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On Jan. 27, at a Boston Ritz-Carlton dinner table with his friends of 50 years, George B. “Barry” Bingham Jr. ’56 proposed the impossible: a Charles River row in a lightweight eight-oar shell to take place this week.
Two years earlier he had suffered a heart attack and received a pacemaker, and in the seventies he had battled Hodgkin’s Disease. At the January dinner, friends were “relieved” at the state of his health.
One month after that dinner, he contracted pneumonia, and he died on April 3 at his Louisville, Ky., home. He was 72.
The man who went by “Barry Jr.” made his name as a hard-nosed newspaper publisher, a generous philanthropist, and a pioneer in journalistic ethics. But after his family’s loss of its Louisville media empire in 1986, Bingham refocused his life.
At Bingham’s funeral on April 6, Rev. Alfred R. Shands of the Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville delivered the homily. “With your mustache and straggly beard you were Don Quixote on horseback, heroic, dreaming the impossible dream, sometimes tilting at windmills, yes, but fighting for causes, slaying dragons.”
Until near the end of his life, Bingham rose each day at 5:45 a.m. to row his single—the cheapest that could be bought—along the Ohio River.
This morning, his friends plan to row on the Charles River.
DYNASTY ON THE DECLINE
“To understand Barry Bingham Jr., you have to understand a little bit about the family and the newspaper itself,” says Arthur B. “Ben” Post Jr., The Courier-Journal’s managing editor. “I always compare it to the Kennedy family.”
Bingham’s grandfather had served as a judge and ambassador to France, and his father was well-loved as the publisher of The Courier-Journal.
Like the patrician Kennedys, the Bingham dynasty was devastated by a series of deaths, even while ruling Louisville’s television and newspaper properties.
Despite his family’s Harvard legacy, Bingham encountered failure. He was blackballed from the Gas (now the Delphic) after drunkenly kicking a pay telephone to the ground, and though he rowed varsity crew, in his senior year he would be demoted to the third boat. As he would throughout his life, he struggled with reading.
“He was dyslexic, which caused him a big problem,” says Nicholas Daniloff ’56, Bingham’s freshman year roommate. “He really didn’t take to the intellectual life at Harvard.”
After graduating, he served as a platoon leader for the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan.
When he returned from military service, Bingham interned at CBS, pursuing his love of television. Edward R. Murrow praised young Bingham in a letter to his parents.
“If you and your wife are not inordinately proud of your son, I shall take steps to excommunicate you,” he wrote. “While listening to your boy, I kept hoping that mine who is now 13 will turn out to be an equally consequential citizen.”
Robert W. “Worth” Bingham, Bingham’s older brother, had been selected to take the reins of the newspaper, and Bingham had long looked up to him. But, in a line of tragedies for the family, Worth died on vacation in Cape Cod when a surfboard stuffed through the backseat windows jackknifed his neck. After the turn of the century, Bingham’s grandfather had seen two wives die. Two years before Worth’s death, Bingham’s younger brother, Jonathan, died at the age at 22 while climbing an electricity pole. And in 1971, Bingham learned he had Hodgkin’s disease, the cancer that had killed his grandfather.
Bingham had to fill Worth’s shoes. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning story on the family, New York Times writer Alex S. Jones wrote that, according to Bingham’s father, Bingham was “terribly burdened by the myth that has grown up around Worth, a myth that compares Barry Jr.’s performance as head of the family business with what Worth might have accomplished.”
But Bingham quickly assumed authority, and during his tenure the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes.
“He poured his heart and soul into The Courier-Journal,” Daniloff says. “It was difficult for him because he was a slow reader, and yet he insisted on reading everything in the newspaper every day.”
Bingham hired the first full-time ombudsman in 1969, then instituted the first extensive conflict of interest policy in the country in 1972.
“We were told never to accept anything free, even a cup of coffee,” says Stanley K. Macdonald, former projects editor at The Courier-Journal.
“It became a kind of basis for the industry,” says Keith L. Runyon, editor of The Forum at The Courier-Journal.
Later, The Courier-Journal housed the first full-time media critic, and the newspaper was consistently among the top 10 in the U.S.
“In his management of the newspapers as well as the broadcast properties, he was always committed to that Murrow vision, to offer the highest standards in reporting without fear or favor of any advertiser or special interest,” Runyon says. “He was always looking for the truth in a situation and trying to influence the most ethical outcome.”
He applied his strict sense of ethics to himself. When he had to pay a fine for shooting a dove above a baited field, he insisted that it be written up in his newspaper—though the incident was so minor it would not have normally merited ink.
“He felt it should be there. He violated the law,” Post remembers.
But Bingham’s unwillingness to change his views led to dissent on the leadership of the board. He wanted the women of the family, including his two sisters and his wife, to resign, saying they contributed little.
“Barry was very stubborn about his views and not easy to compromise, and that contributed to the problems that the board had at The Courier-Journal,” Post says.
Bingham’s parents had made their children promise to leave the business if it threatened their personal relations. In 1986, the Bingham family sold all its company holdings, and Bingham stepped down from his role as publisher against his will. The properties sold for $434 million total, and Bingham and his wife, Edie, took home $45.6 million.
THE FINAL DAYS
For 20 years after the newspaper’s sale, Bingham maintained a downtown office where he created FineLine, a newsletter for journalists to explore real-world newsroom ethics. But the venture was short-lasting.
He took pleasure in mowing the lawn and chopping wood at his rural home. He spent his time serving on the boards of civic organizations in Louisville, and worked every day from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“He was a great philanthropist who did not spend money on himself,” says Tori Murden McClure, a longtime friend. His rowing single, she says, was the cheapest that could be bought, and “he would think nothing of the fact that his suit was older than his children.”
The first Wednesday of every month, he would lunch with a group of friends: an episcopal priest, an architect, the head of a homeless coalition.
As he traveled, he kept up a steady correspondence with friends, many of whom have bundles of his letters.
Bingham was thoughtful, coming to help Runyon’s wife clear out the brush around their rural home with his chainsaw.
“One Christmas, I was going to buy her a chainsaw,” Runyon says. “But it turned out that he had already got her one. Not only that but he had also gotten the goggles and gloves and taught her how to mix.”
As his death approached, Bingham became harder on his friends.
“Toward the end, his drive toward the good increased to the verge of mania,” McClure writes in an e-mail. “With time running short, Barry grew impatient with the people who loved him most. I saw this as a reflection of Barry’s impatience with himself, with his failing health, and his impatience with our inability to close the gap between the promise of humanity and the performance of human beings.”
Today, his family’s personal staff still pick up the phone to chirp, “Mr. Bingham’s office.”
“No, we’re not used to him being gone yet,” says Anne E. Douglas, an administrative assistant to the Bingham family. “We’re not ready to give up saying ‘Mr. Bingham’s office.’”
—Staff writer April H.N. Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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