Nothing prepared Paul Ingrassia better for what would come later in life — a Pulitzer Prize, an interview with Vladimir Putin, a stretch covering the Arab spring in Cairo — than his one year as Daily Illini editor-in-chief.
This was the Vietnam era, when campus protests were as prevalent as Illini football losses.
"After one riot, the Champaign police raided the DI office to confiscate the film of our photographers," he recalled in a 2016 interview with The News-Gazette. "But the negatives had been spirited away to the office of our attorney, who went to court and overturned the search warrant.
"The experience bolstered me for tough stories decades later."
Mr. Ingrassia died on Sept. 16, 2019 in Naples, Fla., after battling cancer. He was 69.
Along with brother Larry, the recently retired managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, and fellow DI legends Roger Ebert, Bill Nack, Roger Simon and others, Paul was a member of the Illini Media Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 2006.
He was an easy choice, given his reputation as the award-winning reporter who “placed readers in the boardrooms and executive suites of the nation’s automotive industry and put many of its leaders under scrutiny,” as The New York Times wrote in Mr. Ingrassia’s obituary.
He spent three decades as a reporter, editor and executive at The Wall Street Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones, Inc. It was there, while working as the newspaper’s Detroit bureau chief, that he shared the 1993 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting for coverage of management turmoil at General Motors.
But it was later in his career, while on assignment for Reuters, that Mr. Ingrassia experienced the most unforgettable moment of his journalism career, a story he retold to The News-Gazette in 2016.
“In June 2015, when I was managing editor of Reuters, I was one of a small group of wire-service journalists to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg.
“The interview was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. in the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library. Putin showed up at midnight. We went around the table, each getting to ask one or maybe two questions. When my turn came, here was our exchange:
“Me: ‘Mr. President, you and the Western allies disagree about whether Russian troops are actively fighting in Ukraine. But we do know that large numbers of fighting men and large amounts of heavy weaponry are crossing the Russia-Ukraine border to engage in hostilities. Is this because you allow it to happen, or perhaps because you have lost control of your own border?´
“Putin, angrily: ‘You do not understand. They are fascists. Fascists.´
"Then he added, referring to the Russian-backed Ukraine rebels: ‘These people got weapons with which to defend themselves. They got them in various ways.´
“After we broke, a couple of the other journalists said they were amazed I had asked him such a blunt question. Blunt or not, I told them, Putin obviously ducked the question — doubtless reflecting years of practice.”