Joe Kimball remembers it as a tense period in his career at the Star Tribune: The time when his paper squared off against the rival Pioneer Press with an aggression it had never shown before. Suddenly it wasn’t just the Minneapolis paper; it aspired to embrace the entire metro area.
A Star Tribune news bureau materialized in St. Paul, amply staffed and led by Sylvia Rector, a journalist who had been battle-tested in cities such as Dallas and Washington, where newspaper wars were the norm.
“We felt like troops landing on the beach,” said Kimball, now retired. “It was a landmark moment for the paper, and Sylvia was our field general.”
Rector, who joined the Detroit Free Press in 1992 and became well-known there as the newspaper’s food critic for 17 years, died of colon cancer on Dec. 20 at the age of 66.
Her husband, Charles Hill, a retired Associated Press bureau chief, described her as a “force of nature” as a journalist but also “a very sweet and kind person,” whose passing drew a torrent of appreciative memories from a culinary community that cherished her constructive approach in what can be a cutting line of work.
Rector grew up on a farm in Fancy Gap, Va., and attended a one-room schoolhouse. Scholarships paved her way to college.
She landed first at the Associated Press, then made a number of stops at different newspapers, including the Washington Star. She was state editor at the Dallas Times Herald, supervising reporters at the State Capitol, Austin and other big cities.
She arrived at the Star Tribune in 1984 as an assistant city editor. The move to St. Paul two years later to lead the newspaper’s new bureau there was a dramatic moment in the life of the family, Hill said. A top editor stopped by the house during her maternity leave to ask Rector to take it on, and “she came back early from that leave to do that job.” Editors asked the family to move to the east metro, he said, and they did.
She both applied pressure and felt it, Kimball said. Reporters dreaded the vision of a Pioneer Press laid out across Rector’s desk with “stories we missed, circled in bright orange. She was tough.” But he also remembered her occasionally retreating into her tiny office and shutting off the lights to gather herself.
“We later figured out she protected us [from impatient home-office criticism] more than we knew,” Kimball said.
Journalists who recalled Rector as a driven hard-news leader, demanding of herself and others, may have found it puzzling to see her fetch up as a food writer in Detroit. There was an explanation, her husband said: She was a mother seeking more family time. But she worked hard there and was a formidable presence in the field, said Brenna Houck, of the website Eater Detroit.
“She was definitely the scoop-maker most of the time, especially with big stories. She had made dining into her own space,” Houck said. “If I could ever beat out the Free Press, that was a fun day for me.”
Star Tribune Taste section editor Lee Dean said of Rector: “Food is a wonderful medium for storytelling, and Sylvia embraced it wholeheartedly, weaving tales of her childhood and more into reviews and reports from the kitchen, hers and others. ... Detroit readers were better fed because of her work.”
After Rector died, Houck described her online as “beloved.” In an interview, she said that Rector was never snarky or destructive, and plainly cared about leading readers to great food and bringing out the inner lives of the chefs who cooked it.
Besides her husband of almost 41 years, she is survived by her son, Zachary Hill, of suburban Detroit, and brother, Steve Rector, of High Point, N.C. A memorial service is expected in January.