Horatio Alger Is Not Dead

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The Knickerbocker News
Viewpoint by Robert G. Fichenberg, Executive Editor

Those who are still around from that period recall him as a skinny 17-year old kid from Schenectady with glasses that seemed to cover his face and enough surplus energy to run a small ship.

He had just been graduated from Albany High (having moved to Albany from Schenectady during his school days) and his ambition and drive so impressed the people at the old Times Union plant that he was hired as a temporary copy boy in the circulation department at 75 cents an hour.

On Feb 1 1977, some 26 years later, Bob Danzig, that onetime temporary copy boy at the bottom rung of the ladder, went to work in Manhattan as general manager of all the Hearst newspapers.  The group includes Capital Newspapers in Metroland, plus papers in such other major metropolitan markets as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, San Antonio and Seattle.

Behind Danzig’s remarkable rise to one of the top executive posts in American journalism is an unusual “local boy makes good” story that deserves telling, for several reasons.

Perhaps the most compelling reason in that during an era when plastic charisma, “who you know” and skill at executive suite infighting were generally considered essential for major advancement in the business world.  Bob Danzig made it to the top without guile, with no special “pull,” and without playing office or corporate politics, all of which he detests and considers demeaning.

All he had going for him was a brilliant “quick study” analytical mind, sensitivity to people, and an unquenchable zeal for excellence.  His fastidiousness extends even to his taste for clothes, where he favors stylish suits, sincere ties, and shoes with a polish that blinds.

Danzig’s potential gradually became evident back in the 1950’s.  Hired on a permanent basis as a counter clerk in the classified ad department in 1951, he quickly demonstrated that he intended to be the best counter clerk the T-U ever had.  And he was.  So he began to go up the ladder-to outside solicitor, and after two years out for Navy service, to salesman for minor ad accounts.

During this period, Danzig had enrolled in the evening division of Siena College and in 1962 was graduated with honors, receiving a bachelor of arts degree with a major in English.

Before long, this bright young ad salesman whose capacity for challenge seemed to outstrip his assignments, came to the attention of the late publisher, Gene Robb, who quietly began to test Danzig and groom him for bigger things.  He promoted him from assistant retail manager, at one point, to assistant business manager and assigned him to temporary duty in the T-U Newsroom, to work with T-U Executor Editor Jack Leary in news projects.  If that wasn’t a tipoff, Robb’s next assignment for Danzig should have been.  He sent Danzig to a journalism seminar at Stanford University.

In April 1969, after Capital Newspapers purchased the old Schenectady Union Star, Danzig was named general manager of the Union Star and five months later, after the ailing Gene Robb died of a heart attack, Danzig was named publisher of Capital Newspapers.

Although his talents as an ad salesman and business executive were obvious to all who worked for him, some of his other talents, which obviously had been spotted and known by Gene Robb all along, became evident during his tenure as publisher.

His almost fanatical insistence to excellence–from himself as well as others– extended to the newsroom. Even the news people, accustomed to regarding business office types as “bean counters,” were impressed.

He repeated his “excellence” theme not only in meetings and informal chats with editors.  He expanded on it during his customary weekend visits to the plant, where he would drop in on an unsuspecting department head trying to catch up with accumulated work, drape a leg over a chair, drop cigar ash in any handy receptacle and discuss “how we can do even better.”

If he ever was really ill, few knew about it, for he masked his own problems (including a bad back) from his associates.  But, and here again is one of those qualities Gene Robb obviously had noted, Bob Danzig is a soft touch for people with problems.

If any employee, from a top executive to a janitor, or a member of an employee’s family, was experiencing serious medical, financial or other personal problems, Danzig would drop everything to help.

I was in his office during one of his more hectic crowded-schedule days some months ago when he devoted upwards of an hour, calling doctors and other medical people to make sure than an employee’s child, ill with a serious ailment, received the very best care.

And he anguishes long and hard–too long sometimes–over an employee who hasn’t measured up and should be replaced.

Even the news people, a cynical lot, admit that Bob Danzig is no “bean counter.”  Now that he’s in New York, the Hearst newspapers will never be the same.  They will be better.