Distinguished journalist, Huntley resident Alfred Balk dies

  • Alfred Balk

    Alfred Balk

By Tania Karas
Updated 11/27/2010 10:15 PM

Renowned journalist, editor and nonfiction author Alfred Balk died Thursday of complications from cancer, his family said Saturday. He was 80.

In an illustrious career spanning five decades, Balk, who lived in Huntley, wrote seven books and more than 100 magazine articles for publications such as Harper's, the Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times Magazine.


He died at home surrounded by his family on Thanksgiving Day.

Balk served on the faculties of Columbia and Syracuse universities and was an editor for the Columbia Journalism Review. He was founding editor of the World Press Review and served as president of the Society of Magazine Writers.

Balk's articles explored many subjects including corruption in Illinois legislature and Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam.

He was also an early proponent of civil rights and environmental concerns.

His collaborators included Alex Haley, Irv Kupcinet and former U.S. Senator Paul Simon.

Balk's most recent book, "The Rise of Radio, From Marconi Through the Golden Age" came out in 2006.

Longtime friend Ralph Otwell, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, described Balk as a man of professionalism with a "strong sense of what is right and what is wrong."

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"The thing that marked him from other journalists was his integrity," Otwell said. "He was one of the most responsibility-conscious journalists I've ever known."

Throughout his career, Balk strove to improve ethics in the journalism. In the early 1970s, Balk was part of a task force that helped launch the National News Council, for which he wrote the book "A Free and Responsive Press."

Balk also produced the film "That the People Shall Know: The Challenge of Journalism," which was narrated by Walter Cronkite, for which Balk was awarded the Society of Professional Journalists' Wells Memorial Key.

Balk's daughter Laraine Balk Hope described him as a "renaissance man" with a number of interests, especially journalism.

"He really believed that a free press was essential to a democracy's running properly," Hope said. "He dedicated his life to the improvement of media and the press."


Born July 24, 1930 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Balk grew up in Rock Island and entered the journalism field as a high school sports reporter for The Rock Island Argus.

He and his wife Phyllis Balk met as high-schoolers in Rock Island when a local radio program sought to bring together area students to improve relations between schools.

Balk graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and served in the U.S. Army in Chicago and Japan. He spent a year at the Chicago Sun-Times and two years in public relations at the J. Walter Thompson Co. before moving to New York as feature editor of the Saturday Review. As editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, he converted the publication from quarterly to bimonthly.

Balk's last magazine position was managing editor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' award-winning IEEE Spectrum. He left that to join the faculty of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, from which he retired in 1994. He and his wife then moved to Huntley to be closer to their grandchildren in Indianapolis.

The couple enjoyed Chicago-area cultural events and often attended the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.

Balk was a voracious reader of magazines and nonfiction books. He also subscribed to six daily newspapers.

"He always looked through The New York Times in the morning and skimmed through the rest," Phyllis Balk said. "Then he'd do the more serious reading in the evening."

Balk's scholarly papers are in the collections of the Newberry Library in Chicago and Syracuse University.

He is remembered by family and friends for his warm personality in addition to his numerous accolades.

"He was always really easy to spot in a crowd," his daughter Diane Balk Palguta said. "Anytime I was coming home and meeting him in the airport, he was always very distinguished-looking. He had this thousand-watt smile that couldn't help but warm your heart."

Balk is survived by his wife, a sister, two daughters and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 3, at the First Congregational Church of Huntley.