David Kruidenier Obituary

David  Kruidenier
David Kruidenier

July 18, 1921 - January 9, 2006
Resided in Des Moines, IA

Obituary

David Kruidenier, former chairman and chief executive officer of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company and a longtime Des Moines civic leader, died Monday at 8:50 p.m. at Iowa Methodist Medical Center of pneumonia.

He was 84.

Kruidenier, a native of Des Moines, was a third generation member of the Cowles family that came to Des Moines in 1903 to enter the newspaper business. The family later expanded its newspaper holdings to Minneapolis, and one branch of the family left Des Moines to operate the newspapers there.

In time, the family holdings expanded to newspaper, magazine and broadcast interests throughout the nation. Kruidenier eventually became chief executive officer of both the Des Moines and Minneapolis operations. Together, those companies at one time represented nearly a half-billion-dollar-a-year business.

Beyond the family businesses, Kruidenier's leadership and personal philanthropy in support of music and the visual arts were essential elements in Des Moines' success in the development and expansion of the Des Moines Art Center and in the construction of the Des Moines Civic Center.

When Des Moines voters rejected a tax-supported plan to build a civic center in the 1970s, Kruidenier and Des Moines banker John Fitzgibbon launched a fund-raising effort that produced more than $9 million in pledges and ensured the construction of the building in downtown Des Moines.

The Civic Center became the cornerstone for a downtown renaissance that continued through the next decade. Throughout much of the 1970s, Kruidenier was one of the most powerful and influential persons in Des Moines.

Still, at times he found himself at odds with other business leaders over details of downtown redeployment. But even in these cases, he did not block development.

In 1977, for example, when he disagreed with businessman John Ruan about the proposed location for a high-rise downtown hotel — the Marriott — Kruidenier nonetheless approved a $500, 000 pledge toward the building from the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company.

Kruidenier's final years as a top executive in the communications business were eventful and tumultuous, particularly in Des Moines.

The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company embarked on an ambitious diversification program that included newspaper acquisitions in Iowa, Tennessee and Wisconsin and the purchase of radio and television stations in Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon and Wisconsin.

The acquisitions saddled the company with a sizeable debt at a time when the national business climate turned sour and the Iowa business and farm economies were particularly hard hit.

Minneapolis, meantime, operating under the leadership of Kruidenier's cousin, John Cowles Jr., had pursued a similar expansion and diversification program.

So Minneapolis and Des Moines sustained similar problems — high interest rates, heavy debt and sluggish profits.

Kruidenier was a key figure in a number of developments during these years:

• A proposal to merge the Des Moines and Minneapolis operations that finally was abandoned. But the move eventually led to Kruidenier being named top executive at both places.

• The closing in 1982, after 75 years of publication, of the afternoon Des Moines Tribune. The move was blamed on slumping circulation and poor economic conditions. It cost the jobs of 200 persons but saved the company an estimated $4 million in annual payroll.

• An offer, made in 1984, by two top company executives, President Michael Gartner and Publisher Gary Gerlach along with two Des Moines businessmen and Dow Jones Co., to purchase the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company.

The $112 million offer was rejected and Kruidenier placed Gartner and Gerlach on paid leave while he battled to stave off the tide of discontent from stockholders, many of them descendants of the Cowles family, who were unhappy at the low return on their stock investment.

• The sale, in 1985, of The Des Moines Register for about $200 million to Gannett Co. The sale included three smaller newspapers, two in Iowa. Other communications companies purchased broadcast stations owned by the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company. The sale of company assets brought about $345 million.

On July 1, 1985, the day Des Moines Register and Tribune Company stockholders approved the sale of the firm, Kruidenier noted that the action marked the ending of a partnership between the Cowles family, Des Moines and the state of Iowa that had lasted 82 years.

"The state of Iowa is a better place today because of The Register," said Kruidenier on that occasion.

Kruidenier was born in Des Moines on July 18, 1921. His father, David S. Kruidenier, operated an automobile dealership in Des Moines, selling Cadillacs, LaSalles and Oldsmobiles. His mother, Florence Cowles Kruidenier, was the daughter of Gardner Cowles Sr., who came to Des Moines from Algona in 1903 to found a newspaper business that eventually included the morning Des Moines Register and the afternoon Des Moines Tribune.

