Hilfrink retirement ends family's 100-year association with The Quincy Herald-Whig

Mike Hilfrink stands in The Herald-Whig press room. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Nov. 30, 2013 8:36 pm Updated: Dec. 14, 2013 10:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

For the past 100 years, someone from the Hilfrink family has been actively involved in the production of The Quincy Herald-Whig or one of its predecessor newspapers.

That association, however, is about to end.

Mike Hilfrink, general manager and executive editor -- and the third generation of his family to work at The Herald-Whig -- will retire Tuesday, bringing the century-old connection to a close.

Hilfrink's grandfather, Charles E. Hilfrink, and his father, Charles R. Hilfrink, were both longtime printers at the newspaper.

His grandfather started working full-time for The Quincy Herald on April 1, 1913. He was a Linotype operator and member of the composing room staff for 45 years until he retired Jan. 1, 1958. During that period, The Quincy Herald merged with The Quincy Whig-Journal in 1926 to become The Quincy Herald-Whig.


Hilfrink's father started working at The Herald-Whig in 1938 and spent 47 years at the newspaper. He left for 10 months during 1958-59 before returning until he retired in March 1986. He, too, was a Linotype operator for many years until the newspaper adopted a computerized typesetting process known as "cold type" in 1974. He then worked as a compositor in the composing room.

Mike Hilfrink also has a long association with The Herald-Whig. He started working at the newspaper in 1970 as a government/political reporter after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in communications.

Hilfrink left Quincy in 1975 to become state editor of The Daily Dispatch in Moline. He later became city editor and assistant managing editor before he returned to The Herald-Whig in 1984 as managing editor. Then in 2001 he was named executive editor and in 2009 took on additional duties as general manager.

As he now contemplates retirement at age 65, Hilfrink looks back with pride at his family's century-long connection with The Herald-Whig.

"My dad enjoyed working here with my grandfather, and he was pleased that I returned to The Herald-Whig so our time together could overlap. That was very interesting and rewarding for all of us," he said.

Hilfrink said he couldn't help but take an interest in the business because he literally grew up in a newspaper atmosphere.

"There was always talk about The Herald-Whig in the house," he said. "It was part of our family. My dad would bring me down here as a kid, and I would see him working. I was very familiar with the building, and I knew my dad and grandfather loved working here."

But unlike his father and grandfather, Hilfrink was more intrigued by the editorial side of the newspaper than the production side.

He got interested in writing in sixth grade at Quincy's St. Francis School. His teacher, Mrs. H.J. Gehrt, recognized his writing talent and got him involved in some extracurricular writing projects, such as crafting school plays.

Then in eighth grade at St. Peter School, Hilfrink and some classmates persuaded the pastor, Father Joseph O'Brien, to let them start a student newspaper. The first thing Hilfrink wrote was an editorial introducing the paper to the school community.

After graduating from Christian Brothers High School in 1966, Hilfrink took a more serious interest in newspaper writing.

He attended Quincy College for two years and became editor of the Falcon in his sophomore year. Then after transferring to the U of I to study journalism, he landed a full-time job at the Champaign-Urbana Courier, one of two newspapers in town at that time.

Upon graduating, Hilfrink was hired at The Herald-Whig in what turned out to be the fulfilment of a dream.

"I always had in mind that I'd like to return to Quincy," he said.

"Journalism can be a life of adventure where you travel and do all of that. But I just thought it would be a great experience to come back to your hometown and learn more about it and help other people understand what was happening and what was important in the community."

While working as a reporter in Quincy, Hilfrink simultaneously served in the Illinois National Guard. In 1973, his unit was activated to help communities battling record-setting flooding on the Mississippi River. Hilfrink, a Specialist 4, served in Quincy during that time as the Guard's liaison with the community.

It was during the 1973 flood fight that Hilfrink got a up-close look at the workings of the Quincy Salvation Army, which was aiding communities and flood fighters in various ways.

In later years -- after he returned to Quincy from Moline -- Hilfrink became heavily involved with the Salvation Army. He would eventually serve as chairman of the agency's Advisory Board. He also served on the agency's Public Relations Committee and on a steering committee that helped secure the grant and drafted plans for the new Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center.

Hilfrink also did volunteer work with many other local organizations, including the Chaddock board; Access Health of Adams County, serving as vice chairman; the Great River Recovery Resources board; the Sunset Home board; the United Way; the Civic Music Association's board; and the Chamber of Commerce's executive committee.

While working at The Herald-Whig, Hilfrink has overseen many changes in how the newspaper is produced and the way news is covered and communicated.

"We've seen all of the changes from hot type to cold type to paste-up to pagination and now to CTP, where we send pages directly to the plate room," he said.

"Through much of my grandfather's career and my dad's career, they did the same thing year after year, spanning a couple of generations. Then things began to change very quickly," he added.

"At one time we had dozens of people working in the composing room. It was like a small factory. My dad's job and my grandfather's job don't exist anymore. Now all that work is done by just a few people sitting at computers."

Likewise, Hilfrink was at the helm when The Herald-Whig transitioned from being a print-only publication to one now appearing worldwide via the Internet and through multiple social networking links.

"The daily paper is just one of the things we do," he said. "That's our print platform. But we also provide continuous, expanded coverage on, and through Twitter and Facebook. We're pretty close to a 24-7 operation. Reporters are sending photos and video from meetings and breaking news events using their iPhones, and they're sending instantaneous updates," he said.

"We have a tremendously talented staff of reporters, editors and photographers – a great team of long-time, seasoned professionals and bright young journalists. With every one of those innovations, we were able to do our job better. We were able to report faster, report with more immediacy, with greater depth and connect in new ways with the community. We were able to bring additional resources to our reporting."

Hilfrink also helped steer The Herald-Whig through multiple redesigns to improve the newspaper's content, typography, legibility, color quality and usefulness to readers.

In his later years at the newspaper, Hilfrink oversaw the Editorial Page and its contents, including the Letters to the Editor. He wrote many of the editorials that serve as the voice of the newspaper's ownership and leadership.

As general manager the past few years, he came to know the business side of the newspaper as never before.

Hilfrink says his plan to seek a fulfilling career at his hometown newspaper ended up working out pretty well.

"I was able to see all aspects of the business as a reporter, as an editor, as a general manager," he said.

"To be able to become involved in the community and be able to work with (publisher) Tom Oakley and many others in advancing an economic development agenda and a quality-of-life agenda for the community -- and to learn about the business side of the business as a general manager -- that is a lot more than I expected," he said.

In his retirement, Hilfrink said he plans to spend more time volunteering in the community and pursuing some other interests.

He and his wife, Evanna, have two grown children and three grandchildren.