In his 2009 memoir, Robert H. Phelps began by questioning whether his career was a fitting subject for a book. “Most of my work was as an editor, a shadowy figure in the backfield, blocking for, cheering on, and sometimes scolding star reporters and top editors,” he wrote in “God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at The New York Times.”
During a lengthy career that was hardly spent in the shadows, he oversaw the Globe’s award-winning coverage of the first year of court-ordered desegregation in the Boston Public Schools. Mr. Phelps was 97 when he died Wednesday. He lived in Lincoln.
Hired in 1974 as the Globe’s assistant managing editor for news, Mr. Phelps subsequently served as managing editor and executive editor, and helped bring a heightened professionalism to the paper. “He injected a whole new level of discipline, rigorous editing, and structure into the way the place operated,” said Matthew V. Storin, former editor of the Globe. “It made a huge difference to the quality of the paper.”
In “Common Ground,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the busing crisis, J. Anthony Lukas described Mr. Phelps as “a meticulous editor, scrupulously attentive to detail . . . [and] particularly adept at communicating his seasoned judgment to younger reporters.”
When the Globe hired Mr. Phelps in 1974, he faced perhaps the most daunting challenge in the paper’s history, serving as point man for its coverage of implementation of federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s desegregation order.
A month after arriving at the paper, in April 1974, Mr. Phelps told participants at a Globe think tank that when he’d worked at his previous employer, The New York Times, he hadn’t read its editorials and he didn’t intend to read Globe editorials. “I don’t want to know what the Globe thinks about the news. I just want to read the news.” Pledging to report “all sides” of the story, Mr. Phelps drew up a comprehensive plan for coverage and deployed a team of some 60 reporters throughout the city.
The Globe became a lightning rod for criticism, especially from antibusing forces. Both Mr. Phelps and Globe editor Thomas Winship received death threats.
In 1975, the Globe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for Public Service for what the Pulitzer committee called the paper’s “massive and balanced coverage . . . in a bitterly emotional climate.”
Mr. Phelps later had a hand in another Pulitzer, when a Globe Spotlight Team series on the MBTA won the prize for investigative reporting. Mr. Phelps supervised the team.
“You should feel pretty smug,” Winship wrote in a note to Mr. Phelps in 1980, after the Globe won three Pulitzers that year. “Compare a Globe six years ago to today’s.”
Mr. Phelps was by then the Globe’s executive editor, the paper’s second-highest newsroom position. He was named to the post in 1979, having served since 1976 as managing editor of the morning Globe when the paper still published morning and evening editions. In those jobs, Mr. Phelps added to his reputation for by-the-book journalism, and his rigorous approach complemented the more improvisational style of Winship.
It was Mr. Phelps who put an end to the practice of reporters also writing opinion columns. He also instituted a system of story editing to encourage closer editorial supervision of news stories. In 1981, he put in place the paper’s first corrections policy, which guided the paper for years. “Higher standards of the Globe required that the corrections process be standardized,” he later told the Globe’s ombudsman. “We could no longer deal with our mistakes on a hit-or-miss basis.”
Mr. Phelps “noticed everything and was always delivering lessons, in person and in memos,” said Charles Mansbach, a former Globe Page One editor.
Reporters and editors were known to shudder when they saw in their mailboxes a note from Mr. Phelps, which he signed with his initials, lower-case: “bp.”
As an editor, Mr. Phelps “could make a clumsy story sing,” said Bill Kovach, who formerly was the Times’s Washington bureau chief and curator of the Nieman Foundation. “More than that, Bob knew how to nurture young talent — not by coddling them, but by helping them learn how to encase documented facts in the beauty of a well-written piece.”
Mr. Phelps was mentor to a number of talented young journalists — and, in one celebrated instance, clerical personnel. He hired Eileen McNamara as his secretary, and later as a Globe reporter and columnist. In 1997, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. “Everything I know about ethics, I learned from Bob Phelps,” said McNamara, who now teaches at Brandeis University. “He had extraordinarily high standards, and I think he was a great editor.”
One of four children, Robert Howard Phelps was born in Erie, Pa., a son of Harry Vernon Phelps, who worked as a painter for General Electric, and the former Ruth Edwina Fox.
Mr. Phelps graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree and served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Journalism drew him, he wrote in his memoir, because he “wanted to write about events and change the world.”
His first newspaper job was as a reporter for The Ambridge Citizen in Pennsylvania. He worked as a reporter for the United Press in Harrisburg, Pa., then as a copy editor for The Providence Journal-Bulletin. In 1954, he joined the staff of The New York Times. Rising rapidly, he served as assistant metropolitan editor, assistant to the national editor, and deputy chief of the Washington bureau.
Max Frankel, who later became the Times’ executive editor, served as bureau chief over Mr. Phelps. He described him in his memoirs as “my indispensable deputy, the selfless stage manager without whom no journalism can succeed. He deftly managed assignments and copy flow and with steely patience coordinated our labor with the volatile demands of a half-dozen departments and a hundred temperaments in New York.”
Six weeks after the Watergate break-in, Mr. Phelps took a month-long vacation in Alaska. His absence helped make him, in Lukas’s words, a convenient “scapegoat for the Times’ disappointing performance” covering the scandal.
In a 2009 interview with the Globe, Mr. Phelps was unsparing about the Times failing to pursue a key tip two months after the break-in, and about his own role at the Times. “We missed out,” he said, adding: “The fact is that I bear major responsibility for our failure to follow up on our best opportunity for an early Watergate breakthrough.”
The matchmaker for Mr. Phelps’s move to Boston was Christopher Lydon, a former Globe reporter who then worked at the Times.
“I’m told I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t see you,” Winship wrote Mr. Phelps. “Why don’t you come up and talk with me?”
Mr. Phelps was named associate editor and assistant to the publisher in 1982.
Later that year, he was also named vice president of Affiliated Publications, then the Globe’s parent company. Stepping down as Affiliated vice president in 1987, Mr. Phelps took up acting. He became the oldest enrolled student in Brandeis University’s theater arts program.
“As an editor,” Mr. Phelps said in a 1987 WGBH-FM interview, “I deliberately never got angry. I held my feelings inside. But in acting, you can’t hold your feelings inside. You have to follow the impulse. To be an actor, I have to break down training of over 40 years. In doing that, I have learned that I hardly knew what an impulse was. I had submerged my freedom to do things, to say things. Now, I’m trying to get that freedom back.”
He didn’t give up journalism entirely. From 1990 to 1998, he edited Nieman Reports, the journal of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. “Almost overnight he turned what was essentially a ‘second thought’ publication into an adventure in journalism of verification, and he did it with almost no budget or staff,” Kovach recalled.
Mr. Phelps also was coauthor of a textbook, “Libel: Rights and Responsibilities,” and editor of two books: “Men in the News” and “Witness to History,” the memoirs of US diplomat Charles E. Bohlen.
No funeral is planned for Mr. Phelps, who left no immediate family. Burial will be private.
In 1947, Mr. Phelps married Elizabeth King, with whom he shared a passion for birdwatching. She died in 2003. “One thing that really marked Bob was his complete devotion to his wife, Betty,” Storin said. “They were just a wonderful, loving couple.”
In his memoir, Mr. Phelps recalled that he once wrote a news story for the Times of the sighting of a glossy ibis in New Jersey.
“From then on I was the Times’s ornithology expert,” he wrote in his memoir, “which, if I had thought about it, should have cast doubt on my faith in the Times.”Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.