Local Obituaries

Tough-minded former Miami Herald editor John McMullan dies at 95

UPDATE: Services have been set for John McMullan: A viewing will be held at 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, at Stanfill Funeral Homes, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest. Burial will follow at Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Homes, 1717 SW 37th Ave., Miami.

John Edwin McMullan began his Miami Herald career in the 1920s as a carrier boy. He ended it in 1983 as the Miami Herald’s executive editor, a crusty, cantankerous, consummate newspaperman widely regarded as one of the most powerful people in South Florida.

McMullan died Monday night at East Ridge Retirement Center in Cutler Bay. He was 95.

During two terms as the Herald’s highest-ranking news executive, McMullan orchestrated numerous exposes of — and battles with — local institutions and power brokers. He opened domestic and foreign news bureaus, expanding the paper’s reach and horizon. His staff won five Pulitzer prizes.

“He was the epitome of the tough-minded editor, totally aggressive in the pursuit of the story — admired by so many, feared by those who had something to hide,’’ said David Lawrence Jr., former Miami Herald publisher.

“He was the best man in a breaking news situation that I ever saw, and Miami had a lot of breaking news situations,” said Larry Jinks, the Herald’s managing editor under McMullan. “He could not be intimidated.’’

He was tempestuous and demanding, requiring the best from his staff. When he was angry with a reporter, photographer or editor, which was often, his outbursts became the stuff of legend. They were known as “Big Mac attacks.”

“I’ve never seen anyone who could turn his temper on and off as quickly as McMullan,” said Susan Rodin, who served as his administrative assistant. “One of his favorite quotes was, ‘We can’t let the inmates run the asylum.’”

Clarence Jones, a former Herald reporter, wrote an essay in the Herald in 2003 recalling how one day McMullan edited a story by Juanita Greene, the Herald’s former longtime environmental reporter. After McMullan drastically cut her story, she exploded: “You are a sonofabitch! … But a loveable sonofabitch,’’ Jones wrote.

Outside the building, McMullan’s reputation was even more fierce. Lord help the corrupt politician or the ineffective public administrator who didn’t live up to his standards.

When McMullan retired, then-Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms told Time magazine: “It will be like missing a sore tooth.”

The magazine devoted a page to McMullan’s departure. One of the headlines: “An old-school editor steps down, leaving behind a better paper.”

“He was not hugely popular around town because he refused to toady to the $1,000-suit set, before that became the $3,000-suit set,” longtime Herald sports columnist Edwin Pope said. “McMullan loved nothing more than getting his foot on someone’s chest and keeping it there.”

He earned the respect, however, of some government officials.

Merrett Stierheim, the former Miami-Dade County manager who oversaw the construction of Metrorail and Miami MetroZoo, remembers his first meeting with McMullen in 1976.

“I walked into his office in the Herald. Not sure whether he looked up or not. His first words to me were, ‘Stierheim, you can’t build a goddamn zoo. How are you going to build a railroad?’ … He really pissed me off but that was vintage McMullen. He was a hard man — and I miss him. John was a great newspaperman.’’

McMullan’s family moved from Elberton, Ga., to Miami in 1926 when he was 5. Even as a 5-year-old, McMullan had no problem expressing displeasure. The family arrived just in time for the economic bust and the vicious 1926 hurricane, two events that McMullan later said “vindicated” his opposition to the move.

But he came to terms with South Florida.

He worked as a Herald newspaper delivery boy, earning seven cents per week for each paper delivered. After serving in the Army during World War II and working at the now-defunct Miami News, he joined the Miami Herald as city editor in 1957.

McMullan was sent by the paper’s then-owner — Knight Newspapers — to the chain’s Washington bureau and to the Philadelphia Inquirer. In between, he served as the Herald’s executive editor during the late 1960s and returned to that position in 1976.

During his second term as executive editor, as Miami’s population changed, he diversified the newspaper’s staff by dramatically expanding the Herald’s Hispanic and black reporters, photographers and editors. He inaugurated the Sunday Tropic magazine (which ceased publication in 1998), and launched its Weekend, Neighbors and Business Monday sections.

“John was one of those figures typically described as bigger than life. He was and much more. Any journalist who didn't work for him missed out on something wonderful,” said Doug Clifton, the Herald’s former executive editor.

In his final column, published on June 26, 1983, McMullan wrote:

“This, then, becomes my epitaph. I’ll be satisfied if it only reads: An editor who cared.”

McMullan is survived by his wife Betty. He was predeceased by his daughters Pamela and Linda. A viewing will be at 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, at Stanfill Funeral Homes, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest. Burial will follow at Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Homes, 1717 SW 37th Ave., Miami.

Parts of this obituary were pre-written by former Miami Herald reporter Martin Merzer.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen