Bill Green, a former journalist, retired Duke University vice president and Washington Post ombudsman, died at his home in Durham on Monday. He was 91.
Green, working alongside Duke President Terry Sanford in the 1970s and 1980s, helped to promote the university as a nationally competitive school. He was director of university relations, creator of a visiting journalist program and an instructor of news writing in the university’s public policy department.
But perhaps his toughest assignment was in 1981, on sabbatical from Duke, when he served as ombudsman at the Washington Post at a crucial time – in the aftermath of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Janet Cooke story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The story, called “Jimmy’s World,” turned out to be fabricated. It was Green’s duty to investigate her work and find the truth. In the end, Cooke resigned and returned the prize after admitting that “Jimmy” didn’t exist.
Writing a nine-part autopsy of the episode, Green concluded, bluntly: “Beginning, of course, with Janet Cooke, everybody who touched this journalistic felony – or who should have touched it and didn’t – was wrong. It was a complete systems failure, and there’s no excuse for it. These are brilliant people. The Post newsroom runs over with high-caliber talent and skills that weren’t employed.”
In an interview with Duke Magazine, Green recalled the day when his investigation was done – a Saturday, when famed executive editor Ben Bradlee visited the newsroom. “He sat in his office and read the story on the screen, and he came charging out when it was over. And he said in that marvelous, hoarse voice of his, ‘Bill Green, you ungrateful sonofabitch, I salute you.’ That was a high compliment, obviously,” Green said.
William Lester Green grew up in Zebulon and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He served in the Air Force in Italy during World War II.
He began his journalism career as a reporter for the Durham Sun, the afternoon paper that later merged with the Durham Morning Herald. He went on to be editor of the Morganton News Herald and the Shelby Daily Star.
Green left newspapers to join the U.S. Information Agency in 1957 and became press officer at U.S. embassies in Bangladesh and South Africa. He later served as deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at NASA during the agency’s glory era of manned space flight.
An obituary posted on Duke’s website Wednesday recalled how Green worked to get the university front and center in national publications. He helped land Duke on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature on “hot schools” by buying up dozens of Duke shirts to hand out to people before the magazine staff arrived in Durham.
After retiring from Duke in 1986, Green was a senior assistant for Sanford, who was then a U.S. senator, for three years.
He was inducted into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame in 2012. A higher education reporting award sponsored by Duke is named for Green and former Duke news chief and UPI executive Al Rossiter.
On Wednesday, Duke lowered its flag in front of the administration building in his honor.
For more than 30 years he met monthly for conversation with a group of friends, including people in North Carolina politics, journalism, writing and other professions. They called themselves the Green Group.
Green is survived by his wife, Viola Isabel Green, and their five children: Lisa Kelley of Suwanee, Georgia; Claudia Green of Durham; Erick Green of Washington, N.C., Bryan Green of Old Fort, N.C.; and Audrey Green of Chapel Hill. He and his wife had eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Green is also survived by siblings Warren Green, Ronald Green and Zelma Williams.
Funeral services will be held at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham at 11 a.m. Saturday. A reception will follow. Memorial donations may be made to the Salvation Army of Durham, where he was former chairman of the board of advisers.