Paul Zilly’s name will probably never be engraved in the Newseum. His name probably won’t be remembered among journalistic heavyweights like Pulitzer, Hearst, Graham, or McCormick.
But Paul embodied the meaning of community journalism, and for the folks in Crystal Lake, Ill., Paul was every bit a newspaperman as those heavyweights.
Paul recently died at age of 83. As publisher of the Crystal Lake Herald … the predecessor to today’s Northwest Herald … Paul was the newspaper, and the newspaper was the community.
I had the honor to work for him right before he retired in 1983, shortly after the company that owned the paper was sold to Shaw Media. A quiet and affable man, Paul had a wonderful sense of humor and strong love for his community. It was a love that I, as a way-too-young managing editor, learned to appreciate and respect.
I was thankful for Paul hiring me as editor, although I had little experience beyond reporting. I remember being called to the interview after spending an all-nighter covering a local news story. I arrived wearing the same clothes I had on the day before with a day-old growth of beard and hair crying out to be washed. He carried on the interview without wincing once, but at the end asked “One last question…will you shave if offered the job?”
Paul’s first piece of advice to me was “don’t make waves.” But I didn’t listen to him and quickly found myself challenged by some of the town’s more influential people. But Paul always stood beside me and defended my decisions and actions. Later, when the fires subsided, he’d give me a quick lesson on diplomacy. Those lessons were valuable the next time we’d cross swords with the town leaders.
Paul didn’t want us to make waves, but I think he enjoyed it when we rocked the boat.
Most of all, Paul taught me the value of community journalism and its impact on readers. How Little League games had the same importance to the community as what went on in Springfield and Washington. How people and what makes them unique is as important as council meetings.
He taught me how to use the paper to celebrate great things. How to mourn a loss. How to listen to what readers have to say, and how to give them what they’re looking for in a newspaper.
Shortly after Paul announced his retirement (just after Shaw took over the paper … and to this day I still believe he didn’t want to go), I was working a booth at a local business expo. Every one who visited that booth had a story about Paul. Some loved him and the paper. Others hated him and the paper. But they all were sad to see him leave, because they all knew Paul loved the paper, and he loved Crystal Lake.
Paul taught me a lot in the short time I worked with him, and he continues to be an inspiration. Paul knew the newspaper was the heart of its community. A good newspaper is read and embraced by its community. Readers may love it, or they may hate it, but they read it every day because they knew those pages reflected the community’s soul.
Paul Zilly was the embodiment of all things Crystal Lake. And the Crystal Lake Herald reflected that. On top of that, he was also a great guy.
Thanks for the life lessons and the memories, Paul.