Ralph Otwell, a 1960 Nieman Fellow and former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, died on March 8, 2017 from complications from heart failure in Evanston, Illinois. He was 90.
During his 15-plus years as editor of the Sun-Times, from 1968 to 1984, Otwell oversaw coverage—with a heavy focus on investigative reporting—that won the newspaper six Pulitzer Prizes. Otwell also oversaw, in 1979, the paper’s Mirage Tavern expose. In the 25-part series, the Sun-Times teamed up with the Better Government Association to open a Chicago tavern—staffed with undercover reporters—to investigate allegations of widespread corruption among city officials, documenting city inspectors accepting bribes to ignore crimes and city code violations at the establishment.
Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Otwell began his newspaper career as a teenager, writing articles for his high school’s student paper as well as the local Hot Springs Sentinel-Record newspapers. He served in the Army from 1944 to 1947, including in the infantry in occupied Germany, before attending the University of Arkansas on the GI bill, later transferring to Northwestern University, where he was a reporter for the school’s Daily Northwestern. After graduating in 1951, he returned to active military duty in the Korean War, where he was editor of the Pacific edition of the Army’s Stars & Stripes newspaper.
Otwell joined the Chicago Sun-Times in 1953 as a copy editor, holding positions as an assistant city editor, news editor, assistant managing editor for weekend news, and assistant to the editor before becoming managing editor in 1968. Eleven years later, in 1976, he became the paper’s editor. Along with the Mirage Tavern series, the paper pursued big investigative stories such as the 1981 probe into Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal John Cody, and the disappearance of up to $1 million of church money during his tenure. A federal investigation was suspended when Cody died in 1982, but the investigation had riled the city’s Catholic community and drew the paper both heavy praise and heavy criticism. In a letter to the editor, one veteran Chicago priest warned Otwell to “get your affairs in order. We pray for your sudden and unprovided death every day.”
Otwell, along with several other top newsroom editors and business executives, resigned from the Sun-Times when it was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 1984. After leaving, he considered starting a new daily Chicago newspaper (though it never came to fruition), and both taught and took classes at Northwestern University’s Institute for Learning in Retirement.
He is survived by two sons and many grandchildren.