WILLMAR — While former publisher Paul E. London retired in March 1997, he still read the West Central Tribune regularly and followed Willmar events and happenings.
Nearly a quarter-century later, he was remembered this week by co-workers and friends following his death Tuesday in a Pittsburgh-area hospital.
Though I never worked for Mr. London, as he is still respectfully called by Tribune employees who did, I got to know him a bit from his occasional return visits and the newspaper or in phone calls.
His last call to me was in early August when he called to comment on a recent Tribune editorial. He was complimentary of the editorial but said he did not fully agree with our premise.
Then we chatted further about the Willmar he still cared about.
Mr. London led the Tribune through a number of industry and technology changes.
While still in college in 1980, I read about the West Central Tribune’s transition as the last daily newspaper produced by linotype to a new offset printing process and press. When I joined the Tribune in late 2001, I would learn that Mr. London had led that technology transition at the Tribune.
Mr. London could be a bit intimidating until you got to know him.
“I first met Paul when he arrived at the Tribune as the new publisher. I remember we were all pretty intimidated by him. He had high standards and he didn't hesitate to give his opinion when he felt strongly about something,” former reporter Anne Polta said in an email Wednesday.
“Once you got past his gruff exterior, you saw someone who truly loved Willmar and the newspaper and its employees. There was a warm side to him that outsiders didn't always get to see,” she said.
Mr. London took his role seriously in holding governments accountable.
He was a publisher “who believed in the newspaper’s role as the community watchdog and as the community cheerleader,” current Tribune publisher Steve Ammermann said Wednesday. “He made sure our city and county public officials were held accountable for their actions.”
“Some of the stories about him became sort of legendary,” Polta said. “Like his campaign to save the elm trees on Trott Avenue or his editorial rant about being charged $11 for a glass of water at the emergency room.”
“Even though he often was critical of the city, I think he was always honest and the net result was fairness,” former Willmar City Administrator Michael Schmit said Thursday during a Tribune interview. “I did not always appreciate his input but I respected him and he respected me.”
Les Heitke was Willmar's mayor during London's tenure. “Paul London always knew what he was talking about when he brought an issue to your attention,” Heike said Friday during a Tribune interview.
“Paul was very interested in and enjoyed the city of Willmar. He especially liked keeping officials on their toes,” Heike said.
Sen. Dean Johnson served in the Minnesota Legislature representing Kandiyohi County and surrounding counties during London’s time at the Tribune.
“Paul London was always focused on what was good on Willmar and west-central Minnesota. And he was not afraid to take you to task if need be, but he was always fair,” Johnson said during a Tribune interview Thursday.
He advised me once to “Listen to your critics. Learn from it. Then move on,” Johnson said.
London made some life-long friends during his Tribune tenure. Long-time Willmar businessman Walt Gislason was one of those friends.
“If friendship could be measured by Paul London’s standards a whole new set of rules would be published,” Gislason said in an email Wednesday. “… During the Willmar years, Paul was a champion for our community. ...,” Gislason said.
“When he called me on occasion after I retired, it was always a very pleasant conversation,” Schmit said. “I always appreciated hearing from him.”
“We were members of a regular golfing foursome on Thursday afternoons,” Johnson said. “And we discussed many issues of the city, region and state out there on the fairways.”
Willmar bids farewell and godspeed, Mr. London.
Kelly Boldan has been the editor of the West Central Tribune since October 2001.