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Past' Prince' editors remember mentor's warm personality, invaluable advice

The first lunch invitation was left on my voice mail, but its formality has kept it with me as if it were embossed on fine stationary.

"Rick," said the voice, strong and deep with just a hint of frailty, "this is Bill McCleery from the Princetonian Board of Trustees. One of the great joys of my job as on-campus liaison is getting to dine with the editor-in-chief. Would you care to join me at Prospect House on Tuesday at noon?"

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Would I care to? No, I wouldn't I thought, even as I called him back to say I'd be delighted. I was shell-schocked after a few weeks as editor - the last thing I needed was a stodgy lunch with some dinosaur who would only criticize me.

The first sight of him at Prospect House dispelled all dread. He exuded warmth - his smile, his dress, his manner. Mr. McCleery was dignified and dapper, a Fitzgerald Princetonian, though he didn't go to Princeton. The handshake was firm, his happiness genuine, and we sat down for the first of a handful of pleasant meals above the garden.

He read the 'Prince' every day and was the only Trustee who was on campus. But not once did I hear from him about what we'd done wrong, even when those mistakes were serious. Instead he'd talk about what a lovely story we'd run last week and how he thought the paper was better than ever. I didn't think he was right, but that was okay. I was convinced that he meant it.

The smile was disarming. It wasn't just the upturned mouth; it was his entire face that smiled. His eyes were constantly bright, even behind the glasses he had to remove to wipe the tears away after a good laugh. I couldn't have a problem large enough, couldn't have a worry serious enough in the face of that smile.

The grin could turn mischievous, especially when he told an off-color joke. He wasn't afraid of his pride, especially in his work as a playwright. He was a storyteller, but he was also a supreme listener. There at his regular table in Prospect House, we spoke, seven decades apart but thinking together. I rarely saw him outside of Prospect, but I thought of him often. So I was saddened when I heard that Bill McCleery died last week - heartbroken, really.

But I see him at peace, with a smile on his face. And I smile back. Rick Klein, a former Editor-in-Chief of the 'Prince,' is from West Babylon, N.Y. He can be reached at rklein@dallasnews.com.

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