Kruidenier's two uncles, John Cowles and Gardner Cowles Jr., picked up the reins of their father's business and kept the Cowles family in a leadership role in newspapering in Des Moines and Iowa. John Cowles eventually moved to Minneapolis where he operated those newspapers. Gardner Cowles Jr., known as "Mike," remained in Des Moines but eventually moved to New York City with a new publication, Look magazine.

Kruidenier attended public schools in Des Moines through the ninth grade and then became a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he graduated four years later. He won an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University.

His college education was interrupted by World War II. Kruidenier was an Army Air Force officer, serving as a navigator aboard a bomber in the Pacific Theater. He flew 34 missions from Saipan to Japan and was awarded the Air Medal with three clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Kruidenier began his career in the newspaper business as a trainee at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. in 1948. In December of that same year Kruidenier married Elizabeth Woodwell Stuart. She later became a lawyer in Des Moines and was active in civic affairs. One daughter, Lisa, also survives.

Kruidenier came to Des Moines from Minneapolis in 1952 as assistant business manager of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company.

It was the beginning of a 33-year career in Des Moines in which Kruidenier would serve in a variety of management roles, culminating with his being named president and publisher in 1971. Seven years later, he was named chairman and in 1982 took over the twin roles of chairman and chief executive officer.

Under Kruidenier's leadership in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Register sharpened and deepened its coverage of business, politics and agriculture, and won three of its 15 Pulitzer Prizes.

Aggressive coverage of business news caused some criticism of the Des Moines newspapers, and of Kruidenier personally from people in the business community who labeled the coverage as negative or anti-business. These critics sometimes went privately to Kruidenier to complain that as top man at the newspaper he should step in and either direct that certain stories be done or direct that certain stories be withheld from publication.

Kruidenier's response was that a newspaper performs best by not being a mouthpiece for any one point of view and that the community is better off when a newspaper talks openly about the strengths and weaknesses of the community.

"To do our job responsibly often upsets or irritates people — people who are our friends, and business leaders whose good will is important to us," Kruidenier said. "I doubt if I have a single good friend who hasn't been upset or irritated by something in the newspaper. At times it makes me uncomfortable in social situations. At times it makes things difficult."

In fact, Kruidenier took an almost total "hands off" policy when it came to news selection or where stories would run in the newspaper. This explanation of Kruidenier's management style was met with disbelief by outsiders who were accustomed to the top executive calling all the shots for a business.

James P. Gannon, a former editor of the Register, said Kruidenier always showed a keen understanding of and appreciation for the need for a vigorous, independent news department.

"He was a great publisher in supporting the news effort with needed resources and then leaving it to operate independently," Gannon said. "I never saw a single example of any effort on his part to interfere with editors' decisions on handling the news."

Kruidenier occasionally read editorials in advance of publication and always took part in the decisions on which political candidates the newspapers would endorse, but otherwise, he told friends, he was as surprised as any reader at what he saw in the newspaper each day.

The development of downtown Des Moines and the growth of the arts in the city and state were topics that continually interested him and in both he was a wheelhorse.

After leading the fund drive that resulted in the construction of the Des Moines Civic Center, Kruidenier served as chairman of its board of directors for a number of years. He also was a trustee of the Des Moines Art Center for years, and his personal art collection was extensive.

Kruidenier was a member of the boards at Iowa Methodist Medical Center, Drake University, the Cowles Foundation, the Gardner and Florence Call Cowles Foundation, Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, Greater Des Moines Committee, the Menninger Foundation, Grinnell College, Des Moines Symphony and the Civic Music Association.

He was a member of the Des Moines Club, Wakonda Club, Rotary Club, Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, Iowa Society for Crippled Children and Adults, Junior Achievement and the Governor's Committee on Mental Health.

He held positions on boards of several businesses and corporations including the Iowa-Des Moines National Bank, National By-Products Inc., Commercial Printing Company and the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

A memorial service is pending. In lieu of flowers, any contributions should be sent to the Des Moines Art Center and Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa.

ARRANGEMENTS BY ILES FUNERAL HOMES, DUNN'S CHAPEL.

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Des Moines Art Center
4700 Grand Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50312
Planned Parenthood
408 SW 8th Street
Des Moines, IA 50309