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William McIlwain Jr., former Newsday editor, novelist, dies at 88

William Franklin McIlwain Jr., a former Newsday editor

William Franklin McIlwain Jr., a former Newsday editor and novelist who wrote eloquently about racial tension and desegregation in the Deep South, has died. He was 88. Credit: AP, 1981

William Franklin McIlwain Jr., a former Newsday editor and novelist who wrote eloquently about racial tension and desegregation in the Deep South, has died.

McIlwain died of congestive heart and respiratory failure Friday at a nursing home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, his family said. He was 88.

A South Carolina native, McIlwain had stints as editor of the Toronto Star, the Boston Herald-American, Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida. He also wrote for Esquire, The Atlantic and Harper's during his 50-year journalism career.

"He loved to tell stories, and I think as a reporter, he enjoyed the storytelling aspect of it," said his son, also named William.

McIlwain saw himself as a writer. He kept a dictionary nearby to look up words he didn't know. In his 80s, he talked about writing another novel, his son said.

He was fond of William Faulkner, a fellow Southern writer, and once used a Faulkner quote on the cover for the 1978 Boston blizzard story. It read in part: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal," recalled Charlotte Hall, who worked for McIlwain at the Herald-American, now the Boston Herald.

Hall, a former managing editor at Newsday, said McIlwain "cared passionately about writing" and watchdog journalism.

"He was a legendary figure in Newsday's early years, one of a small handful of editors who really shaped the feisty young paper into greatness," she said.

McIlwain started the Boston Herald-American's investigative team, she said.

McIlwain's 1960 novel -- "The Glass Rooster" -- centered on desegregation in the Jim Crow South, where he grew up. A 1972 memoir, "A Farewell to Alcohol," chronicled his battle with alcoholism.

Born in a farmhouse, McIlwain scored a job as a sports writer at the Star News in Wilmington, North Carolina at age 17. He served in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 1944. He earned a B.A. in English from Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem in 1949.

He later joined the Richmond Times-Dispatch and, with only a month of copy editing experience, he was hired as Newsday's chief copy editor in 1954, his son said.

"He said he was out of his depth, but he was eager to learn the business. I think he charmed a lot of people there," his son said.

At Newsday, he held several roles including day news editor, city editor, assistant managing editor, managing editor and editor in 1967.

In 1969, he contributed to "Naked Came the Stranger," a literary hoax in which 24 Newsday reporters penned a sex-filled, badly written novel whose bogus author was a Long Island housewife named Penelope Ashe. The following year, he was named Wake Forest University's first writer in residence.

In 1982, McIlwain returned to Newsday as editor of the Queens edition, which became the New York City edition.

Tony Insolia, then Newsday's editor, said McIlwain recognized talent. "If McIlwain told me that somebody was a .350 hitter . . . I would believe it. If they could meet McIlwain's test, they could work for me," Insolia said.

In retirement, McIlwain lived in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where he coached young writers at the Star News.

"He built confidence in young people . . . because he told them they could do things, and he always had an encouraging word," Hall said.

In addition to his son, McIlwain is survived by daughters Eleanor Dalton McIlwain of Seattle and Nancy M. Stevens of Boulder, Colorado; a sister, Isabelle Jewell of Wilmington; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Arbor Acres United Methodist Retirement Community in Winston-Salem.

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