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‘Bob was a newspaper man’: Former Galesburg Register-Mail editor left an enduring legacy

Former longtime Register-Mail Editor Bob Harrison works in his office in the newsroom
Former longtime Register-Mail Editor Bob Harrison works in his office in the newsroom.

A former longtime Register-Mail newspaper editor described as a consummate newsman is being remembered for his impact on local journalism, as well as making the National Stearman Fly-In a signature event for Galesburg.

Robert F. “Bob” Harrison—who worked at The Register-Mail for 38 years, including 27 presiding over the newsroom as editor in chief—died Monday in Ankeny, Iowa. Family say the cause of death was a result of complications from RSV. He was 83.

Harrison also served as a reporter and a photographer during a Register-Mail career that touched five decades from 1963 until he retired in May 2001.

“Bob was a good journalist and a good judge of talent,” said Don Cooper, The Register-Mail publisher from 1990 to 2008. “He directed the newspaper’s coverage and recruited and helped train a generation of reporters.

“We took turns writing the newspaper’s editorials for several years. I always appreciated the insight and background that he brought to local issues.

“Bob Harrison was one of Galesburg’s ‘good guys.’ He left a legacy on the town and will be missed.”

Instrumental in the success of the Stearman Fly-in

Former Register-Mail Editor and longtime board member of the National Stearman Fly-In poses for a photo at the 2015 Stearman Fly-In. (Photo courtesy Kent Kriegshauser Photography)

In addition to his long tenure at The Register-Mail, Harrison was instrumental in the success of the National Stearman Fly-In that takes place each September in Galesburg. A licensed private pilot, Harrison was former president and served on the board from 1974 until he retired at the end of the 50th fly-in in 2022.

Harrel Timmons, past president and current board member of the fly-in, said Harrison played a key role in developing the concept of the new International Stearman Community Center at Galesburg Municipal Airport.

“Bob realized the ultimate community benefit of what is now a worldwide-known organization and event like the National Stearman Fly-In,” Timmons said.

“People come from all over the world to our event. It’s become an international event. It put Galesburg on the world map for the aviation community.”

Robert Franklin Harrison was born May 24,1940, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He graduated Ankeny High School in 1958, and attended Iowa State University before embarking on a career in journalism.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Sharon L. Harrison; sons Robert D. Harrison and David G. Harrison; sister, Joy E. Harrison; grandsons, Samuel J., Riley J. and Henry W.; and a granddaughter, Elizabeth M. Harrison.

John Pritchard was publisher of The Register-Mail from 1977 to 1989—a period when the newsroom was staffed with more than 20 reporters, photographers and editors.

“Bob was a newspaper man—your traditional newspaper man,” Pritchard said. “He always had great stories to tell, although I didn’t know which ones to believe and which not to believe.

“What really made him good was he could sniff out baloney from facts. He was interested in being fair and impartial as much as anyone could.”

A ‘quintessential gruff newspaper editor’

Rob Buck, who served several roles at The Register-Mail including a reporter, copy editor and local news editor from 1989 to 2019, described Harrison as the “quintessential gruff newspaper editor.”

“He and Associate Editor Norma Cunningham were my chief mentors when I started at The Register-Mail in 1989,” Buck said. “While Norma nurtured me in crafting a story, Bob was a stickler for AP (Associated Press) style and The Register-Mail’s established format for matters of record: arrests, traffic accidents, thefts, vandalism, obituaries.

“It was he who honed my editorial attention to detail.”

Those who worked with Harrison can envision the editor in his usual attire—a button-down dress shirt (usually light blue), tie and slacks (usually khaki). He was never without a metal pica pole, which when he wasn’t using it, was tucked in his back pants pocket.

Buck recalled Harrison’s dry sense of humor.

“I still remember my first performance evaluation, I think, or perhaps after I was promoted to regional editor, when he told me I was getting a raise,” Buck said.

“He commented, ‘We’ll get you a little more money … so you can buy some ties.”

‘Are there any skeletons in your closet?’

Former longtime Register-Mail Editor Bob Harrison, left, with former R-M Publisher Don Cooper, taken at the Temple Daily Telegram.

For decades, Harrison coordinated Register-Mail editorial board meetings where editors and the publisher would interview candidates running for local and state offices. Those meetings eventually would lead to the paper issuing its endorsements for individual candidates and issues.

