Angus McEachran, the hard-nosed, no-nonsense reporter who rose to become editor of The Commercial Appeal, died Monday after a sudden illness. He was 78.
The death of Mr. McEachran, who oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and had retired in 2002, was confirmed Monday evening by his daughter, Amanda LaMountain.
She said an unexpected illness brought him to St. Francis Hospital on Park Avenue, where he died Monday afternoon.
Mr. McEachran’s daughter said she’d want people to remember “his absolute dedication to making sure that the newspaper looked like the city, racially. Civil rights was important to him … He was very proud of that. And he had a mischievous, kind of wicked sense of humor.”
Mr. McEachran, who began his newspaper career as a copy clerk at The Commercial Appeal in 1960, retired in 2002 as editor and president of the newspaper, closing a career in journalism that spanned more than four decades, heading newspapers that won three Pulitzer Prizes.
All of his tenure was under the former Scripps-Howard chain.
Upon learning of Mr. McEachran’s death, another former editor of The Commercial Appeal, Louis Graham, said: “I will never forget the day he walked into the newsroom and announced himself editor. Everything changed that day. He brought an incredible intensity to the business of journalism that had a profound effect on this city and me personally.”
“I’m devastated,” said author and journalist Otis Sanford.
Mr. McEachran was a blunt-speaking, sometimes intimidating force in the newsroom who considered accuracy a necessity and hard-driving journalism a service to the community. His actions to coax the best out of reporters or tell them of their shortcomings are still legendary in The Commercial Appeal newsroom.
In a 1987 Scripps-Howard advertisement about Mr. McEachran, there was an acknowledgment that being a tough, intimidating leader could be a badge of courage for an editor. McEachran chose mentor and coach.
“Creative tension is bull,” Mr. McEachran said at the time. The ad said: “With his shirtsleeves style and lively good humor, he nurtures through teamwork. He harnesses egos and channels ambition. He disdains arrogance.
“But McEachran also sets high standards and accepts nothing less. There’s no room in his newspaper for mediocrity.”
“Angus was my number one mentor in journalism. He gave me four jobs.”
He said Mr. McEachran hired him as a copy clerk at The Commercial Appeal in 1973, then as a reporter in 1977, as assistant city editor at the former Pittsburgh Press in 1987 and then back to Memphis as deputy managing editor in 1994.
“And he was an outstanding newspaper man … He’s my lifelong friend and the best newspaper person I ever worked for.”
Like Sanford, former newspaper staffer Quintin Robinson noted Mr. McEachran’s support for people of color like himself.
“I am shocked and saddened upon learning of the death of Angus McEachran, who taught me one of the most valuable lessons I could have ever learned as an editor and as a leader — to have a bias for action,” Robinson wrote in an email.
“That lesson was painful at first, but became the cornerstone of my success in years to come.”
Robinson recalled how he was working as a night metro editor one Saturday night when a small plane crash-landed in the outskirts of Memphis. Robinson said he told the reporter working that night to get details by phone rather than driving out to the scene.
“That Monday, I was called into Angus’ office to explain my decision. Well, there really was no explanation he wanted to accept,” Robinson wrote.
“In his gruff style, he started the conversation by saying my decision was not the correct one. I should have sent the reporter out to the scene, period. He ended the conversation by saying he didn’t expect me to use such bad judgment ever again.”
“‘Act first and ask questions later,’ was his message to me as a young editor. I never forgot that lesson. After that encounter, Angus gave me every opportunity to succeed in key leadership roles at the newspaper.”
Mr. McEachran was serving as metro editor in 1968 when King was assassinated and steered the coverage of one of the biggest stories in the city’s history, including the subsequent arrest of James Earl Ray in connection with the civil rights leader’s death.
Nine years later, Mr. McEachran was still at the helm when singer Elvis Presley died at Graceland, another huge story in the city.
Soon after Presley’s death, Mr. McEachran was named executive editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald and was promoted to editor of the newspaper six months later.
In 1982, Mr. McEachran moved to the Pittsburgh Press where he became editor. During his time in Pittsburgh, he was in charge when the newspaper won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes in 1986 and 1987 for investigative journalism.
He would return to Memphis as editor of The Commercial Appeal in 1993 and remained in that position, adding president to his title, before retiring in 2002. Shortly after returning to the newspaper, editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez won a Pulitzer for his work, the third for a newspaper under Mr. McEachran’s guidance.
“No other Scripps editor can say his staff has won three Pulitzer Prizes, not to mention dozens of other prestigious awards,” Alan M. Horton, senior vice president for newspapers for Scripps, said of McEachran at the time of the editor’s retirement.
“But prize-winning journalism is not the only reason for Angus’s exalted status. He is as colorful, articulate, entertaining and funny as any of the great editors of yesteryear.
He also has a razor-sharp edge, especially when he’s defending his readers’ right to know and demanding that public officials and institutions — and journalists — be held accountable.”
Former editorial page editor Jerome Wright said: “He could be tough, but that toughness made us better journalists. Beyond his gruff exterior, though, he really cared about the journalists who worked under him.”
Thomas BeVier, a former reporter at The Commercial Appeal and a friend of Mr. McEachran, said Mr. McEachran’s leadership marked a change at the newspaper from “an almost stereotypical Southern newspaper” to one that was willing to cover civil rights and African-American issues.
He recalled how Mr. McEachran had cleared him to write a profile of the Rev. James Lawson, a key figure in the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968.
Up to that point, the newspaper tried to avoid giving Lawson attention and kept his name out of the paper, BeVier said.
He also recalled Mr. McEachran’s colorful character. Once they got into a heated argument in the newspaper’s parking lot. “We were pushing each other around. And somebody ran up into the newsroom and said ‘Angus and Tom are fighting in the parking lot.’ So they sent somebody down to check on it. We were over in the press club drinking by that time.”
BeVier now lives in Michigan but had planned to come to Memphis to mark the 50th anniversary of the King assassination later this year.
He said he’ll miss his friend, who’d often finish the stories he’d start telling. “I don’t have anybody to finish my stories anymore … Memphis was lucky to have him.”