Former World-Herald Publisher Harold Andersen dies at 92

Former World-Herald Publisher Harold Andersen dies at 92

Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 6:00pm
Former World-Herald Publisher Harold W. Andersen in 1985. Andersen died late Thursday night.
Former World-Herald Publisher Harold W. Andersen in 1985. Andersen died late Thursday night.

POSTED: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2015 12:00 AM | UPDATED: 1:14 AM, FRI DEC 18, 2015.

Harold W. Andersen, a long-ago Omaha paperboy who rose from carrier to reporter to publisher of one of the nation’s largest employee-owned newspapers, has died at 92.

“Andy,” son of a postal superintendent and a schoolteacher in northeast Omaha’s Florence neighborhood, became a much-honored civic and cultural leader in the community and the state. The late D.B. “Woody” Varner, a former president of the University of Nebraska, once called Andersen “the No. 1 citizen of the state of Nebraska.”

Omaha attorney James Martin Davis said Thursday night: “Nebraska has lost a giant.”

Andersen spent nearly a quarter-century (1966-1989) as publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, where his hands-on approach often resulted in detailed story assignments. Some led to award-winning reports, such as those on overpopulation and the roots of famine.

He became an international leader in the struggle for freedom of the press, heading the World Press Freedom Committee. In 1989, Lee Hills, editorial chairman emeritus of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, said: “Harold Andersen has been one of the notable newspapermen of this century.”

He became the first American to serve as president of the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers and the only Nebraskan to serve as chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

Andersen visited more than 50 countries, traveling the world with his wife, Marian. He turned down job offers elsewhere and often said he was always happy at the end of trips to return to Nebraska.

“Omaha is a great place to live,” he once said. “The people, environment, outdoor activities, invigorating climate and lifestyle make Omaha and Nebraska attractive. There’s room enough here.”

An avid hunter and golfer who loved sports, the 6-foot-2 Andersen enthusiastically supported statewide improvements by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He and his wife rarely missed University of Nebraska home football games and attended numerous Olympic Games.

The Andersens were important benefactors of the University of Nebraska, and served as co-chairmen of Campaign Nebraska, which raised more than $727 million in private support for the university.

The Lincoln building that houses the College of Journalism and Mass Communication was dedicated as Harold and Marian Andersen Hall.

Harold Andersen retired as World-Herald publisher in 1989. But he retained a high public profile for several years by writing a twice-weekly column on the newspaper’s op-ed page. He later continued writing at HaroldAndersen.com.

He commented on public issues but usually ended his column with a humorous story about his wife, their grandchildren or the couple’s cocker spaniels.

But his greatest impact came during his years as publisher, where he left an imprint on public discourse and public policy in the state and beyond.

In one of Andersen’s career hallmarks, he co-authored a 1974 editorial calling for the resignation of President Richard Nixon, whom the newspaper’s editorial page had often supported. The World-Herald was one of the first major dailies to ask Nixon to step down.

The publisher had informed the newspaper’s principal owner at the time, construction magnate Peter Kiewit, of the planned editorial. Kiewit, who had donated $100,000 to Nixon’s campaign, readily acceded to Andersen’s decision.

Another journalistic landmark of Andersen’s career came in the mid-1970s, when a Nebraska judge barred the news media from publishing or broadcasting news reports about the preliminary hearing for mass murderer Erwin Charles Simants.

The World-Herald and eight other Nebraska news organizations joined in a legal protest against prior restraint. In 1976, the press won before the U.S. Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision that drew national attention.

The high court upheld the right of the press to publish what it knows about a criminal matter that is subject to a court hearing, while suggesting ways that courts can assure the right of defendants to a fair trial.

While insisting that The World-Herald maintain high standards of fairness, balance and objectivity in its news pages, Andersen also expanded the newspaper’s editorial and opinion pages — and broadened the mix of columnists.

He was proud that the newspaper was not only locally owned, but also that it became employee-owned.

The World-Herald was founded in 1885 by Gilbert Hitchcock, who became a U.S. senator. He was followed as publisher in 1934 by his son-in-law, Henry Doorly, who died in 1961.

Some of the heirs planned to sell the newspaper to the Newhouse chain. In 1962, at the eleventh hour, Kiewit outbid Newhouse to keep the paper locally owned.

