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Santa Rosa resident Frank McCulloch, acclaimed reporter, California newspaper editor, dies at 98

Frank McCulloch, a retired newsman commonly hailed as a journalist’s journalist and one of the nation’s finest, most hard-driven and principled reporters and editors, died Monday at a Santa Rosa retirement residence.

McCulloch was a formidable, bald-headed Marine Corps veteran who distinguished himself through aggressive coverage of the war in Vietnam and organized crime, and who mentored generations of journalists as an editor with the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Examiner. He was 98.

“Personally,” Stephanie Salter, a longtime friend and former columnist with the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, wrote in a note to McCulloch’s two daughters and their families in Santa Rosa, “I see a magnificent redwood fallen softly to the ground.”

Daughter Michaele “Dee Dee” Parman, widow of late Press Democrat publisher Mike Parman, said her father “was kind of a guru to the people who worked with him. He just made a mark wherever he went.”

Dee Dee Parman’s sister, Candace “Candy” Akers, said any number of people have sought her help in defining Frank McCulloch and his potent effect on others.

“It was a matter of whoever Daddy met, it didn’t matter what their station was, he touched them at the core,” she said. “He knew their worth.”

“He was a grand, gentle man.”

Both daughters of the celebrated newsman said that in recent years the decline of the printed newspaper and

news magazine circulation distressed him.

“He was heartbroken. He was truly heartbroken,” Akers said. “He kept the faith that newspapers would survive. He also felt a great sadness that they would not.”

Through the course of his 50 years in journalism, McCulloch wielded huge influence on the craft of reporting and on innumerable colleagues and the advocacy of an independent, fearless and unbiased press.

McCulloch once said, “We admit the free press is not what it should be, and probably never will be. But the inescapable truth is, it’s all we’ve got. For better or worse, so long as this remains an open society, you and we — a free people and a free press — are stuck with each other. Shouldn’t it behoove both of us to try to understand each other better?”

Born in 1920 on a ranch in Fernley, Nevada, McCulloch studied journalism at the University of Nevada at Reno. He loved baseball — he’d follow the San Francisco Giants to his last day — and he might have pursued going pro had journalism not stolen his affection.

He became editor of the college newspaper, The Sagebrush. Also while at UNR he met and fell in love with Jakie Caldwell.

McCulloch graduated with honors in 1941 and promptly went to work as a reporter for United Press in San Francisco. He and Caldwell were wed the following year. They had two children, traveled the world and were inseparable for six decades.

Said Dee Dee Parman, “They had a remarkable relationship, even though my dad moved my mom 27 times.” Jakie McCulloch died nearly 12 years ago.

America’s role in World War II was expanding when Frank McCulloch left United Press and enlisted in the Marine Corps.

A detected heart murmur — McCulloch called the medical condition “bogus” — kept him stateside. He wrote about the war for the Marines’ public information office in San Francisco.

At war’s end he returned to Reno and began reporting news and sports for the Reno Evening Gazette. In his first incursion into investigative reporting, he dug into how the Mafia was obtaining gambling licenses in Las Vegas.

Former Reno reporter Lou Cannon, who went on to write for the San Jose Mercury News and the Washington Post and to become a biographer of Ronald Reagan, said in 2004, “All of us who were journalists in Nevada in those days aspired to be like Frank. He seemed to me to have all the journalistic virtues: He was skeptical. He was fair. He was kind to those less fortunate. He met the test of ‘afflicting the comforted and comforting the afflicted.’ ”

With the outbreak of the Korean War, McCulloch returned to stateside service with the Marines. Following that, he hired on at Time Magazine, writing extensively about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. He authored or co-authored about 200 Time cover stories.

As chief of Time-Life’s Southeast Asia bureau, McCulloch became a fatherly figure among the war correspondents.

“Frank was a generation older than most of us,” the late Morley Safer said in 2004. Destined to report for “60 Minutes,” Safer was in the mid-1960s the CBS News bureau chief and correspondent in Saigon.

“Most of the guys from the World War II era were stodgy, but Frank was psychologically closer to our generation than the ‘old farts’ generation, looking at the war from the 1960s, instead of the 1940s,” Safer said.

He said that as a news bureau chief McCulloch was “a very scary guy, the journalistic equivalent of a Marine Corps drill sergeant. He could sometimes terrify the guys working for him with his bullet head. He demanded that they get it absolutely right, but at the same time had a remarkable understanding of the problems his reporters faced.

“In his gruff way, he was very compassionate. He was a real soft-hearted guy.”

While in Vietnam, McCulloch filed 50,000 words a month via teletype. At some point after he uncovered preparations for a massive troop buildup by the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the president phoned Time Inc. editor Hedley Donovan.

Johnson told him, “Donovan, this is the president of the United States. You’ve got that little bald-headed guy walking around in the tropical sun with no hat on. He’s addled. You better get him out of there.”

McCulloch told the University of Nevada alumni magazine in 1992 that he was no genius as a reporter. “I just had the sources.”

He spent two stints with Time-Life, from 1952 to 1960, and from 1964 to 1972. In between, he was managing editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Upon leaving Time-Life in 1972, he founded an education magazine in Palo Alto. Three years later, the Reno Gazette-Journal recounted in 2014, he complained to his wife, Jakie, that he would surely die of boredom if he didn’t get back into a newsroom.

He joined the Sacramento Bee in 1975 as its editor, and he joined the board of the Bee’s parent company, McClatchy Newspapers. In 1980, he was appointed executive editor of the firm’s five newspapers in California, Washington state and Alaska.

One day at the Sacramento Bee, a caller told McCulloch he was the assistant to someone McCulloch had written about extensively in the past and who’d always trusted him: Howard Hughes.

“We’re on the plane, and Mr. Hughes wants to talk to you,” the assistant told McCulloch. Moments later, the assistant said apologetically that Hughes was not able to speak.

The following day, April 6, 1976, the Associated Press reported that Hughes had died on his airplane en route from Acapulco to Houston for medical treatment.

McCulloch would recall that when he turned 65 in 1985, he asked his boss, C.K. McClatchy, if he should retire. “He said yes, to my utter astonishment,” the newsman said.

So he retired, but not for long. Setting out to write a magazine story about the Hearst legacy in San Francisco, he interviewed old friend David Burgin, then editor of the San Francisco Examiner. On the spot Burgin hired him as the Examiner’s managing editor.

McCulloch said in 2012 he was proud “of starting, maintaining and establishing investigative reporting at the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Examiner.”

He was 71 when he retired from the Examiner in 1991. He and Jakie settled at the Spring Lake Village retirement community in Santa Rosa 18 years ago.

The recipient of many honors, McCulloch will be honored posthumously with a Distinguished Nevadan Award at Friday’s commencement at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In addition to his daughters in Santa Rosa, he is survived by four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

His family will make arrangements for a celebration of his life in Santa Rosa.

Memorial donations are suggested to the Frank McCulloch Courage in Journalism Award at UNR Foundation, MS0162, Reno NV 89557, or unr.edu/ giving.