“Bob and I spent dozens of hours together each election interviewing every candidate for every office,” Cooper said. “He was the originator of the ‘skeletons in your closet’ question every candidate got no matter who they were or what office they sought: ‘Are there any skeletons in your closet that would embarrass you or make us regret an endorsement if they became known?’

“There were more than a few interesting revelations in the answers.”

Cooper noted Harrison promoted excellence in journalism through involvement in the Illinois Associated Press Managing Editors. He served on the group’s board, and hosted the group’s annual meeting in Galesburg.

Kay Shipman-Swiech was The Register-Mail’s agriculture reporter in the early 1980s. She credits Harrison with helping launch her long career in journalism that included stops as ag-business reporter at the Journal-Star in Peoria and ended as the legislative affairs editor for FarmWeek, a statewide newspaper of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“Harrison—we always called him Harrison—was my first editor so he set the bar for my 40-year career in journalism,” Shipman-Swiech said. “As an Iowa farm kid, he took particular interest in my work as the farm-business reporter.

“He was fair and supported me when someone complained about an accurate story. He hired a solid group of new, young, hardworking reporters, including my future husband (Paul) and many lifelong friends.”

Shipman-Swiech said Harrison was quick on his feet.

“A consummate newsman, Harrison acted quickly when I learned just before deadline The Judds canceled their Knox County Fair show,” Shipman-Swiech said. “With a big smile, he called out, ‘Stop the presses!’ The only time I ever heard that.

“Thank you, Harrison; rest in peace.”

He launched many journalism careers

Dozens of other reporters can share similar stories of Harrison helping launch their journalism careers.

Andrea Vitale, who worked as a reporter at The Register-Mail from 1973-78, recalled how Harrison gave her shot at the newspaper fresh out of the University of Missouri.

“Bob was reluctant to hire a female city hall reporter because The Register-Mail hadn’t had one before,” Vitale said. “Norma Cunningham was there doing the county beat, but city hall was the primo beat, and it had always been a man’s thing.

“The younger guys, Jim O’Connor (assistant managing editor), and Mike Johnson (editor) may have convinced him to hire me. They persuaded him somehow.”

Vitale added, “There were times when he was quite a curmudgeon, but we got along well. He was kind of an old-time newspaper man, which was kind of fun.”

Galesburg native Ken Johnson received his start at The Register-Mail while attending Knox College. Johnson started as a sports reporter, and later became news reporter, then wire editor and business editor under Harrison in the early 1970s.

“Bob was instrumental in my development as a young journalist—I’m forever indebted to him.” — Ken Johnson, former Register-Mail reporter

“Bob was instrumental in my development as a young journalist — I’m forever indebted to him,” said Johnson, who went on to a career in television journalism before becoming a spokesman for two major committees in Congress, while working with the Replication leadership in the U.S. House.

“I started working at The Register-Mail when I was just 16. He taught me skills that served me throughout my career. But he wasn’t just a boss and a mentor, he was also a friend that I trusted and admired. He could have been editor at any newspaper in America. He was that good. But he loved Galesburg and the Midwest, and stayed loyal to it for a lifetime. We’ve lost a true giant.”

Mike Trueblood, who served as The Register-Mail sports editor for nearly 40 years from 1979 to 2019, said, “Bob hired me back in 1978 and I’ll always be grateful. He was a great newspaper man, an astute journalist and a wonderful boss. I owe him a lot.”

I’m lost on words right now,” said former Register-Mail photographer Kent Kriegshauser. “But I would call Bob my editor, supervisor and friend. And of all of those titles, friend is my favorite.”

My thoughts: Bob a legend among R-M characters

And count me—a longtime reporter and editor for The Register-Mail before finding my way into radio—as one of those dozens who got their start under Bob.

As many of my former Register-Mail colleagues and bosses have said, Bob was a newsman. A little (sometimes a lot) gruff, no-nonsense, dedicated and a determination for making our award-winning daily newspaper the best it could be.

He will be remembered as one of the true legends among the many notable characters who worked at The Register-Mail

Bob mellowed after he retired from the paper, but his fierce passion and love the National Stearman Fly-in never waned. For years, he helped publicize the event through the help of his ties to The Register-Mail. As Don says, Bob was Mr. Stearman.

Rest in peace, Bob.

A celebration of life event is being planned for late April for those who wish to gather and share their memories of Bob.