Wells Fargo Advisors and St. Andrew's Foundation will honor remarkable seniors at a black tie gala in downtown St. Louis Nov. 6. Frank C. Bick of Ladue is one of those to be recognized as a remarkable senior citizen.
Editor's note: Jim Baer was sports editor of the Suburban Journals from 1971 to 1987.
Newspapering has always been a highly charged medium in St. Louis. Probably no one has done it any better than Ladue’s octogenarian, 84-year-old Col. Frank C. Bick. Bick was the driving force behind the growth of the burgeoning Suburban Newspapers of Greater St. Louis for nearly three decades.
Bick is probably the only publisher in the world who went from high school dropout to the zenith of community news publishing without a formal education. He never spent one single day in college. Employees referred to him exclusively as "Boss."
As a youngster Bick was a mailman on a U.S. Navy destroyer from 1945 to 1947. When World War II ended, he returned to the "52/20 club."
"I used to sleep on my old man's couch all day and hang around the saloons in University City with my friends. We'd get $20 a week for 52 weeks. My father, owner of the South Side Journal, ordered me out of the house and to get a job."
His late father, Francis X. Bick, refused to expand beyond the borders of South St. Louis with his powerful South Side Journal. On the day his father died, Feb. 1, 1960, Bick printed the first advertising rate card for his visionary expansion, the South County Journal. In the mid '60s, he bought the rival Neighborhood News newspaper in South St. Louis from Howard Etling, and named Etling his managing editor.
After the death of his father and by age 33, Bick owned every suburban paper in half of St. Louis from South St. Louis city and county including papers that circulated weekly from the Missouri River and beyond. Robert Donnelly owned all the rest of the papers in North County, St. Charles County and four counties in southern Illinois.
Slowly, Bick amassed a small fortune, building a local publishing empire almost from scratch.
“We used to have up to 23 pages alone of 'Help Wanted' ads. We were the largest paper in that category in the country for help wanted ads,” Bick said. Bick had a fly-by-the-seat acumen for business rivaling barons on Wall Street. He had "street smarts" and grit, and could outwork any other CEO in town.
The two publishers printed and distributed more than a million copies every Wednesday and Sunday during the boom years of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. This publishing empire became one to be reckoned with, turning heads in the board rooms at two daily papers in downtown St. Louis—the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the long-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Mostly, in the early years, the Journals were full of ads but light on editorial copy. Dinner recipies and fish fry announcements were the big items. “We used to hire housewives to write the news (in the 60s), and we’d pay them $50 a week. In 1971, he toyed with the idea of expanding his sports coverage and adding a weekend edition and went west to the journalism school at the University of Missouri in order to beef up his editorial staff.
“We started paying real journalists $125 a week,” he said proudly. He launched a sports section, bought speed graphics cameras and built a darkroom. The Journals became a powerful voice in the marketplace. “But we didn’t cover the Blues or the Cardinals, we covered high school sports exclusively,” he said.
Readers flocked to the Journals. Housewives clipped the coupons. Advertisers adored the big circulation numbers. He was off and running.
“I went back to Mizzou and started hiring J-school sales people, too," said Bick, referring to the launch of a professional sales force.
The Journals were an amalgamation of true Hollywood characters. Don “Mac” McDaniel, a hard-nosed salesman, became so angry one Sunday at a St Louis Cardinals football game, he ran onto the field during play to tackle one of the opponents. That made the local news.
Charlie Wiegert was a young and upcoming sales producer. In 1974, the daily newspapers both went out on strike. The Journals finally had an opening he long thirsted for.
However, Canadian newspaper mills were also on strike, which made newsprint hard to come by. Wiegert had sold a pile of new ads. Because of a shortage of newsprint, Bick had to deliver the bad news: Some of his new customers might not be satisfied.
An argument ensued, and Bick chased the hotshot salesman around the conference table. Bick told Wiegert if he could find newsprint stock anywhere, he’d buy it. Not only did Wiegert find the paper, but he found it at a lower cost.
The publisher was often counted upon to pay jail bail bonds for wayward salesmen who regularly found trouble on weekends.
"People were often afraid of him (Bick) because of his gruff manner. He was just testing his employees. He really was a great person and one of the nicest guys ever," said Dan Barger, an editor at the publication during the halcyon years, as well as Fenton-High Ridge Patch's local editor. Bick had no children, and Journal employees were his family.
In 1976, Bick sold the Journals lock, stock and barrel to publishing magnate East Coaster Ralph Ingersoll.
“Biggest mistake I made in my entire life. He (Ingersoll) was an idiot and ruined the papers. The Journals were my family and my life, and I’d take them back today," Bick said.
At the end of his active working days, Bick owned nine rural radio stations in Missouri and Iowa, selling them outright for a tidy $11 million profit.
Bick has been a major figure in the St. Louis community. He’s been a 60-year member of The BackStoppers, which raises money for the families of fallen police and firemen in the line of duty; vice chair of the St. Louis County Police Board, where he served 15 years; and long-time member of the St. Louis Zoo board of directors.
The ageless-remarkable Saint Louisans dinner will be held Nov. 6 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Arch. Tickets are $175 apiece. Call 314-736-0111 for reservations.