In the 1970s, Andersen worked with the owner on Kiewit’s plan to convert the newspaper to majority ownership by employees.

After Kiewit died in 1979, employees eventually purchased 80 percent of the voting stock. The remaining 20 percent was owned by the Peter Kiewit Foundation.

“Even if you don’t like something in the paper,” Andersen once said, “at least you know your complaint is heard and responded to from World-Herald Square and not from New York or California.”

When Omaha investor Warren Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway company purchased The World-Herald in 2010, Andersen wrote approvingly. He said he and other Omahans, including Buffett, believed that “The World-Herald is a quality paper with reasonable prospects for continuing to be profitable and with the important advantage of being controlled in the community of publication — a true hometown newspaper.”

The job of publisher was not always pleasant. In 1973, there was a tense confrontation with the printers’ union.

The dispute centered on the issue of modernizing production methods. Andersen had offered lifetime job security to printers, but the union opposed that because the number of jobs would diminish as employees retired.

About 160 union printers left their jobs. The World-Herald didn’t miss an edition, installing new production equipment staffed by nonunion employees. (Unions continued to represent workers in other production and maintenance departments.)

Harold Wayne Andersen was born in Omaha on July 30, 1923, the youngest of four children of Andrew B. and Grace R. Andersen, who raised their family mainly at 8320 N. 28th Ave.

At 6 or 7, Harold began helping his older brothers with their World-Herald routes and soon had his own. He maintained a lifelong love for the Florence neighborhood.

He graduated from North High School, where he was sports editor of the North Star newspaper, and won a $200 World-Herald scholarship.

He attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where he became editor of the student newspaper and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1945. Andersen majored in English, with a minor in journalism, intent on teaching in college.

He received a fellowship to study for a master’s degree at the University of California-Berkeley, and spent a summer as a reporter for the Lincoln Star. That job, at $25 a week, hooked him on journalism.

He didn’t go to Berkeley, instead working at the Lincoln paper for a year. In 1946, Frederick Ware, managing editor of The World-Herald, hired Andersen away for $45 a week.

Andersen covered the police station and the courthouse, where he exposed a scandal involving payments for the feeding of prisoners. The Nebraska Legislature soon passed a law outlawing the practice of local sheriffs being allowed to pocket the difference in the set fee for food and what was actually spent.

The young reporter received what he called a big break when the newspaper’s city hall reporter, James Keogh — later to become executive editor of Time magazine and chief speechwriter for President Nixon — had to miss work because of appendicitis.

Andersen took over the key reporting job. And by the time Keogh recovered, editors decided to keep Andersen in the position.

Andersen and Keogh remained friends. Quipped Andy: “I always thank him for his appendix.”

In 1950, Andersen became The World-Herald’s Lincoln correspondent, covering the State Capitol. One of his roommates at the old Lincoln Hotel was Charles Thone, who became a congressman and Nebraska governor.

Friends marveled at Andersen’s work ethic.

“He would come in at midnight,” Thone said, “and someone would ask, ‘Where have you been?’ And he’d say, ‘Rewriting a story.’ ”

In late 1950, Andersen asked Marian Battey, another Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Nebraska and the daughter of Lincoln banker C. Wheaton Battey, to the ballet.

The suitor worked late and missed supper, but arrived just in time to escort her to the event. Afterward, at her parents’ home, she fixed him a grilled cheese sandwich.

The couple married April 19, 1952, and had two children, David and Nancy.

David Andersen, who lives in Omaha, said his father’s health had gradually declined. He died of natural causes at 11:15 p.m. Thursday at the Nebraska Medical Center, with Marian and David by his side.

“He was a great man,” the son said. “He knew everybody and everyone seemed to know him and like him. He treated people with respect. For my sister and me, he was a good dad and someone we respected utterly and looked up to.”

Nancy Andersen, of Denver, has three sons — Jack, James and Grant Karger. David and Leslie Andersen are parents of Lindsey, Roddy and Katie.

One of the elder Andersen’s scoops was reporting that Clifford Hardin had been named to lead the University of Nebraska. He got confirmation by calling Hardin’s home in Michigan and congratulating his wife on the Nebraska job.

“Yes,” she said, “we are so pleased.”

In 1958, Andersen left full-time reporting when publisher Walter Christenson called him back to Omaha for a news management job. He was being groomed, and he eventually learned the business side of the newspaper, becoming vice president and business manager.

