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Stan Lipsey, longtime News publisher and community leader, dies

Stanford Lipsey, the longtime Buffalo News publisher once dubbed Western New York’s “guardian angel” by a United States senator, died Tuesday morning in his Rancho Mirage, Calif., home. He was 89.

Lipsey, who was named News publisher in 1983, served in the post for 29 years before stepping aside to become publisher emeritus at the end of 2012.

[Photo Gallery: Stanford Lipsey through the years]

But he did more than lead one of the nation’s most thriving newspapers. After moving to Buffalo in the early 1980s, he played a significant role in boosting and promoting the community.

He was a preservationist, philanthropist and community leader who often picked up the phone to call a New York State governor or U.S. senator to lobby for Buffalo projects. He played significant roles in getting the Buffalo Niagara International Airport built, acquiring state aid and commitment for Roswell Park Cancer Institute and resurrecting the Darwin Martin House and the Richardson Complex near SUNY Buffalo State.

“He was our guardian angel,” U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer said of his good friend. “You could see him hovering above Western New York and looking out for it every moment of the day.”

[Related: Gov. Cuomo praises Lipsey]

Local leaders echoed those thoughts.

“He was always in a hurry to change the trajectory of Buffalo,” said Howard Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development Group and president and CEO of Empire State Development. “I don’t think anything could have made him happier than if Buffalo’s economy were firing on all cylinders.”

A jazz aficionado, Lipsey started the Jazz at the Albright-Knox Series and founded the Tralfamadore Jazz Institute. An accomplished photographer, he published a photo book of nature and architecture and donated several of his prints that now hang in Roswell Park offices and public spaces.

As philanthropists, he and his wife, Judi, donated at least $1 million to each of the following: Roswell Park; his alma mater, the University of Michigan; the Darwin Martin House; the Richardson Restoration Corp.; and the local SPCA. The Lipsey name will grace new buildings at both the Richardson complex and the SPCA.

As publisher of The News, he was widely credited with being the guiding force that allowed the former Buffalo Evening News to survive in the 1980s, thrive in the next couple of decades and remain strong during the current challenging times for daily newspapers in America.

Under Lipsey’s watch, The News won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for the work of editorial cartoonist Tom Toles. And during his tenure as publisher, The News hired Adam Zyglis, who won the Pulitzer in the same category early last year.

Those weren't his only Pulitzers. Perhaps his proudest journalistic accomplishment was the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Sun Newspapers of Omaha for an investigative series about Boys Town, which he coordinated as publisher in 1973.

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Warren Buffett, left, and Stan Lipsey at the Omaha Sun in the 1970s.

The early Omaha years

As a native of Omaha, Neb., born on Oct. 8, 1927, Lipsey’s twin love affair with photography and newspapers dated more than 75 years. He got his first camera at age 10, became a photographer for the Omaha Central High Register and later was photography editor of the University of Michigan yearbook.

After earning his B.A. in economics from Michigan in 1948, Lipsey worked briefly in sales and public relations and went into the Air Force, where he served as editor of the Offutt Air Force Base (Neb.) publication Air Pulse at the start of the Korean War.

In the early 1950s, he returned to Omaha to work for a company that owned two free-circulation weeklies. Fifteen years later, as publisher, president and majority owner of the Sun Newspapers of Omaha, he oversaw seven paid and five free newspapers.

In 1968, Lipsey decided the Sun’s future depended on deeper pockets. One year later, he sold the group to Warren E. Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway.

[Video: Buffett, Lipsey on early days at The News]

Together, Lipsey and Buffett led the Sun to its crowning achievement: An expose of Father Flanagan’s revered Boys Town, which had created a money machine, raking in $25 million a year while the population of boys it served actually was declining.

That story won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1973, the first Pulitzer won by a weekly newspaper, and led the Boys Town board to stop its fundraising and invest part of its $209 million net worth into projects that helped young people.


Coming to Buffalo

His own battles in Omaha prepared Lipsey for his first task with The News.

“I came from a weekly group in Omaha that was competing against the daily, so I always was the underdog,” he once explained. “I always had to scrap to get the newspaper ahead.”

