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Top Stories of 2017: The Legend of Bill Rose

Photo by Logan Kirkland

They still talk about Bill Rose at The Miami Herald. The editors thought his reporting was so good they required new reporters to read some of his best stories. The reporters thought his editing was so good that they gave him credit for improving their work.

His persona in the newsroom remains legendary. He would tell stories in such a compelling way that no one wanted to interrupt him for fear of breaking the spell. And his practical jokes in the newsroom made him part of the lore and lure of newspapering at its best.
Rose uses that talent today as an adjunct instructor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media and a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.
The soft-spoken journalist has come a long way as a reporter and editor since he graduated from Ole Miss in 1969. After working at newspapers in Bolivar and Greenville, he left Mississippi to work for Florida newspapers for 34 years.
His colleagues in Florida remember him as much for his easygoing personality as for his journalistic skills.
“Bill is not only a classically great journalist but one of the kindest, most positive and emotionally generous people I have ever known,” said Tom Shroder, former executive editor of Tropic Magazine at the Miami Herald. “I can’t think of anyone who ever met him who didn’t come away refreshed with the idea that someone could be so relaxed and almost egoless.”
Shroder said Rose made work seem like fun. “When he stepped into the offce, everything seemed lighter, easier and especially more fun.”
Don’t mistake these “nice guy” accolades as a way to minimize his journalism abilities.
Rem Reider, known nationally for his columns on the media in USA Today, was an editor at the Herald who helped bring Rose along in his journalism career.
“I was so impressed with his talent,” Reider said. “He is a great writer and a strong reporter. Just about all his feature stories ended up on page one. People loved his stuff.”
Several people remembered Rose and the day Alabama football coach Bear Bryant died. Rose was working on a story in Mobile when his editors called and said since he was in Alabama, why didn’t he just run up to Tuscaloosa and write a story about Bryant.
Rose gently reminded his editors that Tuscaloosa was six hours away, but he would get on it. Several people remember Rose driving like a madman to get to Tuscaloosa and getting stopped by the Alabama Highway Patrol.
Rose told the offcer that Bear Bryant’s death was the biggest story of the year—maybe the century—and he had to write that story for his readers at the Miami Herald.
Of course, the Alabama highway patrolman let Rose go without a ticket.
“People like Bill,” said Doug Clifton, former executive editor of the Miami Herald. “He is disarming, which makes him a good reporter.”
Reider remembers how Rose got the Bryant story. “He stopped at just the right bar, interviewed just the right people and wrote this gorgeous story on deadline that captured perfectly the impact of Bear Bryant on the state of Alabama.”

Meek School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton, Jr. (left) and Charles Overby (right) award the 2016 Silver Em award to Bill Rose (center) during a recent ceremony at the Overby Center at Ole Miss. This is the highest award given by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

