Don Whitworth, who served as publisher of The Ledger from 1988 to 2000, died last week in his Lakeland home at age 77. Whitworth, a graduate of Lakeland High School, is the only publisher in The Ledger’s 97-year-history who grew up here.
In addition to leading the business operations of the Lakeland-based daily newspaper, Whitworth was active in numerous community organizations, including the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, where he served as board chairman, United Way of Central Florida, Polk Museum of Art, and Lakeland Economic Development Council.
“I probably learned more from him than anybody else I ever worked for in my life,” said Steve Schmidt, who served as the Ledger’s advertising manager under Whitworth. “I always thought he was the most knowledgeable newspaper man that I ever worked with.”
Whitworth rose through the ranks of the advertising side of the newspaper business, starting as a classified advertising representative selling automotive ads for The Tampa Tribune in 1967 after leaving the U.S. Air Force. He joined The Ledger in 1974 and became advertising manager around 1975, a position he held until being named publisher of a sister paper, the Wilmington, N.C., Star-News, in 1985.
A personal memory: In 1985, when I was city editor at The Ledger, Don pulled me aside to ask several questions about newsroom operations. I don’t know if this was in preparation for a final job interview, but later that day came the announcement that he would be moving to Wilmington, a move that lasted three years until he returned to Lakeland as publisher.
Whitworth’s years as publisher were a time of tremendous revenue and circulation growth for The Ledger (and newspapers in general), Schmidt recalls.
It was under Whitworth’s watch that The Ledger greatly expanded its Winter Haven operation and built a three-story office building and press facility at 300 W. Lime St. The $72 million, 180,000-square-foot facility, dedicated in 1998, was the single largest investment in downtown Lakeland to that time.
Skip Perez, who served as executive editor of The Ledger for 30 years under five publishers, says he appreciated Whitworth as a boss who had a hands-off approach toward the newsroom.
“What I loved about Don was he trusted our newsroom,” said Perez, who retired in 2011 as The Ledger’s longest-serving chief editor. “He rarely if ever second-guessed our decisions, even at times when maybe he should have. But he understood more than most that a strong credible newsroom must be independent and aggressive. And for that I’ll always be grateful.”
After retiring from The Ledger in April 2000, Whitworth consulted with other newspapers for several years.
Another personal memory: In 1995, when few newspapers had made the jump to online publication, Whitworth allowed me to write a business plan for starting a Ledger website. We created a small website at theledger.com that year and expanded to a full-blown ad-supported news website in 1998 that grew over the next dozen years to 12 million page views a month.
Whitworth was born in Haleyville, Ala., on April 11, 1944. When he was a small child, his family moved to the North Combee Road area of Lakeland.
He graduated from Lakeland High School in 1962 and served in the U.S. Air Force’s security service in Europe from 1963 to 1966. After the Air Force, he moved back to Lakeland, worked briefly in his father-in-law’s grocery store in north Lakeland, and then started his advertising career.
The Ledger was owned by The New York Times Co. during Whitworth’s entire career there. Whitworth was probably the only publisher among The Times’ nearly 20 regional newspapers without a college degree, and that always motivated him to prove himself, Schmidt said.
The job of newspaper publisher changed dramatically in the mid-twentieth century. In the case of The Ledger, the three publishers between 1924 and 1960 were local owners of the newspaper. Once most newspapers came under chain ownership — for The Ledger, it was in 1960 when Cowles Publishing bought the paper — the publisher was the local unit’s chief executive who reported to a larger corporation.
With 12 years as publisher, Whitworth held the post longer than anybody else during the last 61 years of chain ownership. The only publishers who served longer were The Ledger’s first two owners: founder Samuel Farabee, 1924 to 1939, and Jay Curtis Smith, 1939 to 1953.
“Don was a big-hearted person who always went out of his way to help others,” said longtime friend Peter Munson, a retired lawyer. “He had an infectious laugh and was always sharing humorous stories wherever he went.”
Whitworth is survived by Peggie Whitworth, his wife of 57 years, daughter Amy of Lakeland, a son Tad (Cyndi) of Bartow, and his sister, Robina Whitworth of Boca Raton.
There are no public services scheduled at this time, according to Heath Funeral Chapel.