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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 18, 2003

George Chaplin, former Advertiser editor, dies at 88

 •  Thoughts on George Chaplin
 •  Editorial: George Chaplin: heart of a paper, community

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

George Chaplin, the southern gentleman who helped save The Honolulu Advertiser from financial ruin by shaking it out of its postwar slumber and demanding that it be relevant to new generations of Hawai'i readers, died yesterday at the age of 88.

George Chaplin, editor of The Advertiser for 28 years, was involved in many civic causes, including the push for statehood.

Advertiser library photo • 1992

Chaplin, who lived with his son, Steve, and his family in McLean, Va., died from complications after a fall in which he broke his shoulder.

Funeral arrangements are pending, but he will be buried next to his late wife, Esta, in Charleston, S.C. She died in 2001.

Chaplin served as editor of The Advertiser for 28 years, retiring in 1986. In 1998, he and his wife moved from their longtime Kahala home to South Carolina, where they could be closer to their children.

Chaplin's impact on Hawai'i went far beyond his work at the newspaper. Chaplin immersed himself in a wide array of bold initiatives and civic causes that included his aggressive campaign for statehood, the creation of the East-West Center, the building of the Arizona Memorial and an unprecedented statewide dialogue on growth and planning in 1970 in preparation for the year 2000.

But his most passionate work, on the editorial page and in the community, focused on his dream for Hawai'i to build a truly pluralistic society where class, race and religion didn't matter.

"He helped bring the whole community together and was the first editor of The Advertiser to actively try to bring all racial groups together and move forward with the growth of the state," said Thurston Twigg-Smith, the former owner of The Advertiser and a friend and colleague of Chaplin's for more than 40 years.

One of Chaplin's boldest decisions still resonates today. In 1962, Chaplin and Twigg-Smith, recognizing that the people and politics of Hawai'i were changing fast, decided to buck the haole Republican establishment that not only controlled Hawai'i business but saw The Advertiser as its mouthpiece.

The newspaper endorsed a Democratic newcomer, Dan Inouye, over Republican Ben Dillingham for the U.S. Senate.

"When we decided to endorse Dan Inouye for Senate ... that probably changed Hawai'i about as much as a newspaper could change things," Twigg-Smith said yesterday.

In the late 1950s, former editor George Chaplin, left, and Thurston Twigg-Smith, the nephew of then-Advertiser publisher Lorrin Thurston, struggled to improve the quality of The Advertiser and to reverse years of ill will that had built up against the paper.

Advertiser library photo

The endorsement also established a lifelong friendship between Chaplin and Inouye.

"At the time it was difficult, if not unheard of as an institution associated with the so-called Big Five, to endorse a Democrat," Inouye said yesterday. "Our friendship has been close ever since.

"In many ways, he was the one who kept me honest in my business. If he felt my position was not to his liking, he did not hesitate to tell me so. Anyone who has a friend like that is fortunate."

When Chaplin arrived at The Advertiser in 1958, he immediately set about breaking down the barrier between what was seen as an aristocratic, haole, anti-labor institution and the various ethnic communities. Chaplin correctly saw that The Advertiser, which was barely selling 47,000 papers a day and was being trounced by its afternoon competitor, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, would have to broaden its appeal if it was to survive.

He tirelessly went out at night to as many community functions as he could fit in, working the circuit of the ethnic chambers of commerce, local Cherry Blossom and Narcissus Queen contests and any other event where people might be gathering.

Chaplin's son, Steve, a retired State Department official, said his father was determined to build on Hawai'i's foundation of ethnic tolerance.

"He saw that Hawai'i offered opportunity in lots of ways that more stratified communities on the Mainland didn't," Steve Chaplin said. "He thought that the relationship between the different ethnic groups in Hawai'i, while not problem-free, was far better than any he had seen in different parts of the Mainland."

Chaplin, himself, had been stung by prejudice in his student days at Clemson College in South Carolina and his early years as a newspaperman in the South. At Clemson, a military school, he was taken aside by the colonel and told that he was the top cadet in the graduating class but he wouldn't get the honor because he was Jewish.

Chaplin was born in Columbia, S.C., on April 18, 1914, the son of East European immigrants. His father, Morris Chaplin, was 15 when he left Bialystock, Poland, in 1906 and made his passage across the Atlantic. At Ellis Island, a bureaucrat cut off the beginning and end of his last name, Tschaplinsky. He went to work in a shoe factory near Boston, attended night school and learned to read, write and speak English.

