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Gil Spencer, R.I.P.: Neil Westergaard remembers legendary Denver Post editor

Gil Spencer, former editor of the Denver Post, who died early this morning at the age of 85, was a rarity: a veteran journalist who was beloved by one and all -- and especially by the people with whom he once worked.

That's certainly true of Neil Westergaard, currently editor of the Denver Business Journal, who served as both city editor and executive editor during Spencer's revivifying stint at the Post.

"He loved people so much, and they felt it," he says. "And because of that, they would do anything for him."

Of course, Spencer had already had an amazing career in journalism before coming to the Post in 1989. He won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1974 while at The Trentonian and went on to edit the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News. And Westergaard says he needed every bit of his experience to turn the Post around.

"Dean [Singleton] bought the paper in 1987, and we went through a kind of tumultuous time," he says. "There was a wage freeze and we had a kind of crazy publisher, Moe Hickey, who was prone to tantrums. So in late '89, Dean and his partner, Dick Scudder, came in and surveyed the newsroom and replaced the publisher and the editor at the time, Chuck Green, who was made editorial page editor, and they brought in Gil and [publisher] Don Hunt. And Gil just immediately transformed a newspaper that had been so down, so dysfunctional. He got everybody pulling in the right direction and made people believe in themselves.

"Gil was charmingly profane, and he showed every day how much he loved the business and loved the people in it."

About a year and a half into Spencer's stint, he appointed Westergaard executive editor. "Gil knew this would probably be his last job, and he was looking for people to succeed him," Westergaard remembers, adding, "I was back in New York five years ago for his 80th birthday, and his son said to me that his dad, who was a big horse-racing fan, had spent his life betting on long shots, and I guess I was one of them. There are countless people who he's helped in the same way he helped me."

By 1993, Spencer was ready to retire -- and although nearly two decades have passed since he stepped down as editor of the Post, the memories of him remain strong. "He was quirky and eccentric in the most positive ways, and there were so many personality types who could align with him," Westergaard notes. "And I've never seen anybody who had such an understanding of readers and human nature. He could tell almost instantly which stories were going to have legs, as he used to say, and which ones weren't.

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"He was a stranger to the West when he came out here -- he was an Eastern, urban journalist. But that doesn't matter. He knew human nature, and he knew it wasn't that different anywhere you went."

According to Westergaard, Spencer's final health crisis struck around Memorial Day. "He had pneumonia and fluid around his heart," he recalls. "He had an operation and came through it fine. But then he developed an infection they couldn't pinpoint." In the end, his body couldn't take the strain; he passed away this morning with his family around him. Funeral services are tentatively planned for next Thursday in New York.

But while Spencer is gone, his legacy remains. "None of us who knew him is ever going to be quite the same with him gone," Westergaard says. "As an editor, not a day goes by that I don't think of Gil Spencer and wonder, 'How would he handle this situation?'"

More from our Media archive: "Denver Business Journal Neil Westergaard on the Need for Positive Economic Stories."

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