W. Robert Wallis

The longtime reporter and later editor in chief of The Aegis in Harford County worked for three generations of owners.

November 18, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

W. Robert "Robbie" Wallis, a longtime reporter who was later editor in chief of The Aegis in Harford County for a decade, died Friday of heart failure at the Lorien Bel Air nursing home. He was 77.

Mr. Wallis was born and raised in Bel Air and graduated from Bel Air High School in 1948. He earned an associate's degree in pre-law from the University of Baltimore in 1965.

Mr. Wallis' entry into the world of journalism was unconventional. In 1949, while working as a projectionist at the Bel Air Theater, he listened to a basketball game on the radio and then wrote up an account of the game and sent it to the editor of the old Harford Gazette.

"And they hired him," said his wife of 31 years, the former Sandra Rhodes, who is coordinator of the graduate reading program at Goucher College. "The masthead listed his jobs as sports reporter, photographer and general reporter."

"Somehow, I floundered into a job at the Harford Gazette," Mr. Wallis wrote in his unpublished memoirs. "There I was to learn more about newspapers, about writing and about life itself from a man who had purchased the newspaper in Bel Air, Paul Capron."

"Capron had himself been a newsman most of his life and, with the help of his fifth wife, a member of the wealthy Stern family from New York City, was about to embark on the dream of such creatures - owning his own weekly in the country."

He left the newspaper business after the Gazette was purchased by The Aegis in 1950 and briefly worked in the post information office at Edgewood Arsenal before joining the staff of The Aegis as a sportswriter in 1952.

At The Aegis, Mr. Wallis moved from sports reporter to crime reporter and finally to editor in chief, a position he held until retiring in 1990.

"For 38 years, I drew a paycheck from [John D. Worthington II] and his heirs. I don't believe anyone could work any harder, or put in many more hours," he wrote in the memoirs.

"What I gave them in return was one of the country's foremost weekly newspapers. We turned in many, many prize-winning stories, columns, pictures, lay-outs and the like," Mr. Wallis wrote.

"I always tried to regard The Aegis as Harford County's History Book. I still believe that you can find a decent record of anything or anybody in Harford during that period in those pages," he wrote.

"Robbie, who worked for three generations of my family and played a huge role in making the paper a success, was the consummate suburban community newspaper editor. No one worked harder," John D. Worthington IV said yesterday.

"He was well-known in Harford County, and he knew everyone from the local barber to governors. He had so many news sources, and that's why he was such great editor," he said.

"I worked for him when I was a reporter, and he gave you lots of freedom. However, he didn't like seeing something in The Sun about Harford County that wasn't in his paper, and if you missed a story, he'd call you into the office and ask you about it," Mr. Worthington said.

"Robbie never raised his voice and wasn't the tough newspaper editor as portrayed by Hollywood. He was actually a very quiet man," he said. "He gave you praise for a good story, as well as advice on how not to miss stories on your beat."

Todd Holden was an Aegis reporter from 1966 to 1972.

"He gave me a chance of a lifetime when he hired me. I had no journalism experience and was working in a bank at the time. His advice was simple. He told me to write a story the way I saw it, get the facts straight and make my deadline. He didn't coddle you on the latter," Mr. Holden said, laughing.

"Robbie was a very fair editor who inspired you to do good work. He also wrote all of the editorials, and I can see him now, sitting in his office, puffing away on his pipe which he filled with Bond Street pipe tobacco, while typing away," Mr. Holden said.

Mr. Wallis had a wall in his office - which he called his "Rogues' Gallery" - filled with framed, autographed pictures of Maryland public officials. After retiring, he re-created the wall in his Bel Air home.

"When someone who was thinking of running for public office came to his office, he'd say, 'What do you want to do that for?' He'd point to a picture and say, 'That guy's in jail,' or, 'He committed suicide,'" said his wife, Dr. Wallis.

In addition to his newspaper work, he owned and operated the Capri Shop, Bel Air's first sub and pizza shop, from 1960 to 1972.

After retiring from the newspaper, Mr. Wallis worked with two business partners on commercial real estate projects, including the construction of the Atwood Professional Building in Bel Air.

"I respected him because he was always very fair. He'd upbraid me for a vote I cast one day and then praise me for something I had done the next," said William H. Cox, a real estate executive who had served in the House of Delegates from 1970 to 1990.

"He really was a tremendous asset and will be sorely missed by the citizens of Harford County," Mr. Cox said.

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