Chaplin's mother, Netty, worked as a seamstress. The family later moved to South Carolina and it was at Clemson, where Chaplin majored in chemistry, that he discovered he was much more interested in editing the school newspaper, the Clemson Tiger.

After working his way through school by starting and running a college news bureau, he got a job the day after graduation in 1935 as a reporter for $10 a week on the Greenville Piedmont. Two years later, in his early 20s, he was city editor, had his salary raised to $35 a week and married Esta L. Solomon of Charleston, S.C., whom he had met during his college days.

George Chaplin married Esta L. Solomon of Charleston, S.C., whom he met during his college days. She died in 2001.

Advertiser library photo

In 1940, Chaplin was one of 12 journalists chosen from more than 200 applicants for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, providing an academic year with faculty status. He specialized in race relations, believing that a crisis was brewing in his native South.

In June 1941, he returned to the Greenville Piedmont but after Pearl Harbor entered the Army and wound up in Hawai'i as the first editor and officer-in-charge of the Mid-Pacific Edition of Stars & Stripes, the armed forces newspaper.

After the war, he served as managing editor of the Camden Courier-Post in New Jersey, then as managing editor of the San Diego Journal, from which he went to take over as editor of the New Orleans Item in 1949. The Item was the largest paper in Louisiana and among Chaplin's favorite editorial topics was statehood for Hawai'i.

His editorials campaigning for statehood brought him to the attention of then-Advertiser publisher Lorrin P. Thurston, who was looking for someone to take over the news operation. In December 1958, on the eve of statehood and the jet age, Chaplin arrived back in Hawai'i.

But almost from the moment of his arrival, Chaplin clashed with Thurston over the editorial direction of the newspaper, as well as its leisurely approach to building advertising and circulation. Quickly finding an ally in Thurston's nephew, Thurston Twigg-Smith, the two unsuccessfully struggled to improve the quality of the paper, to reach out to a broader audience and to reverse years of ill will that had built up against the newspaper.

In February 1961, after gaining control of the majority of The Advertiser's stock, Twigg-Smith and Chaplin confronted Thurston and told him he was through.

"It was an emotional session," Chaplin wrote in his 1998 history of The Advertiser, "Presstime in Paradise." "Thurston wept and I wept, too, at the sadness of the situation, of his failure to understand that he had let the paper go downhill for years. He signed the letter of resignation."

With the creation of a joint operating agreement with the Star-Bulletin in 1962, The Advertiser regained its financial footing and Chaplin went about improving the newspaper by hiring more reporters and devoting more space to local news.

Chaplin was in the tradition of many top editors of his era, believing that community leadership was a key part of his job. He pooh-poohed any suggestion that his involvement in community affairs influenced coverage in the newspaper, but the staff knew when an assignment came with the notation "G.C. MUST," there would be no debate about whether to cover the fund-raiser or speech or award ceremony.

Thurston Twigg-Smith and George Chaplin were quick to recognize that the people and politics of Hawai'i were changing fast.

Advertiser library photo

Always forward-thinking, in the early 1970s Chaplin launched the Hawai'i 2000 campaign, bringing together leaders from throughout the community to begin planning the future. From tourism to traffic, from economic development to environmental protection, the whole community began to cast its eyes forward and ask where it wanted to go.

Retired political science professor Glenn Paige said Hawai'i 2000 "was an example of his vision and total caring about everyone in the state and what would happen in the future."

"I think he made a list of about 1,500 people in the community. He tried to draw in as many people as possible — young people, students, any occupation, everybody. (He) got 300 people working for six months in 10 different groups."

In 1972, he was among the first American journalists in China. He wrote a long series on that trip, and on trips to Russia and Israel.

He served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and received numerous national journalism awards, including the Scripps-Howard Foundation's charter award for "a distinguished contribution to a free press"; two John Hancock awards for economic reporting on U.S.-Japan trade relations; a Champion Media award for writings promoting economic understanding; a National Headliners' award for feature writing and two Overseas Press Club citations for series on Japan, China and Southeast Asia.

In addition to his son, Steve, Chaplin is survived by his daughter, Jerri Chaplin of Charleston, S.C.; a sister, Kay Greene of New Orleans; and four grandsons.

Staff writers Vicki Viotti, Robbie Dingeman and Curtis Lum contributed to this report.