Robert McGruder, 60; Journalist

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Robert G. Mc- Gruder, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press and a champion of diversity who broke racial barriers, died Friday of cancer. He was 60.

McGruder, a soft-spoken but strong and aggressive editor sometimes called “Darth Vader” for his quiet intensity, died in a hospice in suburban Detroit.

The first black reporter for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland in 1963, McGruder became the first black executive editor of the Free Press in 1996.


In 1995, when he was managing editor of the Free Press and his paper was in the midst of a long, bitter strike, McGruder became the first black president of the Associated Press Managing Editors.

Addressing colleagues at the group’s national convention in Denver the following year, he rejected reports of the demise of daily newspapers, urging editors to give readers what they find “useful, fresh and important to them.... That’s news, news and news.”

McGruder also used the APME platform and the nationwide respect he gained throughout his career to promote diversity in the newsroom. Earlier this year he earned the award given by Wayne State University to the journalist who best furthers the cause of a diversified media.

“We have to respect and learn from diversity, and many of us have a problem dealing with differences,” he told fellow journalists at the 1996 managing editors’ convention in Denver. “Newspapers find it hard to keep their lead because they cannot deal with it in their newsrooms. We fail to respect the differences and the strengths of our communities.”

Last year, when McGruder won the John S. Knight Gold Medal, the highest honor given to an employee of Knight Ridder, the parent company of the Free Press, he said: “I stand for diversity. I represent the African Americans, Latinos, Arab Americans, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, women, and all the others we must see represented in our business offices, newsrooms and our newspapers if we truly want to meet the challenge of serving our communities.”

McGruder joined the Free Press in 1986 as deputy managing editor. He was named managing editor-news in 1987 and managing editor in 1993.

He became executive editor Jan. 1, 1996, when the strike was still in progress and, as a former union member and negotiator in Cleveland, often said: “The strike was easily the most painful time in my life as a newspaperman.”

But he had spent a career and a lifetime overcoming obstacles.

McGruder was born in Louisville, Ky., and grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where his divorced mother worked two jobs, as teacher and librarian, to send him to private school and enable him to graduate from Kent State University.

Stricken by polio at age 6, he nevertheless grew into a strong and vibrant man who stood 6 foot 4. After he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2000, he said he drew on the experience of his battle with polio.

He spent a summer working at the Dayton Journal Herald in 1963 before moving to the Plain Dealer, where--with time out for Army service--he covered city government, politics and the civil rights movement.

McGruder and Allen Wiggins worked with former Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes to write “Promises of Power,” a 1973 biography of Stokes, who was the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.

McGruder became city editor of the Plain Dealer in 1978 and managing editor in 1981.

He served for several years as a board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and as a Pulitzer Prize nominating juror.

Survivors include his wife, Annette; his mother; a stepdaughter; and a grandson.