Journalist Bill Bankston, who began his career in Baton Rouge as a police reporter for The State-Times and retired 46 years later as an editor for The Advocate, died Wednesday.
He was 81.
Bankston was hired at the The State-Times in 1967 and later moved up to city editor, serving in that capacity until 1991, when the afternoon daily merged with The Morning Advocate to become The Advocate. At that point, he worked on the editorial desk until his retirement two years ago.
“He was an old-fashioned newspaperman,” said former Advocate Executive Editor Linda Lightfoot, noting that Bankston had developed great sources in the Police Department. “He loved the pursuit of the story.”
“I first realized that Bill was a man of character and a skilled journalist when … we collaborated on an award-winning profile of a young offender who died in the custody of the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office,” said former Advocate Managing Editor Milford Fryer. “Bill was thorough, totally ethical, a careful writer and never hesitated to go into some places most people would consider dangerous.”
Baton Rouge writer and media consultant Ed Pratt was the first black reporter for the State-Times. His desk was near Bankston’s.
“The first thing I noticed on his desk was a coffee mug with a Confederate flag on it,” Pratt recalled. “Immediately, I was a little standoffish with him.”
But it didn’t take long for the two to become friends. “Over time, he was among the most instrumental people in the newsroom to me. He was very giving.”
Of course, there was the time Bankston suspended Pratt for three days after he refused an assignment to interview residents about a possible UFO sighting — a suspension Pratt says was well-deserved.
“He rode herd on the reporters,” said former Advocate Executive Editor Carl Redman. “Bill was a wonderful newsman and he did it all.”
Bankston worked with editorial writer and columnist Danny Heitman, whom he had hired as a news intern in 1986 for The State-Times. “He had a great sense of humor,” Heitman said, recalling how Bankston taught him that “you can be serious about your work and not take yourself too seriously.”
Bankston was a gentleman with the public, especially to those calling in anger to the editorial department, Heitman said, and helping people with limited English skills who wanted to write letters to the editor.
Bankston grew up in Tangipahoa Parish, graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University and earned a master’s degree from the University of Missouri. He worked in the Chicago area and served in the Army before returning to Louisiana.
He is survived by his wife, Gretchen, and their daughter, Merrill. He was preceded in death by a son.
Funeral arrangements are pending.