By Kyrie O’Connor
Originally published Dec. 30, 2014
Jack D. Loftis, who led the Houston Chronicle newsroom through space shuttle flights, the Enron scandal and the 9/11 terror attacks, has died at age 80 after a long illness.
Loftis, the Chronicle’s vice president and editor from 1987 to 2002, died about 10 p.m. Monday at the Gardens of Bellaire assisted living home.
Loftis joined the Chronicle in 1965 as a copy editor, often working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. Soon he was named editor of Texas Magazine, the Chronicle’s Sunday supplement. Among the stories he published was a feature about con man Frank Abagnale, who later became the subject of the movie “Catch Me If You Can.”
Loftis climbed quickly through the newsroom ranks: features editor, assistant managing editor/features, assistant editor and editor. After leaving the paper he held the title of editor emeritus.
Tony Pederson, who joined the Chronicle in 1974 and became executive editor under Loftis in 2000, said Loftis embodied solid Central Texas values.
“As a newspaperman, Jack just had this incredible sense of fairness,” he said. “He had respect for everybody. He was intent on being fair, and it pervaded the newsroom.”
Pederson said Loftis was responsible for the relatively smooth transition in ownership of the Chronicle from the Houston Endowment, a charitable trust, to the Hearst Corp., which bought the paper in 1987. The sale was widely seen as giving the paper more independence from influential local people and institutions connected to the endowment.
In 1995, the Chronicle acquired the assets of its competitor, the Houston Post, which then shuttered. In one of his most unusual moves, when he saw the volume of mail about the comics pages — 9,000 letters — Loftis decided to move all the Post comics to the Chronicle, giving it a massive four pages of comics.
Loftis presided during an era when newspapers had the luxury of being quixotic. In 2008, he told the Houston Oral History Project about a photographer who was sure he would find the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct, in the Big Thicket in East Texas.
“And I don’t know how many trips we approved for him to go up there and hang out in the thicket,” Loftis said, “but we have yet to see a picture of a woodpecker.”
Over the years, he met presidents and would-be presidents, Hollywood stars and young up-and-comers like the bright young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
Not all days were good. The stories about serial murders of young Houston men committed by Dean Corll, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks in the 1970s shocked Loftis.
“I will never forget,” Loftis recalled in the oral history. “One of the photographers came into the newsroom and somebody said, ‘How many bodies?’ and he said, ’27.’ And to this day, I still remember how the shivers went down my spine.”
But Loftis had a temperament that allowed him to handle such a life. “He was such a mischievous guy,” said Pederson. “He loved to laugh and he had a wicked, dry sense of humor. He personified newspaper gallows humor.”
Loftis had some regrets, as well. Pederson recalled a headline that ran in the paper in 1990: “Killer Transvestite in Runoff,” referring to a race for Democratic county chair. It was factually accurate but, Loftis came to think, a poor choice of words.
Baylor University loomed large in Loftis’ life, Pederson said, even more so when the school named him a distinguished alumnus in 1988. During the 2000 baseball season, Baylor named the press box the Jack Loftis Baseball Press Box.
Jeff Cohen, who succeeded Loftis as editor in 2002, said Loftis would be remembered for championing the construction downtown of Minute Maid Park during the mayoral administration of Bob Lanier. “His unwavering support made that happen,” said Cohen.
Drayton McLane, a Baylor alumnus and benefactor and former owner of the Houston Astros, remembers chatting with Loftis during his early days as an owner.
“We had not seen each other in many years,” he said, “and right after I bought the ballclub (in the early 1990s) and everybody was beating me over the head, I called him and asked if we could have lunch. We did, and he said, ‘Drayton, my job is not to tell people what a good guy you are. Just put on your seat belt and ride with us.’ That was good advice he gave me. Jack brought people together.”
Loftis served as a director of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and in 1995 received the Headliners Foundation of Texas’ Lifetime Achievement Award. He twice served as a Pulitzer Prize juror.
Loftis was born Nov. 21, 1934, in the farming community of Hillsboro, between Waco and Dallas. He dreamed of being a star athlete, even when one of his high school English teachers questioned his choice. “Why are you wasting your time?” she asked. “You have writing talent.”
He played baseball his first year at Baylor, but the next year he needed money for school. Loftis took a sports reporting job with the Hillsboro Mirror.
“I had already bought myself a portable typewriter and a hat with a ticket in it saying ‘Press’ and I was on my way to a journalism career,” he told the oral history project.
Although he graduated from Baylor with a degree in business, journalism had claimed him for good. Loftis rose to become editor of the Mirror in 1962 before leaving for Houston.
For the last 27 years of his life, Loftis was married to the former Beverly Walker Blake of Baytown. They shared houses in West University Place and Lake Conroe, and the love of their dogs, a Pomeranian and a cocker spaniel.
“He was very smart and led a very interesting life,” Beverly Loftis said of her husband. “He was compassionate and everyone loved him.”
She echoed the sentiment of his many friends. “I’ll tell you this much: He loved the Chronicle. Everyone who worked for him loved him, and vice versa.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7, in the Jasek Chapel of Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, 1010 Bering Dr. in Houston. Immediately following, all are invited to greet the family during a reception in the adjacent grand foyer.