Lois Wille, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was one of Chicago’s most fearless journalists. When she started out in the newsroom of the Chicago Daily News in 1957, there was only one other female reporter. Most of her neighbors treated her as a novelty; one deskmate introduced himself by bending down and rubbing Ms. Wille’s ankle.
And while male colleagues sometimes threw typewriters on the floor or disappeared on drunken benders, Ms. Wille recalled that the city editor was mainly concerned with whether she and other female hires would cry in the office.
By all accounts, no tears were shed. And over the next 34 years, Ms. Wille wrote investigative series on juvenile courts, mental health clinics and tenement housing conditions — sometimes by going undercover, without identifying herself as a reporter, to obtain the access she needed.
Her five-article series on the lack of public funding for Chicago birth-control programs was awarded the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for public service, one of journalism’s highest honors, and sparked policy changes that helped poor women across Illinois receive contraceptive information and services.
Fourteen years later, she turned from reporting to editorial writing, attacking government corruption and incompetence with a style that was pithy, incisive and often wickedly funny. She went on to oversee the editorial pages at three Chicago papers — the Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune — and received a second Pulitzer in 1989 for her writing.
“Lois Wille has absolutely no weaknesses as a journalist,” her colleague and friend Mike Royko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, told the Washington Press Club Foundation in 1992.
Ms. Wille (pronounced Willy) said she never sought such a position, preferring to focus on her public-policy advocacy and writing, including two books on city politics and urban development. She was 87 when she died July 23 at a retirement community in Chicago, five days after suffering a stroke, according to her nephew David Kroeber.
Editorial pages are often described as the soul of a newspaper, a place where anonymous writers guard institutional memory, battle with the business and political classes and seek to sway public opinion, albeit with far less fanfare than their bylined counterparts on the opinion pages.
As editorial page editor, colleagues said, Ms. Wille was a quiet but forceful presence in the newsroom, beloved by reporters and fellow editorial-board members for her moral clarity, insight into city politics and support for young journalists, especially women.
“When she went after a political figure who was acting inappropriately, wasting money in a culture of corruption, she found a way to diminish them that wasn’t cruel, wasn’t mean,” said R. Bruce Dold, the current publisher and editor in chief of the Tribune, who previously worked with Ms. Wille on the paper’s editorial board.
“She just had a way in words to put people into caricature,” he added, recalling that in the late 1980s, Ms. Wille described the obedient followers of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) as “ducklings.” “They were diminished by her attention — and, I hope, chastened.”
Ms. Wille was a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing while at the Sun-Times, and won the prize five years later with the Tribune for her editorials on local issues, including the incendiary rhetoric of city aldermen. “Being offensive is as basic to their nature as the wink and nod,” she wrote.
Among the many highlights of her reporting career were flying with the Blue Angels, crawling through bushes to observe Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to an Iowa farm and interviewing actor Cary Grant, who told her he wore ladies’ underpants because he preferred the feel of silk and satin on his skin. The detail was cut from the story after city editor Maurice “Ritz” Fischer told her, “This is a family newspaper.”
Ms. Wille was perhaps best known for her prizewinning series on birth control, in which she reported that indigent women had no access to contraceptive services as part of their medical care in Cook County, where Chicago is located. (The Pulitzer for public service is awarded to publications rather than individual reporters, so the prize was given in the name of the Daily News, although Ms. Wille wrote each of the stories.)
At least 40 percent of the heavily Catholic county deemed those services immoral, she reported, and doctors at Cook County Hospital were under orders to refuse to answer patients’ questions on avoiding pregnancy.
“I had wanted to write about this problem for a long time, both because it was important to women’s health and because it denied an essential part of health care to poor women that more affluent women got as a matter of course,” she said.
By Ms. Wille’s account, the series was initially blocked by Fischer, a Catholic. After he developed stomach ulcers and was forced to take a medical leave, she completed her reporting under a deputy editor. The series was waiting for Fischer upon his return, and it remained on his desk until Ms. Wille declared that a competitor was working on a similar project.
That was a lie, Ms. Wille later said. But it moved the series along, leading Fischer to hand drafts to a Catholic priest, to check for any “offensive” material, before the first article was published on Sept. 13, 1962.
Less than three months later, the Illinois Public Aid Commission voted to fund birth-control aid for welfare recipients.
The older of two children, Lois Jean Kroeber was born in Chicago on Sept. 19, 1931, and raised in the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights. Her father was a German-born architect who specialized in churches, and her mother was a homemaker.
Ms. Wille said she became interested in journalism after reading Dale Messick’s syndicated Brenda Starr comic strip, about a glamorous red-haired reporter. She edited her high school paper and studied journalism at Northwestern University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1953 and a master’s in 1954.
Later that year, she married Wayne Wille, a fellow Northwestern student. He survives her and lives in Chicago.
Ms. Wille worked for business publications before joining the Daily News in 1956 as an assistant to a fashion editor. She became a reporter the next year. “The jobs were hard to get,” she once said, according to the Tribune. “The excuse we kept hearing: ‘Well, what if you get pregnant? Then you’re going to quit.’ And what do you say? You vow never to get pregnant? It was nonsense, and it’s something a boss or editor would never dare say today.”
After Mayor Richard J. Daley’s death in 1976, Ms. Wille accepted an offer to edit the Daily News’s editorial page, viewing the promotion as a chance to do more “community-oriented” work. When the Daily News folded less than two years later, she moved to the Sun-Times. Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the newspaper led her to the Tribune, where she retired in 1991, saying she wanted to spend more time traveling with her husband.
In addition to her newspaper work, she wrote the books “Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront” (1972) and “At Home in the Loop: How Clout and Community Built Chicago’s Dearborn Park” (1997).
In a phone interview, former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski said Ms. Wille “was revered and feared because her prose could be so withering,” and sometimes attracted enemies as a result. Following Ms. Wille’s second Pulitzer win, she recalled, they met for an interview in a Tribune office, where their discussion was interrupted by a delivery.
“Somebody had sent Lois a dead fish wrapped in a newspaper,” Lipinski said. “Undoubtedly it was from someone she’d written about. And she was completely unflappable — she sort of cocked an eyebrow and went on with the interview.”