Bill McIlwain, longtime newspaper editor and local resident, dies at 88
In the 1960s, McIlwain was founding editor of the New York City edition of Newsday. He also edited The Toronto Star, Bergen Record, Boston Herald-American, Washington-Star, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune.
In the 1960s, McIlwain and other Newsday staffers collaborated on "Naked Came the Stranger," a spoof of sex-soaked novels of the period such as "Valley of the Dolls." Published in 1969 under the pen name "Penelope Ashe," The hoax-novel spent 13 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.
In later years, McIlwain acted as a mentor and coach to a number of young reporters, "He was quick with the sincere compliment, singling out people for their good work and praising them in public," said StarNews public safety editor Jim Ware.
William Franklin McIlwain Jr. was born Dec. 15, 1925, on a farm near Lancaster, S.C., the son of William F. McIlwain and Docia Higgins McIlwain. The family relocated to Wilmington when McIlwain was in the sixth grade, and he later said he always considered himself a Wilmington resident.
At New Hanover High school, he played varsity baseball and football. While still a senior, he was hired as sports editor for what was then the Wilmington Morning Star. "So many guys were in the war by then, you had a good chance of getting a job," McIlwain recalled in a 2007 interview. "The newspaper offices were downtown then (in the Murchison Building at Front and Chestnut streets). I remember walking in there and thinking, ‘Man, I'm a man now.'?"
McIlwain worked briefly at the North Carolina Shipbuilding Co. before wartime service in the U.S. Marines. After World War II, he entered what was then Wake Forest College, graduating in 1949 with an English degree. He would later collaborate on the book "Legends of Baptist Hollow," a collection of campus tales from the days when the college was still located in Wake Forest, N.C. Later, in 1970 and 1971, McIlwain would spend a year as writer-in-residence at Wake Forest University.
After graduation, McIlwain went on to general assignment reporting jobs with the assignment reporter for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Journal, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and the Twin City Sentinel in Winston-Salem. "I covered an awful lot of stills being busted," McIwain recalled of his Winston-Salem years. "Of course, people up there were always cordial to me."
McIlwain noted that he got to know quite a few future NASCAR drivers when they were still transporting moonshine for a living.
In 1952, he became a copy editor for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispactch. Two years later, he joined the staff of the Long Island newspaper Newsday, beginning as chief copy editor and advancing to city editor, managing editor and editor in chief.
In 1958, McIlwain was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. While there, he wrote "The Glass Rooster," a novel published in 1960 about the coming of the civil rights era to a small Southern town.
In 1972, Random House published "A Farewell to Alcohol," McIlwain's frank account of his struggles with alcoholism. A best seller, the book was condensed by Reader's Digest.
In 2007, McIlwain released his memoir "Dancing Naked With the Rolling Stones." While keeping a mostly lighthearted tone, he also admitted that his struggles with liquor had not ended with "A Farewell to Alcohol" and discussed the failure of his marriages.
McIlwain wrote extensively for national magazines including Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1973 Harper's published "Last Walk on Bald Head Island," an account of a trip McIlwain took there with his son shortly before development began.
In 2004, McIlwain was inducted into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame, joining fellow Wilmingtonians David Brinkley and Robert Ruark.
McIlwain retired to Wrightsville Beach in 1990, where he indulged his passion for doubles tennis and he developed his trademark habit of wearing colorful bandanas on his head. (Reporter Veronica Gonzalez once compared him to a better-looking Willie Nelson.)
"I started wearing them on the court, and then I had them on all the time, and I kind of liked them," McIlwain recalled in 2007. "Then my grandchildren started getting them for me in all these different colors, so by now I'd feel kind of strange without one. I don't wear neckties, so I guess it's my necktie substitute."
Under editor Charles M. Anderson and later under publisher Allen Parsons, he worked as a writing coach and mentor with members of the staff. His Wednesday lunchtime sessions at the old Caffe Phoenix on Front Street became legendary.
"McIlwain understands the art of writing, the rush of reporting and the need for constant encouragement," Gonzalez wrote in a 2010 piece. She also praised "his gift for uplifting people when they are down by saying a few kind words, sharing stories about his life or simply listening."
In 2010, McIlwain moved to Winston-Salem to be closer to family. He spent most of his last years at Arbor Acres, a United Methodist retirement community.
Attribution: Ben Steelman, StarNewsOnline.com