When former Post-Dispatch Washington bureau chief Bob Adams died in January, he was laid to rest quietly at his home town in Illinois. There was no memorial service in Washington or even an item in the St. Louis newspaper where he had been a stellar journalist for 27 years.
Former colleagues remember Adams, who died at age 80, as a tenacious reporter, an elegant and fast writer with a prodigious memory and a fierce dedication to national and international coverage by the Post-Dispatch. He won numerous awards and was among the St. Louis Journalism Review‘s founding board of directors
“There was a purity to Bob as a journalist that I may never have seen elsewhere,” said Bill Lambrecht, a fellow Illinoisan who worked under Adams in Washington and later led the Post-Dispatch bureau. “Anybody who ever worked with Bob was a better reporter ever after.”
Adams’ longtime partner, poet and editor Laurie Stroblas, said he died in a Baltimore hospital on January 12 after a lengthy battle with cancer. She said he was buried in the Adams family plot in his home town of Geneseo, with no formal service because of Covid-19 restrictions. Adams is survived by a brother, Richard, of Champaign, IL. Stroblas said Adams, who had been an editor for the League of Women Voters and was active in the Gridiron Club in Washington, was working on a memoir at the time of his death.
It was a quiet ending to an outstanding career. Adams, a graduate of the University of Illinois, got his first taste of journalism as news editor of the Daily Illini. He joined the Post-Dispatch as a City Desk reporter in 1966 after working part-time at the Champaign-Urbana Courier. In St. Louis, Adams distinguished himself covering civil rights and poverty issues.
Promoted to the Washington Bureau in 1972, Adams covered aspects of the Watergate scandal, the FBI and CIA investigations in 1975, and the presidential campaigns of 1976, 1980, and 1984. In the mid-70s, Adams won an award from the National Civil Service League for exposing widespread political patronage involving the U.S. Civil Service Commission and other agencies.
Among Adams’ numerous foreign assignments were trips to the Middle East, Central America, Mexico, and President Reagan’s visit to Europe in 1984. J.B. Forbes, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who accompanied Adams on two Post-Dispatch reporting trips to Central America in the 1980s, remembers Adams as an extremely well-prepared and tenacious interviewer.
“If he wasn’t satisfied with an answer, he would ask it again in a slightly different way. He wanted real answers from politicians and not the usual political speech,” Forbes said. Adams and Forbes won an award from the Overseas Press Club for their coverage of turmoil in Central America.
Jon Sawyer, who succeeded Adams in 1993 and led the bureau until 2005, credited Adams for much of the bureau’s success during the decade of his leadership. Adams had replaced Thomas W. Ottenad as bureau chief in 1983 at a time of generational change that brought aggressive young reporters to the bureau who won major journalism prizes in the late 80s and early 90s. At its height, in 1990, the bureau had a staff of eight journalists.
“Those of us in the 1980s generation spent our careers hearing about the so-called ‘golden era’ that had come just before,” said Sawyer. “But for my money our team from those years … was every bit the equal of the predecessors we had so admired.”
Sawyer, now executive director of the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., said Adams set a stellar example with his international and political reporting: “He wrote fast, he wrote clean, and he wrote elegant, with memorable interviews and a clear command of often complicated history and context.”
Carl P. Luebsdorf, who was bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News when Adams led the Post-Dispatch bureau , said Adams “was very different from many Washington reporters who become bureau chiefs in that his passion was serious investigative stories, rather than the nitty gritty of campaigns and politics. That is evident from the many journalism awards he won.”
Kathy Best, a former Post-Dispatch Washington correspondent who later became editor of the Seattle Times, praised Adams’ stellar reporting, writing, and his steadfast support for her and other young journalists. Best now directs the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.
“Although Bob was a slight man, his intellect was towering,” Best said. “He could quote passages of historic speeches stretching back decades, cite key facts about foreign policy and defense spending from memory, recount the fine points of policy debates about scores of topics. And he could do that all quickly.”
Lambrecht said Adams’ deadline prowess recalled “what the legendary New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling once said of himself: I can write faster than anybody who can write better than me and better than anybody who can write faster than me.”
“He was a sight to behold, say, at a political convention,” recalls Lambrecht. “As I pecked away aimlessly on something, Bob would already have blasted out 50 or 60 inches and set his sights on a hamburger.”
Adams also prided himself as being a voice for the common man and woman. “My trademark is “ordinary” people,” he once wrote. “Workers, shoppers, campesinos, donkey cart drivers – all found voice in my stories. And, of course, the poor. People in dirt floors and bamboo huts. Children playing in human waste. The teen-age mother holding a baby with matchstick arms and legs…. Always they’re with me – this day, and all the tomorrows.”
Best, who also comes from a small town in Illinois, said Geneseo’s history “may have influenced Bob’s passion for telling the stories of those left out or overlooked. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a town that deeply valued education.”
Sawyer, Lambrecht, Best and other former Bureau journalists credited Adams unerring support for his reporters. “He loved enterprise, investigations, and taking down big shots who had abused the public’s trust,” recalled Sawyer. “And he was the constant champion of every one of us who worked with him.”
Adams was also legendary at the newspaper for his colorful idiosyncrasies. “When the management of his apartment building announced that after 25 years it was replacing all of the ovens Bob balked,” Sawyer recalled. “He had never used the oven, he said—and besides, it was where he kept his important papers.”
Adams loved poetry, He could quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” on demand and his partner Stroblas, a poet herself, said he often wrote and recited poetry. Luebsdorf recalls that Adams, who was elected to the Gridiron Club in 1989, “enjoyed annual participation in Gridiron shows and joining the rest of us off-key participants in the Gridiron chorus.”
Forbes recalls that Adams’ “shorthand note taking was unreadable to me, but it worked for him. He would spend days doing interviews and then disappear into his hotel room for several more days writing.”
While Adams had a good sense of humor, Forbes remembers, “he didn’t like it when I took his picture when he was walking through the jungle wearing his trench coat.”
Adams enjoyed meals at Washington’s tony Hay-Adams Hotel, which young correspondents called the “Hay Bob Adams Hotel” after him. And he warmed to any journalist who knew enough about Illinois to locate his home town.
Best said her knowledge of Geneseo helped smooth the way to a productive relationship with Adams. “Our shared backgrounds gave me the courage to pitch stories to Bob, and the confidence to keep pitching even when he shot down my bad ideas,” she said.
“He was a wonderful journalist and an even better human being.”
Aloysia Hamalainen, whose three-decade tenure as the Washington bureau’s office manager started in 1976, said Adams was “the kindest and most generous” bureau chief to her. “After he retired, he stayed in touch and was a dear friend who was always upbeat and interested in my life.”
Koenig worked under Bob Adams in the Washington Bureau for six years. He left the Post-Dispatch in late 1994 to pursue journalism in Europe and, later, Africa.