Back in the 1980s, when we both still were working, Bill Newkirk and I were on opposite poles in the reporting of rubber industry news-I was the editor of Rubber & Plastics News (RPN), a sister publication of Tire Business, and he was vice president of public affairs at Goodyear.
As the editorial guy, I was supposed to be wary of Bill the PR guy. After all, a PR person is paid to dispense good news about his or her company while an editor is paid to report bad news as well as good. You might like each other, yet you are always on guard.
But after I got to know him, I never was wary of Bill Newkirk. I learned to trust him because he always answered the tough questions about his company's shortcomings in a refreshing way-with honesty.
I don't think I ever told him how much I admired him for telling it like it is, even though I had plenty of opportunities to do so. Since we both retired in the late 1980s, we lived near each other and would meet for lunch every month or so.
Now it's too late. I won't have another chance because William L. Newkirk, 78, died May 21 from congestive heart failure at University Hospitals of Cleveland. He had suffered from heart problems for many years.
Now that he's gone, I really regret not telling him how I liked his candor. It helps, though, that since his death, I've learned others admired his frankness as well.
Ed Noga, who succeeded me as editor of RPN, refers to Bill as one of a kind. ``When you called him about a story that put Goodyear in a bad light, he didn't try to deny the facts or shift the blame elsewhere,'' he said. ``If Goodyear was guilty, he admitted it. That made him unique in my book.''
Howard Tolley, now retired, worked closely with Bill on Goodyear PR matters for years and, at one point, succeeded him as manager of Goodyear's PR bureau in Chicago. ``Hard-bitten Windy City newspaper reporters liked his candidness as well,'' he said. ``Bill answered their hard questions truthfully.''
Bob Lane, the retired Goodyear PR vice president who hired Bill from the Associated Press bureau in Toledo in 1959 and taught him public relations, praised him for maintaining Goodyear PR's high standards for honesty and integrity after Bill succeeded him as PR chief.
Bill was equally honest with his superiors. He didn't hesitate to tell his bosses what they didn't want to hear. Bob Mercer, retired chairman and CEO of Goodyear, said he once asked Bill to do something about a local news story that was so unfavorable to Goodyear it made his hair stand on end.
``Hey,'' Bill told him, ``if you don't like bad news, stop making it.''
Mr. Newkirk's talents as a top-notch PR man came to light in 1986 when Sir James Goldsmith attempted a hostile takeover of Goodyear.
When Mr. Goldsmith had Goodyear's back to the wall, Bill advised Mr. Mercer to let the world know how much the company objected to the raid. ``We might as well go down kicking and screaming,'' he said.
``Do it,'' Mr. Mercer told him.
And Mr. Newkirk did just that. He became the company's chief spokesman and organized a campaign of words all over the nation-particularly in towns with Goodyear plants.
He painted Mr. Goldsmith as a ruthless and selfish profiteer whose mission was to destroy a highly respected firm that had 132,000 employees.
The aggressive campaign succeeded in raising a public outcry that became so great, Mr. Goldsmith backed off. The company paid the corporate raider $94 million to repurchase his stock-but Goodyear remained Goodyear.
These efforts may make Bill out to be loud and boisterous. Not so.
Yes, he could be blunt and get in your face when he needed to make a point. And he could lose his temper. A big, powerful guy, about 6 feet 2 inches tall with a fierce stare when he was angry, he could put fear into people he confronted.
But he also was kind and thoughtful, a softy really.
I was privileged to see this side of him when he came to visit my wife when she was suffering from a cancer that eventually took her life.
He would plop his huge frame into the nearest chair and regale her with humorous stories about his latest experiences that made her laugh with sheer delight.
Mr. Mercer found Bill refreshing to have around. ``He told you what we thought,'' he said. ``He put out the story without spinning or distorting things.''
Mr. Tolley, who shared an office with Mr. Newkirk during their early years with Goodyear, said he was ``a warm and gracious person, a fun guy to be with.''
News reporting got in Bill's blood at Bowling Green State University where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1947. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II and worked in newspapers and at the AP before joining Goodyear.
Bill had a reputation for a great sense of humor. Here's one story that shows it: After Bill retired from Goodyear in 1989, he received the 1990 John S. Knight Award from the Buckeye Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for his contributions to his profession. Also receiving the award was David Cooper, associate editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, with whom Bill had a friendly rivalry.
As was the custom, each award recipient had to deliver an acceptance speech. Bill went first. Suddenly in the middle of a sentence, he stopped speaking and slumped to the floor. He had fainted.
Confusion followed, but minutes later emergency medical people rushed to the podium, put Bill on a stretcher and began to carry him out through the audience. As the stretcher passed where Mr. Cooper was sitting, Bill looked up and said, ``How's that for one-upmanship, Dave?''
Mr. Cooper, an admirerer of Bill's humor, tells me Bill actually delivered the punch line during a phone call the next day. He should know, of course, but I prefer the other version. Even if it's not the way it happened, for those of us who loved Bill Newkirk, it describes his great sense of humor too well to not be true.