As the Herald’s reporter across the South, Rose covered important stories, but the ones the readers remember the most are his feature stories.
One day, Rose spotted a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that said, “Eat Mo Possum.” He followed the truck into Smyrna, Ga. That led to a talk with the mayor of Clanton, Ala., which just happens to be the possum capital of the world.
Readers gained new insights into possums, thanks to Rose’s story. Rose remembers it well: “Possum meat has high protein that goes through your veins like a roto-rooter. It also is an aphrodisiac and it is used in perfume.”
Who knew?
When Rem Reider became city editor of the Herald, he talked Rose into leaving the reporting ranks to become an assistant city editor. “I agreed to do it for six months,” Rose said.
It was a major change in Rose’s career because it meant moving into management for the Herald, widely considered one of the top 10 newspapers in the country at that time.
That job ultimately led him to being the editor of the Miami Herald’s highly regarded Sunday Tropic magazine, which won two Pulitzer Prizes while Rose was editor, and then to managing editor of the Palm Beach Post.
“I always missed writing the whole time I was in management,” Rose said. “But I liked the challenge.”
Clifton, the Herald’s executive editor, said, “He became editor of Tropic and improved it. He had good story selection – less avant-garde than the previous editors. He worked well with the writers. He didn’t try to overpower them but worked subtly with them.”
That trait was remembered by Liz Balmaseda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked with Rose in Miami and West Palm Beach.
“Bill was this playful, disarming presence in the newsroom who also happened to be a masterful, detail-sharp editor. His editing style was not one of slash and burn but one that inspired me to explore and fnd the story’s path myself. And this was made all the more enjoyable because he never left a reporter alone on this journey into the story’s soul – he traveled beside us.”
Balmaseda remembers Rose’s in-house writing workshops for Miami Herald reporters. “He taught us to be lavish in reporting and spare in language, allowing details to illuminate our narrative. He encouraged us to read our stories aloud. Doing this, he said, would reveal those needlessly clunky passages in which words would bump against one another.”
David Von Drehle, editor at large at Time Magazine, knew Rose well. “Bill would make an article 60 percent better than when you gave it to him,” Von Drehle said. “And there was no screaming or throwing of chairs.”
Clifton said the staff loved Rose’s practical jokes. “He did an excellent imitation of Rep. Claude Pepper,” Clifton said of the legendary Florida congressman. “He would call reporters and pretend to be Pepper. He could lead them on for quite a while.”
One year, the famed columnist Dave Barry wrote about an alligator costume in Tropic’s annual Christmas gift guide. Never one to look a gift gator in the mouth, Rose donned the alligator costume and crawled across the foor of the newsroom, right into the offce of the executive editor.
“He scared me half to death,” Clifton said.
Rose’s friends know he loves to play golf. He started playing at age 12 on a 9-hole course in his hometown of Shelby, Mississippi.
“I thought golf was a great sport because physical attributes are less signifcant. I enjoy competing, especially against myself,” Rose said.
Shroder, the Tropic editor who went on to be executive editor of the Washington Post Sunday magazine, played golf frequently with Rose in Miami. They particularly liked playing an inexpensive but beautiful par 3 course in Miami Beach.
Shroder remembers one round in particular: “Miami Beach in its wisdom had recently granted an easement in the middle of the fourth or fifth hole for a temple congregation to build a mikvah [a ritual bath house for Jewish women] literally in the middle of the fairway of a 160-yard par 3 hole. The course management simply set up a new tee on the pin side of the mikvah, making it an 80-yard hole. But we refused to kneel before the Miami Beach Building and Zoning Commission. So we continued to tee up in the old tee box, hitting a blind shot above the two-story structure directly between tee and green.
“I hit frst. It felt like a great shot, but who could tell? Then Bill hit with that sweet swing of his. The ball soared high, clearing the little cupola on top of the mikvah and disappearing.”
Shroder said they found his ball on the green, but there was no sign of Rose’s ball.
“Bill kind of shrugged and said, ‘Might as well look in the hole.’ And that’s exactly where it was. We began referring to it as The Miracle of the Mikvah.”
When Tropic Magazine folded because of fnancial constraints, the Herald’s top management worked hard to keep Rose in Miami. “Bill could have had any job,” Clifton said. “We were willing to create a job for Bill. But he was wooed by the Palm Beach Post. They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. It broke my heart.”
Rose joined the Palm Beach Post as metro editor, worked his way to the top as managing editor and expanded signifcantly the coverage, both in the quality of writing and the range of topics that the paper covered.
“We couldn’t be the biggest newspaper in the state, but we could have the best writers,” he said.
He began sending reporters to Mexico, Cuba and Haiti. “We did lots of stuff you wouldn’t expect,” Rose said. “We were kicking butts and taking names.”
When the economy tanked in 2008, Rose had to begin to make cuts in the newsroom.
“Because you are in management, you become a numbers man,” Rose said. “Numbers are not my talent – not tamping things down.”
So after 10 years at the Palm Beach Post, Rose decided to retire in 2009 at age 62.
The big benefciary of that decision was Ole Miss journalism.
Rose went to see Dr. Will Norton, who was chairman of the Department of Journalism.
“I knew that Bill had a great reputation in journalism, but I had no idea how good he was,” said Norton.
Norton, now dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, said he couldn’t hire Rose fulltime because he didn’t have a master’s degree. Finally, they agreed on a part-time spot with Rose teaching depth reporting.
His return to Ole Miss was also a homecoming for his wife of 45 years, Susan Rose, also an Ole Miss graduate.
The result of Rose’s work with students has been extraordinary, with seven single-topic magazines about subjects ranging from the decline of population in Greenville to the history and status of Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian tribes in Mississippi.
The students rave about Rose’s personable teaching style.
“Bill is incredibly involved with the students,” said former student Anna McCollum. “He really cares about each student’s writing.”
Another former student, Sarah Bracy Penn, said, “He is always available. That speaks to his character.”
“I can see the lights go on in their eyes,” Rose said about his students. “I like being back at Ole Miss doing journalism, worthwhile journalism,” he said.
“It’s amazing what he has done,” Norton said. “Bill hasn’t published in scholarly journals, but he has taken his rich experience as a talented journalist and led students to produce some of the best journalism in Mississippi or anywhere.”
Rose is optimistic about the future for good journalists. “There will always be a market for good writing and good reporting,” Rose said. “If you can write, that is a valuable commodity.”
Even though writing, reporting and editing have made Rose’s career distinguished, it is his fun-loving, aw-shucks demeanor that his friends continue to recall.
Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote about Rose in one of his classic columns that has been reprinted widely.Barry was writing about a man who had designed a rubber-band-propelled plane that was 33 feet long.
Barry found a way to include Rose in this column, entitled “The Rubber Band Man.”
He set it up this way: “You have to watch your step when dealing with large-caliber rubber bands. I know this from personal experience, because one time a friend of mine named Bill Rose, who is a professional editor at ‘The Miami Herald’ and who likes to shoot rubber bands at people, took time out from his busy journalism schedule to construct what he called the Nuclear Rubber Band, which was 300 rubber bands attached together end-to-end.”Barry described what ensued:“One morning in ‘The Miami Herald’ newsroom, I helped Bill test-fire the Nuclear Rubber Band. I hooked one end over my thumb, and Bill stretched the other end back, back, back, maybe 75 feet. Then he let go. It was an amazing sight to see this whizzing, blurred blob come hurtling through the air, passing me at a high rate of speed and then shooting wayyyy across the room, where it scored a direct bull’s-eye hit on a fairly personal region of a professional reporter named Jane.
“Jane, if you’re reading this, let me just say, by way of sincere personal apology, that it was Bill’s fault.”
That story explains the “magic” of the legendary Bill Rose.
His colleague Tom Shroder summed it up well: “He just walked around with a sparkle of magic about him, a kind of glow that made everyone he came in contact with have a better, more memorable day than they otherwise would have had.”
That Rose magic now resides in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

By Charles Overby

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 5 (2017-2018).

For questions or comments, email us at hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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