Former Newsday reporter Bob Wyrick was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Former Newsday reporter Bob Wyrick was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Credit: Cathy Wyrick

Bob Wyrick, a hard-driving, hard-living investigative reporter who exposed crooked politicians and morally bankrupt corporations in more than two decades of work at Newsday and other newspapers, died Saturday at a care facility in Portland, Oregon. He was 87.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Cathy Wyrick.

Wyrick’s first reporting job was at the Willoughby Herald, near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1962. From there he moved to the Miami News and then Today, covering Florida’s Space Coast. His work there led to bribery indictments against a county manager and grand larceny charges against a school superintendent.

He joined Newsday in 1969. His early work included a story that showed Nassau County municipal workers were expected to contribute 1% of their salaries each year to the Republican Party. It quoted an official from a union representing the workers who said, “We feel that everybody has a right to contribute voluntarily for a job … I mean, for a party.”

Kenneth Paul, who edited Wyrick at Newsday and now works for The New York Times, said the West Virginia-born Wyrick, who “looked and sounded a little like Willie Nelson,” had an unusual and valuable skill for a reporter: “He could just get people to tell him things that maybe they didn’t want to tell him.”

More than a decade after the contributions story ran, a federal grand jury found that workers had been pressured to make contributions in exchange for raises and promotions. A settlement was later reached requiring payments to some of the workers and their lawyers totaling about $1.3 million.

Other projects, sometimes done in partnership with other reporters and sometimes alone, exposed the role of the Carter administration and major oil firms in creating the 1979 gas shortage and explored the Reagan administration’s attempts to drastically tighten eligibility requirements for disability benefits.

A series that launched in 1981, "Hazards for Export," showed how American companies, sometimes with the aid of authoritarian foreign governments, operated in developing nations in ways that had been outlawed in the United States.

The scope and depth of the project — to say nothing of its probable expense — is almost unfathomable for newspapers today. It took more than a year of reporting in places like India, Indonesia and Colombia and yielded 10 stories.

“It was raining the night that Haryanto died,” began a Jakarta, Indonesia-datelined story about unsafe conditions in a Union Carbide factory that made Eveready batteries. That understated introduction focused on a 22-year-old worker electrocuted working in a flooded room on a machine that mixed carbon black and other chemicals that went inside the battery. Wyrick went on to tell of hundreds of plant workers diagnosed with kidney disease.

Another story, datelined Ahmedabad, India, honed in on an asbestos plant that paid workers the equivalent of $1.30 for an eight-hour shift. It described children playing in carcinogenic asbestos dust outside the plant and workers coated in it. It quoted an executive from Manville, an American company that owned a stake in the plant and was at the time the largest asbestos manufacturer in the world outside the Soviet Union, explaining his company’s reluctance to cut ties with plant operators over safety conditions: “If we’re out, the next day the Russians are in.”

In 1982, Wyrick was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for that project. His resume was festooned with other prizes, including a George Polk Award and a Nieman Fellowship.

In 1984, Wyrick suffered a stroke that Cathy Wyrick said ended his career. He had just published a series about Native American lives, had an idea for a story about pig factory farming and was learning Spanish in hopes of reporting in Latin America, she said.

Charles Robert Wyrick was born July 13, 1936, in Ceredo, West Virginia. His mother, the former Thelma Howe, was a waitress. His father, Herbert Wyrick, repaired track for a railroad. As a young man, Wyrick was convicted for his role in the violent robbery of a local shop and served roughly 5 years in prison, his family said. He was later pardoned by the then-governor. He attended college but did not graduate.

Family members said Wyrick was delivering bread in Ohio and taking a night class in fiction writing when the instructor suggested he work in newspapers.

Former Newsday editor Tony Marro said Wyrick learned to type while incarcerated. If a criminal record and no college degree were problematic for Newsday’s hiring editors, those factors were outweighed by the quality of his work, Marro said. “He was not afraid to ask any question. He was not afraid to go anywhere … Wyrick was clearly one of the best reporters we ever had.”

He married Cathy (Wood) Wyrick, a former Newsday researcher, in 1980, after the two met working in Newsday’s Washington, D.C., bureau. She said Wyrick’s impoverished childhood was a hidden throughline in his work. “He had sympathy for the underdog because he’d been there,” she said. “He knew what it was like to have no prospects and just have to make your way.” He also had, she said, “a certain amount of anger. Being poor makes you angry.”

Robert Keeler, in his 1990 history of Newsday, wrote that Bob Wyrick’s brief partnership with another Newsday investigations legend, Robert Greene, ended badly in 1971 when Wyrick was late contacting Greene because he was in a bar with a source. Wyrick later told Keeler: “I didn’t need anyone to kick me in the ribs to get more work out of me, when I was already working my guts out.”

Besides his wife, of Portland, Wyrick is survived by his daughter Edie Wyrick McCormick, also of Portland. He is also survived by three sons from a previous marriage to Carol (Rowsey) Wyrick, of Columbus, Ohio: Chris Wyrick, of Columbus, Robyn Wyrick, of Annapolis, Maryland, and Phelan Wyrick, of Silver Spring, Maryland. He is also survived by a son, Ed Dille, of Hawaii, from a previous relationship. He was predeceased by a daughter from his first marriage, Greta Wyrick.

Donations can be made in Wyrick’s memory to Doctors Without Borders, the Center for Science in the Public Interest or the Society for Science, his family said.

Correction: Bob Wyrick was misidentified in a caption on an earlier picture attached to this story.

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