After Blue Chip Stamps bought The Buffalo Evening News in 1977, Buffett began consulting with his good friend as the newspaper fought its war for survival with the Courier-Express. Buffett sent Lipsey to Buffalo to get his own firsthand impressions of The News, leading to more frequent visits, with Lipsey delivering a simple formula for newspaper survival:

“The key in winning a newspaper battle is, ‘Can you be the marketplace for autos and real estate?’ ” he said. “That’s how you win.”

Lipsey imported one of his and Buffett’s favorite features from the Omaha Sun, its Homefinder section, including TV commercials to boost its popularity. That move helped position The News to become the marketplace for advertisers.

That helped The News prevail in its battle for survival with the Courier, which ceased publication in September 1982.

In 1983, Lipsey was named the sixth publisher of The News in its then-103-year history. He stayed in the post through the end of 2012.

“I say it’s no exaggeration that The News might now be extinct, save for Stan,” Buffett said. “We were getting clobbered. If Stan hadn’t come there, I don’t think we would have made it. ... He basically saved The News.”

Stan Lipsey, left, and Warren Buffett share a laugh in 2013. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Stan Lipsey and Warren Buffett share a laugh in 2013. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Lipsey earned a reputation as a hands-on publisher, a familiar figure on the editorial, advertising and circulation floors, never shy about voicing his opinion. He often quipped that he could handle any supervisory job in the newspaper, other than on the production side.

Warren T. Colville, his successor as The News publisher, called Lipsey's death a "huge loss" for the community.

"He was my mentor for over 25 years, and he taught me a lot about newspapering and about the community."

Leading The News

As publisher, Lipsey moved the newspaper from an evening publication to all day and then a morning newspaper; transformed it into a digital presence; and moved it into the printing business.

At a time when many daily newspapers in the United States were struggling financially, Lipsey helped The News avoid significant newsroom layoffs, kept the company profitable and left the newspaper in a strong position to survive the 21st-century challenges for daily papers. The News continues to enjoy one of the nation’s highest market penetrations for a major daily newspaper.

Along the way, Lipsey also could boast that he named The News’ first woman editor, Margaret M. Sullivan, in 1999, while also promoting women to the positions of senior vice president and executive sports editor.

Shortly before he became publisher emeritus of The News, Lipsey was asked what kept him going as publisher through three decades of twists and turns in the ever-evolving newspaper industry.

“I love newspapers,” he replied, without hesitation. “I love the news product.”

Stan Lipsey, alongside President George W. Bush in the White House's Roosevelt Room, remotely initiating The Buffalo News' new press in 2004. (Bill Wippert/News file photo)

Stan Lipsey, alongside President George W. Bush in the White House's Roosevelt Room, remotely initiating The Buffalo News' new press in 2004. (Bill Wippert/News file photo)

Lipsey’s footprint in the newspaper industry extends far beyond Western New York.

Donald Graham, longtime chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington Post Co., said Lipsey’s success in Buffalo was a factor in Buffett’s decision to buy 63 newspapers in 2012. Lipsey convinced Buffett that newspapers focusing on their community and the news most important to their readers still could remain a good business investment.

“Stan is an amazing story,” Graham said recently. “The best news in the newspaper industry is Berkshire’s acquisition of all those newspapers, and that wouldn’t have happened without Stan. I have no doubt about that.”

Community leader

Throughout his nearly 30 years as Buffalo News publisher, Lipsey carved out a role as an influential community leader who left an indelible mark on his adopted hometown, especially in philanthropy, community service and architecture.

“People have this mistaken image of Buffalo,” he said shortly after making Buffalo his home, “but after they’ve been here, they change their minds right quick.”

As publisher, Lipsey was a strong supporter of the types of projects that have brought huge cranes to downtown Buffalo and the new medical corridor in recent years. While much of that support was played out in public, insiders also noted that he combined a quick, inventive mind with dogged determination to get things done behind the scenes.

One of his greatest legacies may be the modern, single-terminal Buffalo Niagara International Airport that replaced the patchwork, inefficient two-terminal facility. Behind-the-scenes efforts orchestrated by Lipsey also helped keep Roswell Park Cancer Institute from becoming second-rate.

Lipsey also had Buffett’s ear and enlisted the billionaire’s aid to attract or retain some key Western New York projects.

After Lipsey urged Buffett to look at Buffalo for Geico expansion, the insurance company located a customer-service center in Amherst that recently hired its 2,500th worker.

Lipsey also lured Buffett to come here in 1998 to hawk enough Buffalo Bills premium seats to help ensure the team would stay in Western New York.

