pape wrote to a reader who complained about too much negative news in 2017. “If the country is going to hell in a hand basket, I feel it is important that our readers know it.”
He was an avid Republican, but Pape was adamant that his reporters deliver the news with precision and objectivity, and that his editorial pages and news staff operate independently.
When Neil M. O’Leary became the Waterbury Police Department’s deputy chief in 2001, he requested a meeting with Pape at the newspaper. Pape made it clear the department needed to be more transparent, the mayor recalled. “He said, ‘Look, I know you’re a good cop, and I know you want to make a difference. But you’re going to have to make a change.’”
O’Leary said he incorporated that philosophy into his work in the police department and later as mayor.
“I learned more from Mr. Pape about transparency than probably any other one of my mentors. I promised him I would work toward that goal,” O’Leary said.
“His commitment to the readers never ever changed. Anyone would learn a lot about commitment from Mr. Bill Pape.”
As newspapers across the country began to fold, reduce staff and become a shadow of their former selves, Pape released to his staff a memo his grandfather wrote in 1946, just after the Waterbury Democrat folded. “These newspapers will do their best to be better and broader, less partisan, more community-minded,” his grandfather wrote. “They must give every cause a proper hearing, must think for themselves and the public more patiently and temperately.”
Like his predecessors, Pape moved up through the ranks of the company, beginning as assistant treasurer of the Eastern Color Printing Co., and eventually taking his father’s place as publisher and then editor and publisher.
Pape’s belief in press freedom was met with an equally avid commitment to civic engagement. He maintained an almost 19th century belief in the responsibility of a community’s most statured members to support its institutions.
Among his most treasured philanthropic endeavors was the Greater Waterbury Campership Fund, marking its 50th anniversary this year. Community leaders approached Pape with the idea of starting a nonprofit to send children to summer camp; Pape immediately agreed and offered the newspaper’s support.
Last year, 491 children attended camp thanks to the Campership Fund, the latest generation of thousands of children served since 1969. It is an organization that epitomized Pape’s belief that any child, given the right circumstances, was capable of overcoming obstacles of birth.
Pape, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1953, also was devoted to veterans. He was a member of the American Legion, the Navy League and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. He fought diligently to commemorate the sacrifice of his cousin, Lt. (Rev.) Thomas M. Conway, a Navy chaplain during World War II. When a Japanese submarine torpedoed his ship, the USS Indianapolis, in 1945, Conway stayed in shark-infested water for three nights, comforting his shipmates, until he died. The Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee installed the Thomas M. Conway Memorial, just adjacent the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, in 2015.
“Those who served our country never had a better friend,” said Bob Dorr, secretary and treasurer of the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee.
Dorr planned to nominate Pape to the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame in 2018. The application was due Sept. 1; Pape called him in July.
“He wasn’t looking for recognition,” Dorr said. “He asked that I withdraw his nomination … he just knew what to do. He knew what to do to honor those who served.”
A devout Catholic who traced most of his impeccable manners and sense of service to Saint Mary’s School, Pape spoke of the Waterbury community as if it were a living creature. When the 100-year-old tower of the Republican-American’s building began to show its age, Pape was resolute that it be restored. “If we don’t fix that tower,” he told one reporter, shaking his head ruefully, “the community will never forgive us.” The tower was suitably renovated.
Martha Shanahan contributed to this report