When I succeeded Bill Monroe as editor of what was then called Washington Journalism Review in December 1991, we overlapped for all of one day.
That was my loss.
Bill, the former "Meet the Press" moderator and NBC Washington bureau chief who died today at 90, was first and foremost a class act.
Bill was a pioneering broadcaster in his native New Orleans, where he wrote and aired important editorials about civil rights. After he moved to Washington, D.C., he made his mark with a series of interviews with influential newsmakers before taking over "Meet the Press" in 1975. Throughout his long and illustrious career, he was a stalwart champion of the First Amendment.
But while he was a serious man, he came from the place where they let the good times roll, and Bill enjoyed a good time. I remember he felt it very important that he fill me in on where to get the best martini in AJR's home base of College Park, Maryland, a locale rarely confused with The Big Easy.
Fittingly, the last time I saw Bill was in 2005 at a Dr. John concert. Dr. John, of course, is one of the numerous piano virtuosos to hail from Bill's beloved New Orleans, and Bill wouldn't have considered missing the performance.
While we only had that one-day official overlap, it was my privilege to have many lunches with Bill over the years. Bill was a wonderful raconteur who had mingled extensively with major players and who had an intimate connection with major historical events. The lunches were always a delight.
While he was best known as a TV guy--with that wonderful baritone he was destined for the airwaves--Bill started out in print. He reported for United Press before joining the Army Air Corps during World War II, and he wrote editorials for the old New Orleans Item after the war. In 1954 he joined WDSU TV in New Orleans as the station's first news director.
Bill also wrote and delivered editorials for the station. He estimated about 50 focused on civil rights. According to New Orleans' Times-Picayune, "The station's call for calm 'appealed to the common sense of a lot of people in New Orleans,' [Monroe] said, 'but that mild message, in the context of the times generated a bit of hatred toward the station.'
"Mr. Monroe said he received death threats, and advertisers threatened the station with financial ruin if it didn't back off. But station owner Edgar Stern Jr. stood firm."
WDSU won a prestigious Peabody Award for Bill's editorials.
From there it was off to Washington, where he served as NBC's bureau chief, Washington editor of the "Today" show and "Meet the Press" honcho. In a statement today, NBC News President Steve Capus praised Bill for his work at the network and described him as "a true crusader."
When the Maryland J-school acquired AJR in 1987, Dean Reese Cleghorn brought Bill in as the first editor of the UMD era.
I remember vividly that when Bill left the magazine, one of the speakers at his retirement party advised his fellow speakers not to throw their remarks away, because they no doubt would have to use them again. He wasn't kidding. Bill went on to serve as ombudsman for Stars and Stripes and to write the Pentagon's Early Bird news summary before finally hanging up the spikes.
When I came aboard, Bill turned his column into an open letter to me. The penultimate paragraph beautifully summed up his passion for the field he long served and the magazine covers:
"Journalists have always had to battle for the soul of journalism. I have no doubt whatsoever that today's journalists can handle their phase of the struggle. They seem exactly as human, feisty and rambunctious as the news types of 50 years ago--stand-up characters straight out of the First Amendment. You're in good company, Rem."