Starting in probably the 1990s, he remained a key figure in the restorations of both the Darwin Martin House and the Richardson Olmsted Complex near SUNY Buffalo State.

 Stan Lipsey standing in the stairwell of the first floor of the Richardson Olmsted Complex during renovations in 2011. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Stan Lipsey standing in the stairwell of the first floor of the Richardson Olmsted Complex during renovations in 2011. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

It was Lipsey’s belief that a community must build on its strengths, and one of Buffalo’s strengths is the richness of its 20th-century architecture, Zemsky said.

Stan Lipsey, Decorators’ Show House Chair Molly Gibson and Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin discuss plans for the Decorators’ Show House in 1981. (News file photo)

Stan Lipsey, Decorators’ Show House Chairwoman Molly Gibson and Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin discuss plans for the Decorators’ Show House in 1981. (News file photo)

For years, Lipsey used his voice to lobby hard for first-rate architecture in Buffalo, with The News at one point sponsoring an architectural review of the new airport, Roswell Park additions and what is now Key Bank Center.

Among other honors, Lipsey was given the Spirit of Wright Award in 1997 by the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy and the New York State Governor’s Parks and Historic Preservation Award by Gov. George E. Pataki the following year. Early this year, he was given the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Excelsior Award by the American Institute of Architects.

M&T Bank Corp. Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers, who served as best man at Lipsey's wedding, described his close friend's love of family, Buffalo, The News and photography, along with a special fondness for the city's architecture.

"He went out of his way to focus on many of our architectural treasures, whether it was the Richardson Building or the Darwin Martin House," said Wilmers, who also teamed with Lipsey in buying four smaller New England newspapers last spring.

In Lipsey's nearly 30 years at the helm of The News, he championed several local initiatives – including Kids Day, Cradle Beach Camp, the Junior League of Buffalo Decorators’ Show House, The News Neediest Fund, Books for Kids and the Summer Jazz Series – that have become almost synonymous with The Buffalo News, and thus with Lipsey.

He also assumed active, and often leadership, posts on a host of community boards, agencies and initiatives, including the Buffalo Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, the New York State Business Council, the University at Buffalo School of Management, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Business Backs the Bills, Canisius College, the former Marine Midland Bank and the Tralfamadore Jazz Institute. He also served on the board of the Korean War National Museum.

Competitive zeal

On a more personal level, friends cited Lipsey’s competitive zeal, which surfaced at One News Plaza, on community issues – and on the tennis court.

But he also showed his lighter side, often flashing his sense of humor, infectious laugh and quick wit. Lipsey clearly relished walking through the newsroom, even in his mid-80s, trading quips with much younger reporters, sometimes kidding them about their own posture, receding hairlines or advancing age.

“For all his smarts and his accomplishments and his dedication to the community, I can’t think of Stan without thinking that at the same time he was boyish in a way,” said Zemsky, his good friend. “He always had this mischievous twinkle in his eye.”

On Tuesday, Buffett summed up his more than half-century friendship with Lipsey.

"We had unbelievable fun together," he said. "We jogged together, we ate ice cream, and we ran The News together."

Lipsey once summed up his hobbies succinctly, saying, “I play tennis and golf very badly, and I listen to jazz very well.”

He also left a legacy of philanthropy.

Lipsey and his wife, Judi, in recent years became one of 10 families, dubbed the “Circle of 10,” to pledge at least $1 million to Roswell Park; they pledged more than $2 million. He also donated $3 million to renovate the Student Publications Building at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

As a photographer, Lipsey specialized in capturing the beauty of our world, whether it was found in landscapes, architectural gems, abstractions or even the serenity of Forest Lawn. He has been honored with photo displays in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center and several national venues.

“Abstract patterns of color and light – whether playing over a glass-skinned architectural facade, rows of snow-covered tombstones or the surface textures of tree bark – are the focus of his photographic lens,” Louis Grachos, former director of the Albright-Knox, said about Lipsey’s photos in 2009.

In his images of shadows in the woods, the contrasts of fall colors and other natural beauty, another critic wrote, “Lipsey’s skill and art is that he makes it look as if it flows easily.”

Survivors include his wife of 14 years, the former Judith C. Hojnacki; a daughter, Janet; a son, Daniel; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in Temple Beth Zion, Delaware Avenue, Buffalo.

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