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Stanton Cook, modernizer of Tribune Co. and longtime CEO, dies at 90

Stanton Cook, modernizer of Tribune Co. and longtime CEO, dies at 90
Tribune Co. CEO Stanton Cook, left, and Editor Clayton Kirkpatrick speak at an April 30, 1974, news conference on the Tribune's publication of Oval Office transcripts in the Watergate scandal. Cook, who was the newspaper's publisher, later backed an editorial that called for President Richard Nixon to resign. Cook died Sept. 3, 2015; he was 90. (William Kelly / Chicago Tribune)

Stanton Cook was working at a Chicago gas station on a bitterly cold January morning when a family friend called to say he'd heard about a possible job opening at the Chicago Tribune.

Cook, a Northwestern University graduate who'd recently been discharged from the Army, jumped at the prospect and by the spring was working as an engineer in the newspaper's production department.

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It was a crossroads decision that rocketed Cook to very top of the organization where — as chief executive — he molded Tribune Co. into a modern, diversified media corporation that broke with its conservative past by calling for the resignation of President Nixon, bought a Major League Baseball team and established itself as the largest operator of independent TV stations in America.

Cook, 90, died of natural causes Thursday at his home outside Chicago, said his son, Doug.

Cook's son said his father "was the quintessential Midwestern gentleman" who had an unbending moral compass.

It was likely that moral compass that led Cook to make a startling break with the company's conservative Republican heritage in May 1974. About a month into his job as Tribune Co. CEO and president, Cook backed an editorial that called for President Richard Nixon to resign.

That announcement came a week after the Chicago Tribune became the first to publish the entire Watergate-related transcripts from Nixon's scandal-plagued White House. In one day, the Tribune produced a 44-page special section that included the transcripts, an effort that TV commentator John Chancellor called at the time "a publishing miracle."

On the corporate front, Cook made Tribune's broadcasting unit a separate division. With the $510-million purchase of Los Angeles television station KTLA Channel 5 in 1985, the division became the country's largest operator of independent TV stations.

Cook also helped lead the company from a closely held, private entity to a publicly traded company in 1983, a move that raised $206 million.

But labor problems gripped the paper in the mid-1980s, as union production workers at the Chicago Tribune and Tribune-owned New York Daily News fought the introduction of new technology and changes in work rules the company sought. In 1985, Tribune printers began a strike that would grind on for 40 months.

Born in Chicago on July 3, 1925, Stanton Rufus Cook grew up in a rural community where neighbors kept chickens and he was free to hunt pheasants and squirrels. His father sold insurance and his mother was a homemaker.

He attended Northwestern University after serving in the Army and then went to work for Shell Oil. When a family friend, a purchasing agent at the Tribune, told him about the newspaper job, his career path changed completely.

"That turn of events, that fork in the road, that's how I got started with the Tribune," Cook recalled in a 2008 interview. "But I have never forgotten that cold morning in that gas station."

The Tribune had been paralyzed since the 1955 death of Col. Robert McCormick, the paper's longtime chief. Management needed to be reorganized, financial practices standardized and editorial standards reconsidered. But many Tribune executives clung to the past.

One agent of change was Harold Grumhaus. He had hired Cook and been his mentor in the production department. As Grumhaus rose up the ranks of Tribune Co. — he became CEO in 1971 — so did his protege Cook.

Cook became Tribune's director of operations in 1969 and its general manager the next year. He was elected president of the newspaper and a director of the parent company in 1972. In 1973, he became publisher of the Tribune and a vice president of the parent company.

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With the rise of Clayton Kirkpatrick to Tribune editor in 1969, the paper had begun to abandon the reflexive and often nasty Republican partisanship that had long marred its news coverage and dominated its editorial page. Kirkpatrick found an ally in Cook.

In a 2008 interview, John Madigan, who had been hired by Cook in 1975 and later became Tribune Co.'s president and CEO, said Cook's effect on the then-underperforming company was "profound."

Tall, gray-haired and square-jawed, Cook "looked like a CEO from central casting," wrote the New Yorker's Ken Auletta in a 1998 article. But Cook was anything but standoffish. He enjoyed mixing with his employees, he eagerly joined editors and reporters on fact-finding trips abroad, and he once signed on as the Tribune's photographer for coverage of an arduous, three-week tour of Canada's Northwest Territories.

Baseball was "a huge passion of his" and the Chicago Cubs was the team he followed, Doug Cook said of his father. In 1981, Stanton Cook acted on that passion, when Tribune Co. bought the team and Wrigley Field for $20.5 million.

The move also had its strategic value. By acquiring the team, Tribune protected a valuable source of sports programming for its WGN-TV and radio stations. Chairman of the Cubs until 1994, Cook relished overseeing the club and joining baseball's inner circle.

In 2009, the company announced the sale of the Cubs, Wrigley Field and a 25% stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago to the Ricketts family, a deal valued at $845 million.

Cook relinquished the CEO title in 1990, though he remained chairman until January 1993 and a member of its board until 1996. Several years later, Tribune Co. merged with Times Mirror Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers.

In retirement, Cook split time between his home in Kenilworth, Ill., and the family summer home in Glen Lake, Mich. Always handy, he kept a shop at the Glen Lake home, and he built boathouses and other structures there.

In a 1996 interview, Cook summed up his career, though he could have been talking of his life: "It had its moments of peril, it had its moments of disappointment. But as I look back, this was all part of a mix that was wonderful."

A dozen years later, Cook spoke of the special feeling he had each time he entered Tribune Tower.

"People say hello to you," he said. "I really appreciate that. It tells you something about the place. I can get teary about it because it really means something to me. It always will."

Predeceased by his wife, Barbara, Cook is survived by three sons, Scott, David and Doug; two daughters, Nancy Cook and Sarah Shumway; and seven grandchildren.

Gregory writes for the Chicago Tribune. Storch and Reardon are former Tribune reporters.

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