Creed Carter Black, the veteran newsman who helped the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation become a billion-dollar philanthropic powerhouse, and South Florida recover from Hurricane Andrew, died Tuesday following a stroke.
Serving as the foundation’s president/CEO from 1988-1998, the Eastern Kentucky native was 86.
At the same time wickedly witty and Southern gracious, tough but fair-minded Black, “perfected the art of being the old curmudgeon, the skeptic, but he was a warm and unbelievable supportive person once he decided you were OK,’’ said Alberto Ibargüen, the foundation’s current president/CEO. “He was always like your uncle. You don’t fake that.’’
The Knight Foundation was established in 1950 with less than $10,000, initially to make educational grants in the 26 cities in which the Knight brothers owned newspapers. It’s now a major underwriter to arts, media and community-building groups worth $1.86 billion.
By the time Black took over in 1988, it held a $435 million portfolio. He oversaw the foundation’s headquarters move from Akron to Miami and boosted its influence in both the philanthropic and journalistic spheres through several high-profile initiatives.
Under his leadership, the foundation’s endowment grew to almost $1.2 billion, its grants increased from $16 million to $42 million., and its staff from five to 30. After Andrew tore through Miami-Dade in August 1992, the foundation contributed $10 million toward reconstruction.
Black’s legacy includes the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which advocates for college athletics reform; the Knight Chairs in Journalism program, which recruits working journalists to take endowed university chairs in journalism and public policy; and the National Community Development Initiative, which the foundation website calls “the largest philanthropic collaboration in U.S. history.’’
After Black announced his impending retirement in 1997, the late Alvah H. Chapman, chairman of Knight-Ridder, former owner of The Miami Herald and the Lexington Herald-Leader, which Black published, called Black’s tenure “a remarkable period of maturity and professionalism for the foundation....The concept of foundation initiatives can be credited to Creed.’’
Henry King Stanford, the late University of Miami president and a foundation trustee, said at the time that before Black, the foundation was “kind of a hip-pocket affair with no board policies guiding the granting of monies. He helped us focus.’’
Black’s newspaper career took him from Chicago to Nashville, Wilmington, Del., Savannah, Philadelphia and Lexington.
After taking the foundation post, he and his wife, the former Elsa Goss, settled in Pinecrest. Their daughter Michelle, 17, attends Ransom Everglades school. Black also had three sons from a previous marriage.
Elsa Goss, a Jewish Philly native, and Black, a Kentucky Methodist, had a synagogue wedding in December 1977. Because of his wife’s religion, Black was told he’d never be able to get into the “right’’ Lexington country club, his wife recalled. “He said, ‘I’ve been thrown out better places than that.’’’
“His name, Creed, was so appropriate, because he was very upstanding, moral and ethical,’’ Elsa Black said. “There was a certain amount of rigidity but such great wit.’’
A superb dancer, Black “was beside himself’’ when he got to take a few spins around the floor with the great Ginger Rogers at a swanky Kentucky Derby party, Elsa Black recalled.
She said he enjoyed the beach, golf and books, a pleasure taken from him last year when his eyesight failed.
“For someone who loved nothing more than to read the newspaper, it was a great tragedy,’’ she said.
Black got his first paying newspaper job at Kentucky’s Paducah Sun-Democrat when he was 17. His mother, a Paducah native, moved back home after Black’s father died in a lightning strike when his only son was 5. She later married Paducah’s mayor.
Black joined the U.S. Army in 1943, serving in Europe. During post-war reconstruction, he worked for the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper.
He came home from Germany with a Bronze Star, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a master’s from the University of Chicago.
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam worked with Black in Nashville. In 1983, he wrote Black’s speech “combined a kind of a nasal Kentucky back country twang with a certain Oxford Tory form. He was very serious and formal...’’
As the civil rights movement gathered steam in the late 1950s, Black “had a special feeling about the responsibility of a newspaper to its community,’’ Halberstam wrote.
Before taking the foundation post, Black’s only detour from journalism came during the Nixon administration, when he served as Assistant Secretary for Legislation in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
He returned to newspapers after 18 months, to run The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial pages.
Retired Miami Herald executive editor John McMullan, the Inquirer’s executive editor when Black was hired, said Black “brought vision, depth and a gracious wit to the Inquirer’s editorial pages, which sorely needed those qualities back then.’’
Black, named chairman/publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader Co., in 1977, served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1983, and was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1986.
That year, Black guided the news staff to its first Pulitzer Prize, for investigative reporting. Its series, “Playing Above the Rules,” exposed cash payoffs to basketball players in violation of NCAA regulations.
This was not popular in basketball-crazy Lexington, home to the University of Kentucky.
“There were boycotts of the advertising and circulation, and there was at least one rally against the paper,” John Carroll, Herald-Leader editor under Black, told the paper. He recalled at least one bomb threat and almost daily attacks on talk radio.
“He never wavered,” Carroll told the paper. “If you’re an editor, that’s the kind of person you want to have as a publisher.”
In his office, Black kept a framed copy of something that newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope once said: “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure — which is: try to please everybody.”
As Chapman said at Black’s retirement dinner, Black enjoyed the mail he got as Knight Foundation leader more than that sent to the Herald-Leader’s publisher.
Whereas the former often began “Eminent Sir,’’ he received the following after the sports-corruption series: “Dear Sir: May the sprays of a million polecats fall upon your pressroom and linger there through eternity. Go Big Blue!”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Black is survived by sons Creed Jr., of Philadelphia; Steven, of Greenwich, Conn.; and Douglas, of Chatham, N.J.
A memorial services is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at Kendall United Methodist, 7600 SW 104th St.
“Creed was genuinely a legend in journalism,’’ said David Lawrence Jr., a friend of 40 years. “He was as well read and smart as anyone I knew.’’
Black was “an extraordinary standup speaker and storyteller, so funny that you’d start laughing before he said anything,’’ said Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher and currently chairman of The Children's Movement of Florida. “He had strong values but was irreverent and iconoclastic...He was a modern thinker, but ‘old school’ in the best way.’’
In lieu of flowers, Black wanted memorial donations to Community Partnership for Homeless, where Black served on the board, 1550 North Miami Ave., Miami, FL 33136.
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.