A longtime reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Woo (1936-2006) turned to teaching in 1996 and was known for the personal essays and letters he wrote to his students

William F. Woo was born in Shanghai in 1936, and his parents divorced when he was 10. His mother took him back to her home state of Missouri, where he grew up with a self-perception as “a twilight child.” That history, he wrote, gave him a perspective “beyond the experience of people born whole, either into a race or a culture.”

This outside-looking-in view served him well as a feature writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and it drew the attention of the Nieman selection committee. Bill used his fellowship to expand his horizons and build the confidence to seek bigger projects. When he returned, his paper obliged him by granting the freedom to travel and dream up his own assignments on social and cultural trends. He conceptualized these projects, he told Daniel W. Pfaff, the biographer of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., as “essentially Harvard term papers turned into journalism.” 

When this work led to offers from other newspapers, the Post-Dispatch promoted him to the editorial page. Pulitzer decided to retire in 1986, and he split his editor-publisher responsibilities, making Bill Woo editor of the paper, the first non-member of the Pulitzer family to hold that job, and the first Asian-American to become the top editor of a major American newspaper.

But the good times were running out for newspapers. As technology enabled newer and more specialized forms of advertising, business-oriented members of the Pulitzer family sought a different kind of leadership. In Bill’s view, the paper’s progressive editorial voice and its watchdog advocacy for the public interest were threatened. He was forced out of the position in 1996 and escaped, as a number of us have done, to a university. Stanford made him its Lorry I. Lokey visiting professor of journalism, and he held that position until his death in 2006.

As editor, Bill wrote a Sunday column that related current news events to everyday life. As professor, he continued that habit in the form of periodic letters to his students. The best of those were collected in the 2007 book "Letters from the Editor: Lessons on Journalism and Life."  One of his best pieces described the work of a severely disabled friend who stayed connected to journalism by writing, with progressively greater difficulty, an irregular column based on things he saw on C-Span.

“Like that old firehouse dog,” Bill wrote, “he still hears the bell and still wants to go. Never feel sorry for a man like that. Feel sorry for those who never hear the bell and never go.”