Nothing about Ann M. Wilhelmy appeared combative or controversial. The soft-spoken copy editor at the Star Tribune stood a mere 5 feet tall, and was known for her gentle chuckle and wry sense of humor.
But as a union leader, Wilhelmy took on management at both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, successfully negotiating better wages and benefits for hundreds of newspaper workers, while handling workplace disputes and grievances with a calm, evenhanded honesty that earned her respect from both workers and newspaper executives.
The tough-minded journalist spent two terms and 16 years as president of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild and Typographical Union, where she helped coordinate the union's strategy through distressing economic times, as both of the Twin Cities' large newspapers shed staff amid declining circulation and revenue.
Wilhelmy died on March 22 at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, about 2½ years after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was 68.
"Ann didn't go around rattling sabers and spouting rhetoric," said Lynda Hanner, former co-chair of the Pioneer Press unit of the Newspaper Guild and longtime advertising salesperson at the paper. "She was realistic and fair and compassionate, and always left you feeling like everything was going to be OK."
A St. Paul native who started at the Star Tribune in 1967, Wilhelmy consistently stood up for lower-paid workers, including clerical employees and news aides who perform many of the more mundane but vital tasks that keep a newspaper functioning. Many of these positions were held by women, and Wilhelmy would insist that her fellow journalists consider the impact of contract changes on these often-overlooked workers. If the cost of health insurance was going up, for instance, Wilhelmy maintained that it had to increase by the same amount regardless of one's position at the newspaper, co-workers recall.
"Ann always was especially attuned to the people she represented who were making the least money and had the hardest jobs — she always tried to get a little more for them at the bargaining table," said Pam Miller, Star Tribune night metro editor and former co-chair of the Star Tribune unit of the guild.
At the same time, Wilhelmy often took on the role of peacemaker, quelling tensions between union members and keeping them focused and upbeat during sometimes tumultuous bargaining negotiations. Even when she was not at the bargaining table, Wilhelmy would provide strategic advice and lend her moral support — sometimes by calmly reminding her fellow union members to make time for themselves and to keep perspective, former co-workers said.
"Ann made our labor negotiations a bit more humane," said Randy Lebedoff, senior vice president and general counsel for the Star Tribune. "She was able to bring people back to what really mattered and what each side needed. That's an enormous skill."
Graydon Royce, a former guild president who served on six bargaining committees with Wilhelmy dating back to the 1980s, said he came to rely on Wilhelmy for her "unruffled poise" under pressure, including her ability to sense when to push and when to compromise during contract negotiations, he said. "Ann was a wonderful sounding board," said Royce, a retired Star Tribune theater critic. "I could ask her, 'Look, are we nuts or are they nuts?' and would always get an honest, dispassionate answer. She had a certain wisdom about the process."
Friends and co-workers describe Wilhelmy as a private person who enjoyed reading and long walks with her beloved West Highland terrier, Hugh.
Tee Manos, a longtime friend from St. Paul, said Wilhelmy was "a quintessential news junkie" who devoured four or five newspapers a day and read countless biographies of political figures. On visits to her cabin in northwest Wisconsin, Wilhelmy would drive 14 miles each morning just to buy the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and Duluth News Tribune. She would then sit back in her Adirondack chair and read them, from cover to cover, while drinking her morning coffee with Hugh at her side, Manos recalled. A lover of travel and opera, Wilhelmy saw "Madame Butterfly" performed at the Metropolitan Opera on a final trip to New York, just weeks before her death, Manos said.
"Ann was a little person, but I never thought of her as little because she had such a strong presence," Manos said.
After a long guild career spent defending fellow workers, Wilhelmy could not in the end save her own position. When her job was eliminated during widespread cuts in the Star Tribune newsroom in 2010 under a previous owner, Wilhelmy took a buyout that was offered to employees at the time. Manos said she was "devastated."
"Ann was heartbroken, and much of that heartbreak stemmed from her belief that if you do a really good job and work really hard that your loyalty would be acknowledged," Manos said.
Services have been held.