In 1966, when Christenson retired, Andersen became the newspaper’s chief executive. He was 42.

During his 23½ years leading The World-Herald, he once said, he had four chances to go to larger newspapers in jobs leading to publisher. But he liked Nebraska, his job and his relationship to Kiewit, and felt a sense of loyalty to those who had given him opportunities. So he stayed.

He became chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee in 1979, and presided at conferences in France and England. Journalists from 30 nations adopted the first-ever world statement of free-press principles in London in 1987, stating that the people’s right to know was “a fundamental human right.”

Though his worldview was wide, he could also look intently from his office window at 14th and Dodge Streets, the old World-Herald Square — and see that downtown Omaha was failing. He became a major force for improvements downtown and along the Missouri River.

“There would have been no riverfront (development) today if not for Andy’s leadership in raising private money,” said the late W.A. Strauss, retired chief executive of Northern Natural Gas Co.

Andersen played a large part in collaboration between the City of Omaha and the philanthropic Knights of Aksarben to restore the Orpheum Theater. Though the symphony has moved to the newer Holland Performing Arts Center, the ornate Orpheum remains a showcase for opera, touring Broadway shows and other events.

Dick Bell, retired CEO of the HDR architecture and engineering firm, visited Andersen at his home on Monday.

“Andy was a pillar of leadership in the community, and very proud of Omaha,” Bell said. “Everything he did was in the best interest of the Omaha community.”

Bell and attorney Davis were among friends whom Andersen enjoyed hosting at his beloved Triple Creek hunting lodge in Missouri. In 2013, Davis threw a 90th birthday party at his home for Andersen, inviting about 100 people who had been Andy’s hunting guests over the years.

“He would hold court at Triple Creek, and it was astounding the amount of knowledge he had about national and world affairs and public figures,” Davis said. “He loved it, and we all did, too. His memory was amazing.”

Harold and Marian Andersen were long active in the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, which still presents the bard’s plays in an outdoor setting among trees near the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Throughout the years, the newspaperman referred to himself and his wife as “Team Andersen,” and said he couldn’t have accomplished what he did without her support and help.

In 1983, Andersen was crowned King of Aksarben at the annual fall extravaganza honoring contributions to the city and the state. But he often said that the awards most meaningful to him were those that he and Marian shared as a couple.

Together they received the 1988 Distinguished Nebraskalander Award from the Nebraskaland Foundation and the 1989 Distinguished Nebraskan Award from the Nebraska Society of Washington, D.C.

In 1987, the University of Nebraska Foundation honored the Andersens with the foundation’s top award for service to the state and university.

Andersen often said that his wife, with her brains and charm, would have achieved success in whatever she attempted. He lauded her genuine interest in people.

“We’ll go to a party,” he once said, “and I’m doing my damnedest to remember the names of people. Marian will be reeling off the names and ages of their children, where they go to school and the family history on both sides. She just likes people.”

She liked to tease him that she was the journalism major in the family.

“If Andy had just studied journalism,” she quipped, “there’s no telling how far he could have gone in his career.”

The Andersens lived since 1966 in a white-washed brick Cape Cod Colonial home with black shutters and second-floor dormers in the Fairacres neighborhood north of UNO. Their phone number was always listed.

Occasionally a reader would call with a complaint and Marian would answer. “Pretty soon,” he said, “most of them think, ‘Well, at least he’s got a nice wife.’ ”

Andersen credited World-Herald colleagues with much of his success. He enjoyed telling of his son David riding to an event with curmudgeonly World-Herald photographer John Savage.

“What do you do at The World-Herald?” the boy asked.

Replied Savage: “I make your daddy look good.”

Harold W. Andersen would laugh in the retelling and say that the story contained a great deal of truth about World-Herald staffers.

Andy, who started out delivering on doorsteps the newspaper that he would lead as publisher, made an impact far from the streets of the Florence neighborhood where he grew up.

He became as comfortable hunting in Sowbelly Canyon in northwest Nebraska as he was golfing at Augusta National Golf Club or in Scotland or attending overseas gatherings of the world’s newspaper publishers.

The paperboy of old forged a nearly lifetime connection to The World-Herald, carrying its flag in journalistic circles around the world.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com