July 27, 1933 – Dec. 1, 2012
James R. Whelan, the South Buffalo native who rose to some of the top posts in American journalism – including launching the Washington Times in 1982 – died Saturday in his Miami home after a long illness. He was 79.
The author of several books, especially on Latin America after a decade of covering the continent’s politics and government, Mr. Whelan will be best remembered as the first executive editor of the Washington Times when it was controversially launched by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
But Mr. Whelan defied all those who criticized the Times as a “Moonie” newspaper, molding it into a publication he said reflected the “Statement of Principles” that he penned for its first edition: “[It will be a newspaper] that will strive … to be fair … to be fearless. It will strive to do these things at the highest levels of quality and professionalism and integrity. And, because it will strive to do these things, it will in time become an excellent newspaper.”
The second of 10 children born to Margaret and Robert J. “Dinger” Whelan, who was a well-known baseball player who later became assistant chief of detectives in the Buffalo Police Department, Whelan graduated from Canisius High School before attending the University of Buffalo, Rhode Island University and earning a degree from Florida International University in 1972.
An Army veteran, he began his journalism career as a copy boy with the Buffalo Courier-Express before joining United Press International in Buffalo as the wire service’s youngest correspondent. He later worked at UPI bureaus in Providence, R.I., Boston, Buenos Aires, Caracas and San Juan and covered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
Earlier, he witnessed the 1956 sinking of the cruise liner Andrea Doria from a Navy airplane and wrote a first-person account of the experience. He received a prestigious Neimann fellowship to Harvard University in 1964 while stationed in Venezuela for UPI. Later, he was managing editor of the Miami News and editor of the Sacramento Union.
He also briefly worked in public relations for the International Telephone and Telegraph Co., before returning to the newspaper business in 1970 as Latin American correspondent for the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance.
Before returning to Miami in 2008, he lived in Chile, serving as a visiting professor at the University of Chile.
Known for views that reflected the Washington Times’s editorial policy, Mr. Whelan’s conservatism differed from some of the hard-edged views on cable television today, according to his brother, former State Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Whelan.
“He held deeply conservative views,” Judge Whelan said, “and to his credit, he was principled but not radical.”
He remembered him as an old-fashioned journalist who typed with two fingers, yet found himself a confidante of pundits and presidents.
“He was brilliant but not ostentatious,” the judge said.
Though Mr. Whelan had high hopes for his stint at the Times, he was fired from the paper in 1984, claiming that the church was controlling the publication. He was later managing director of news for the Christian Broadcasting Network before returning to South America, covering the continent for the Latin American News Service and writing on Chilean history.
He returned to Miami in 2008.
Survivors include a son, Robert J.; a daughter, Heather; five brothers, Jack, Thomas, Jerry, Paul and Kevin; and three sisters, Patricia Parker, Mary Halldin and Margaret Page.
A memorial service will be held in Buffalo on a date to be announced in January.
– News Staff Reporter Robert J. McCarthy