Growing up in Portland, Ore., William A. Hilliard was denied a newspaper delivery route by The Oregonian, which figured its readers would rebuff an 11-year-old black child at their doorsteps.
After seeking an education at three colleges, he finally graduated, but the best job he could immediately get was as a railroad redcap, or porter.
Still, he persisted, pursuing the advice of a neighbor who, he said, had urged him to “get good grades in school, go to college and don’t pay attention to what anyone else says.”
Years later, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in hand, Mr. Hilliard approached The Oregonian again and this time was hired, as a copy boy. He was 25. He became the newspaper’s only black employee.
It was the first in a series of firsts. He became the paper’s first black reporter; its first black executive editor, in 1982; and its first black editor in chief, in 1987, overseeing the news and editorial departments.
In 1993, he became the first black person to be elected president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now the American Society of News Editors).
Mr. Hilliard, who retired in 1994, died on Monday in Portland. He was 89. The cause was congestive heart failure, a son-in-law, Lou Gellos, said.
During his 42-year career in journalism, Mr. Hilliard championed diversity in hiring and civility in news coverage.
“The thing that bothers me more than anything else is what I see as more and more racial divisions in the country today,” he said after he was elected to lead the editors’ association. “And I think newspapers are the ideal educational tool to correct it.”
As editor of The Oregonian, a statewide daily paper, he generally deleted racial references in descriptions of people charged with crimes, arguing that they rarely helped in identifying suspects and mostly perpetuated negative stereotypes.
His paper also banned using names of sports teams that he said might offend ethnic or religious groups, especially Native Americans. Names like Redskins, he said, “tend to perpetuate stereotypes that damage the dignity and self-respect of many people in our society,” adding that “this harm far transcends any innocent entertainment or promotional value these names may have.”
William Arthur Hilliard was born on May 28, 1927, in Chicago to Felix Hilliard, a mortuary worker, and the former Ruth Jackson, a maid. They divorced when he was a baby. He and his three sisters were raised by his grandparents in Arkansas until he was 8, when his mother, who had remarried and moved to Portland, sent for them.
When he was 13, after his mother and stepfather had moved elsewhere in the city, he went to live with a neighbor, Stephen Wright, a black businessman who owned the only hotel in Portland that catered to blacks. Mr. Wright became his mentor.
It was a truck driver responsible for hiring paperboys for The Oregonian who turned down the young William for the job, but the rejection did not dim his desire to be a journalist. He was hired to deliver The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine, as a teenager; worked on his high school newspaper; and, after being drafted and serving in the Navy, studied journalism at Vanport Extension Center (now Portland State University) and the University of Oregon.
At the University of Oregon, he said, a white professor tried to discourage him from pursuing a career in a profession that had not welcomed minorities. But Mr. Hilliard was not deterred.
After transferring to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., he was elected editor of the campus paper. After graduating, he began publishing The Portland Challenger, aimed at black readers, until he was hired at The Oregonian.
As a reporter there, he initially covered sports, although he was the only reporter in the department never to be assigned to cover a game. He went on to be a general assignment reporter, a religion reporter and city editor.
As the paper’s top editor, he presided over the merger of the Oregonian’s staff with that of The Oregon Journal. He was also in charge when, in an embarrassing lapse in 1992, The Washington Post broke the news that a number of women had accused Senator Bob Packwood, a Republican from Oregon, of sexual harassment and that he had kissed an Oregonian reporter on the lips.
Mr. Hilliard said he had been unaware of the allegations, but he took the criticism in stride. “As much as we dish it out,” he said, “we have to take it.”
In 1980, he was among four reporters who questioned Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in their first presidential debate.
In addition to his wife, the former Dian Lamb, Mr. Hilliard is survived by three children from an earlier marriage, Abdur-Razzaque, Linda Hilliard and Sandra Gunder; two stepdaughters, Danielle Yoder and Angie Foster; two granddaughters; two step-grandchildren; and two sisters, Dorothy Fatheree and Juliet Banks.
In 1993, the National Association of Black Journalists gave Mr. Hilliard its presidential award, crediting him as a role model who had quietly but persistently sought to integrate the mainstream media.
“I want to believe,” he once said, “that over the years, scores of young people of color have looked at me and said, ‘It can happen.’”