Obituary: Wallace Allen, a storied editor with eye for design

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 10:19 PM

Wallace Allen

Wallace Allen, an editor who believed deeply in the crucial role newspapers play in a free society and led a historic redesign of the Minneapolis Tribune to make it more modern and accessible to readers, died last month. He was 93.

His son, Stewart, said his father died on Christmas Day in Bend, Ore., after battling various health problems, including a spinal ailment that had slowed him down in recent years. Even as his health worsened, Allen, an editor for three decades at the Tribune, continued to read the print edition of the New York Times and the online edition of the Star Tribune. He moved around with a walker that had a sticker affixed that read: "Free press. Free speech. Free country."

"He viewed the press as a critical element of American society," Allen said. "He viewed its mission and its role in society as absolutely critical. He believed that with that freedom and with that role came an incredible responsibility to do a good job and to be accurate."

Allen, known as "Wally," was born in 1919 in Norwich, Conn. He attended Brown University and served in the Army in World War II in the Pacific. He received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master's in English literature from the University of Wisconsin, where he met his wife, Gladys. They were married in 1948.

Before joining the Tribune in 1951, he had worked at newspapers in Cape Cod and Michigan, according to Allen's son, who was his only child. Allen held several editing positions at the Tribune before being named managing editor in 1968, a post he held for nearly a decade. He retired in 1982 as associate editor, the same year the morning Tribune and the afternoon Star merged.

"He was a smart and creative thinker and a good, principled journalist, wanting to serve readers and do them right," said Lori Sturdevant, a Star Tribune columnist who was hired by Allen in 1976 shortly after she graduated from college.

He was not a desk-thumping editor, but was a stickler with high standards.

"He was really, really picky," said Peg Meier, a former reporter. "He demanded a lot, but it was good for us."

New era of design

Allen oversaw the Tribune's 1971 redesign that made it an early pioneer in a new era of newspaper design. Up until then, most newspapers presented news as they had for decades, ignoring modern design elements that had transformed magazines, popular art and other media.

In 1967, Frank Ariss, a visiting professor from the Minneapolis School of Fine Art, met with editors to discuss redesigning the logo, but it quickly turned into a much more ambitious project. Within five years, the look of the paper had been transformed.

"It was a cleaner look," said Michael Carroll, a young designer who worked with Ariss and Allen on the project. "Photographs were running at a different size. It just kind of opened up the entire newspaper."

In 1981, Carroll and Allen coauthored a manual titled "A Design for News" in which they chronicled the paper's experience remaking itself.

After his retirement in 1982, Allen taught journalism at the University of North Dakota and the University of Alaska. He briefly served as managing editor of the Anchorage Times newspaper. Allen and his wife, who died in 1997, returned to Minneapolis, where they had lived in the same house in Linden Hills for decades.

He moved to Hawaii in 2004 to be closer to his son. For about two years he edited the monthly newsletter at his assisted-living home in Honolulu. His staff consisted of residents at the home and as editor he tried to uphold standards of a professional journalist, even urging his staff to investigate actions by the home's management.

"It was quite funny because he's managing all these people," his son said. "Some of whom think they can write, and some of whom couldn't write at all, but were highly motivated. So he used to just tear his hair out trying to edit their copy because he was trying to be nice to them, but some of it was awful."

In December, Allen moved to Oregon with his son's family, but he died a week later in hospice care. In addition to his son, Allen is survived by his daughter-in-law, Susie, and three grandsons, Dylan, Stewart and Henry.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

  • He viewed its mission and its role in society as absolutely critical.
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