If you’re reading this, you’re indirectly supporting local journalism. And somewhere, Rob McNamee is smiling.
Not just because he always had a smile on his face or a joke on the end of his tongue, but because local journalism was so important to him.
McNamee helped shape what local journalism became and, through his work at the Lebanon Daily News, influenced the careers of scores of local journalists. Just like anything else he cared deeply about, he made a profound difference in his adopted hometown of Lebanon.
McNamee died on Aug. 30, following a fall sustained while caring for his wife Jeannie. He was 85.
“He believed in investigative reporting and telling stories,” said his daughter, Mary Jane McNamee. “Just sitting down with people and telling their side. He was very committed to the paper. Everyone turned to the Lebanon Daily News at that time. He always wanted to know the truth, and he didn’t care if people got upset with him.”
With his own unique style, McNamee was a career journalist and newspaperman. McNamee was the city editor and later the acting managing editor at the Lebanon Daily News for nearly 20 years, beginning in 1965.
He made important decisions and helped set policy for the Daily News at a time when the local paper was evolving into the leading source of news in Lebanon County.
“Local journalism was very important to him,” said his daughter. “I would say No. 2 in his life, only to his family. He left early, but we always had dinner together that night. There was not one day that he did not go in (to work).”
“To Rob, the Lebanon Daily News was very much a local newspaper,” said Paul Baker, who retired as the managing editor of the Lebanon Daily News in 2014. “Rob, as its leader, stressed local news. We covered everything: township meetings, borough council meetings, city government, the cops. Basically, we covered the county well, and Rob orchestrated it.”
It was a lot to juggle and prioritize. But McNamee did it with an open mind and integrity and humor.
Under McNamee, the old newsroom of the Lebanon Daily News was a vibrant and bustling place, especially around the daily deadlines. McNamee possessed an uncanny knack for putting reporters and photographers in positions that would allow them to succeed.
“In terms of reporters, I think he influenced a lot of them, maybe 50,” his daughter said. “Most of them were right out of college and he helped them get started. He mentored. He was kind and nurturing to the people who worked for him. He wanted to stand up for what he believed in.”
“It was his personality,” Baker agreed. “He was a good editor. He had a management style that wasn’t top-down. He made you want to do work. The newsroom was a really great place to work. But he wouldn’t take crap from anyone.”
The family business
In the early 1960s, McNamee went to work for his wife Jeanne Wilder’s family business, the Lebanon Daily News, as a reporter and a photographer. It didn’t take long for McNamee to be promoted to the position of editor.
“The fact that he excelled at his job and was so respected, if there were any doubts about nepotism, they were dispelled quickly,” said Mary Jane. “My dad always did what he thought was right. I doubt it ever bugged him. He was so confident in his abilities. He was the Catholic-Canadian kid who married into the family business. He kept the employees so happy that they never had a union. When you walked into the newsroom, everyone would be working together and happy.”
“I think its heyday was definitely when it was a family-owned newspaper,” Baker said of the newspaper. “People in the community respected it. But with each change of ownership, its esteem in the community took steps downward, to the point where it’s not really a local newspaper anymore.”
After McNamee left the Lebanon Daily News in the mid-1980s, the local newspaper had a string of managing editors before Baker ascended to the position in 2001. McNamee went on to work on the city desk of the Harrisburg Patriot-News and the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus, before starting his own public relations and consulting business.
“Yes, I think he still subscribed to the Lebanon Daily News,” said his daughter. “He would call it ‘the daily pamphlet.’ It was a big paper back in the day.”
“He and I talked about that,” said Baker, of the newspaper’s decline. “But then in later years we avoided it because it was too painful. For me, it was my life’s work. It was painful to see what it had become, and I think Rob felt the same.”
McNamee was born on May 21, 1938, in Ontario, Canada, and he attended Regiopolis Secondary School in Kingston, and later St. Patrick’s College in Ottawa, where he studied liberal arts. McNamee married Jeanne Wilder in 1958 and moved to North Cornwall Township, where they raised three children.
Before going to work at the Lebanon Daily News, McNamee attended the Michigan State School of Journalism and served in the U.S. Navy from 1960 to 1963.
“He was really funny,” his daughter recalled. “I would say he reminded people of some sort of actor. He was a great storyteller. He was really a people-person. He liked to listen to their stories, and he would remember them. He was the life of the party, but not a flake. He was just a real solid person. He was also very artistic.”
“He was kind of this larger-than-life person,” said Baker. “After Rob hired me, I was friends with him for the rest of my life. The thing about Rob was that he was liked and respected. That’s not always easy to do. He commanded the staff’s respect, and they liked him.”
Besides his wife of 61 years and his daughter Mary Jane, McNamee is survived by two sons, John and Bob, and five grandchildren.
“I think he would tell you not to be afraid to question everything,” said Mary Jane. “But be kind. There’s a way to live and to do it with good purpose and kindness for the greater good. He was not selfish at all. He was so giving. He was very gentle and sweet.”
“He had a great sense of humor,” added Baker. “He was a riot. As far as his personality, he was a figure of epic proportions. He was playful in the newsroom. But I suspect he was playful everywhere.”
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