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The Time of His Life

The Time of His Life
Richard Stolley (J52, GJ53) has covered many of his era's major stories.

Richard Stolley

Photo by Al Freni
When Richard Stolley (J52, GJ53) was a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism, he almost missed the job of a lifetime and possibly his life’s calling.

“The graduate year at Medill is very hard,” recalls Stolley, senior editorial adviser for Time Inc. A professor had recommended him and three other students for a job interview with Life magazine. On the day of the interview Stolley was sitting in his room on Chicago Avenue “pounding away” on his typewriter.

“I suddenly realized the appointment was in about two minutes. Well, I was sitting there in a pair of khakis and an old white shirt. I didn’t have time to change. I threw on a sweater over the threadbare shirt, ran over to the journalism school and came puffing up. The professor was there looking annoyed … one, because I was late and two, because I looked like a bum.”

As it turned out, Stolley in his “bum” clothing beat out two “spiffy-looking” women and a man who wore a double-breasted suit. Life magazine offered him a reporting position a few months after graduation.

This summer Stolley celebrates his 50th year with Time Inc., having witnessed the civil rights struggles in the South, obtained the Abraham Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and followed Lyndon Johnson around the White House — not to mention a few more stories in between.

In 1957 Life sent Stolley to Little Rock to cover federal troops ensuring the integration of Central High School. He was in Clinton, Tenn., at another school integration when he and a photographer were caught in a riot between a mob and armed police. “I could see America, the South, changing before my eyes, reluctantly and often with violence,” he says. “I saw the absolute depths of human behavior and the nobility of human beings who were doing the right thing.”

Stolley went to Paris in 1968 to head the Life bureau and found himself again caught up by protestors, this time antiwar students and workers who had turned the city into an urban war zone. “Everything was shut down but restaurants,” he recalls. “You could always get lunch.”

When Life stopped publishing in 1972, Time made Stolley managing editor of a startup called People magazine, which launched its first issue in March 1974. People promised to sell 1 million newsstand copies, “which was extremely bold and extremely stupid,” Stolley remembers. “But by July, we had started to sell a million.” Today, People has a circulation of 3.7 million.

Stolley’s transition from harder news at Life to personality-driven journalism was seamless. “Being a reporter, Dick really understood that individual personalities and motivations affect what happens in the news,” says Janice Castro, assistant professor of journalism at Medill and former managing editor of Time.com. “He brought his keen journalistic instinct to creating a magazine that would help you understand people.”

That instinct has been the key to the magazine’s success. Americans’ embrace of People spawned an entire genre of magazines, tabloids and television shows that focus on celebrities and, as Stolley puts it, “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

Though Stolley doesn’t have immediate plans for his next project, many have urged him to write a book about himself. “I’ve resisted it,” he says, “maybe because a memoir would be a tacit admission that it’s all over.”

Stolley may have been late for the interview on campus, but he hasn’t missed out on anything since then in the last half century. And his enthusiasm for news guarantees he’ll be on top of the next big thing, too.

— Esther Chou (J03)



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