Henry Z. Urban, one of only seven publishers of The Buffalo News and the link between the newspaper’s founding family and its modern era under Warren Buffett, died Friday at Weinberg Campus, Getzville, after a lengthy illness. He was 94.
Mr. Urban served as publisher of The News from 1974 to 1983 and was considered a “people’s publisher,” a gentleman’s gentleman, who was a Buffalo guy from beginning to end.
“It’s home to us and we like it,” he said of Buffalo upon his retirement in June 1983. “The best is yet to come for this city.”
“He loved the newspaper business,” his son, Henry Jr., said Saturday, “and he loved Buffalo.”
Mr. Urban – a Yale University graduate and World War II Navy lieutenant with deep roots in Buffalo – began at The News in 1953, starting a career that spanned 30 years during a period marked by challenge and change for metropolitan papers.
Mr. Urban rose from an assistant business manager to business manager, treasurer and corporate director, before being named president and publisher in 1974, after the death of Kate R. Butler. Mr. Urban, who was close with the Butlers, had the distinction of being the first publisher of The News who was not a member of the Butler family, which founded the newspaper in 1880.
Described as a “quiet, unpretentious executive,” Mr. Urban quickly earned the title of the “people’s publisher,” a man who listened to readers’ concerns and did something about them, according to a 1983 story about his retirement from The News. Knowing how readers are annoyed by typographical errors, Mr. Urban each day scoured the first edition of the paper for errors, and when he spotted one was immediately on the phone to the production officer.
Mr. Urban was a familiar figure around The News plant, and it was customary for him to visit all the departments regularly to check on the daily production of the newspaper.
During the Blizzard of ’77, Mr. Urban was stranded in The News building with the other staffers and made the decision to print the Saturday Weekend Edition, even though delivery trucks were blocked by snowdrifts.
Ultimately, the trucks delivered both the Friday and Saturday newspapers. Mr. Urban eventually reached home Saturday afternoon with his car full of newspapers. He personally delivered the papers to subscribers in his neighborhood.
He was president and publisher when Buffett bought The News in 1977.
“Mr. Urban is one of the reasons we came to Buffalo. We liked what we saw and we still like what we see,” Buffett said in 1983, when announcing Mr. Urban’s retirement. “Our association with Mr. Urban is as satisfactory as any we’ve had with any key executive.”
At the time, Mr. Urban was in the middle of the crucial battle for survival that waged between The News and the Courier-Express. One of Buffett’s early decisions was to return to a Sunday morning paper, which meant Mr. Urban would end up visiting the plant at about 11:30 p.m. every Saturday night to check on the progress of the Sunday paper and chat with the workers.
“He was just the most cordial, kind, friendly individual,” said Stanford Lipsey, who worked with Mr. Urban for several years before succeeding him as publisher of The News. “He was a true Buffalo gentleman. That was his persona.”
Born in Buffalo on July 11, 1920, Mr. Urban was part of a prominent Buffalo family that came here as German immigrants and built one of the country’s leading milling companies, Urban Milling Co.
He graduated in 1939 from the Hotchkiss School, a college preparatory boarding school in Lakeville, Conn. Mr. Urban went on to Yale, where he graduated early and enlisted in the Navy during World War II. He served as a gunnery lieutenant on the USS Canberra.
Mr. Urban returned home from the war to work for the family business, before joining the Butlers at The News.
In the community, Mr. Urban was active on a number of boards, including Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Elmwood Franklin School, Canisius and Medaille colleges and the YMCA. He also was a past director of the New York State Publisher’s Association and a member of the parents council at Hamilton College, where his two sons attended.
After his retirement from The News, Mr. Urban and his wife, Ruth, continued to make their home in Buffalo, but they often visited their children and grandchildren in Leesburg, Va., Troy and Rye. He and his wife also took occasional trips to Europe, Florida, Hawaii and Nantucket Island, Mass.
Mr. Urban also enjoyed reading, particularly about the Civil War.
Besides his son, Henry Jr., Mr. Urban is survived by his wife of 66 years, the former Ruth “Dolly” Wickwire; another son, Ward A.; two daughters, Ruth Smith and Florence Hunn; and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.