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Alfred Balk, former faculty member, dies
Alfred Balk, a magazine writer, editor and nonfiction book author, died at his home in Huntley, Ill. on Nov. 25. He served as an editor at four national magazines, wrote more than 100 magazine articles and seven books, co-edited an eighth and served on the faculties of Columbia and Syracuse universities.
In the 1960s, four of his articles were especially influential. “Confessions of a Block-Buster” (1962) in the weekly Saturday Evening Post exposed a pseudonymous speculator’s techniques for exploiting housing segregation. After a homeowners group sued to compel disclosure of Vitchek’s identity in Baker v. F&F Investment, the case made legal history when a U.S. District Court upheld Balk’s right to confidentiality, and the Supreme Court in 1972 let the decision stand. Also for the Saturday Evening Post, he and Alex Haley co-authored the first nationwide report on Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. At Balk’s suggestion, the article, “Black Merchants of Hate,” later led to Haley’s classic and bestseller “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” For Harper’s, a 1964 collaboration with then-State Sen. Paul Simon, “The Illinois Legislature: A Study in Corruption,” spurred ethics reforms and vaulted Simon to national prominence. Another Harper’s report, “God Is Rich,” on religious organizations’ tax exemptions, led to a 1968 book by Balk on the subject.
In 1966, Balk moved to New York as feature editor of Saturday Review, which he also served as an editor-at-large. Subsequently, he became the second editor of Columbia Journalism Review, where he was also general manager and taught at the School of Journalism. Over four years, he converted the Columbia Journalism Review from quarterly to bimonthly publication, co-edited a 10th anniversary anthology for Little, Brown, and produced a business plan for future acceptance of advertising. He left Columbia to serve as founding editor of World Press Review, a monthly foreign press digest. The Stanley Foundation of Muscatine, Iowa, then headed by his former scout leader, sponsored the publication, which initiated programs such as an International Editor of the Year Award. World Press Review observed its 30th anniversary with the May 2004 issue, its last. Its title became a website.
His last magazine position, from 1989-1991, 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, from which he retired in 1994.
Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa (July 24, 1930), Balk grew up in Muscatine and Rock Island, Ill., where he entered journalism as a high school sports reporter for The Argus. After a year at Augustana College and graduation from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, he served in the U.S. Army in Chicago and Japan, where he began freelancing for magazines. In 1958, following a year as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, and two years in public relations for the J. Walter Thompson Co., he began freelancing fulltime until his move to New York.
Balk’s scholarly papers are in the collections of the Newberry Library in Chicago and Syracuse University. He was a longtime member of The Century Club in New York.
He is survived by his wife, Phyllis Balk, of Huntley; two daughters, Laraine Balk Hope of Rockville, Md., and Diane Balk Palguta of Indianapolis, Ind.; two grandchildren, Anna and Andrew Palguta; and a sister, Virginia Pickering of Fullerton, Calif.
Contributions can be sent to Hospice of Northeastern Illinois, 405 Lake Zurich Rd., Barrington, Ill. 60010, or The Newberry Library, Al Balk Memorial, 60 West Walton St., Chicago, Ill., 60610.