Frank Batten Sr., retired chairman of Landmark Communications, now known as Landmark Media Enterprises LLC, died in Norfolk early this morning. He was 82.
He is survived by his wife, Jane, three children, countless friends and colleagues, and a region significantly changed by his presence.
He was a son of privilege, the heir to a family fortune, a man whose life, in other hands, might have been measured in dollars and cents.
Instead, Frank Batten forged a legacy not on what he made but what he created.
From errand boy he rose to publisher of The Virginian-Pilot and its afternoon sister, then parlayed his newspapers into an adventuresome media company with global reach. He helped lead the fight for integrated schools in Norfolk, midwifed Old Dominion University into being, commanded The Associated Press and its far-flung correspondents, and defied a legion of doubters to create The Weather Channel.
He also lavished endowments on schools and universities and co-founded a scholarship program that guaranteed college educations to inner-city children.
And with a resolve that characterized all he did, he survived throat cancer and overcame the loss of his voice, then persevered through a succession of ailments and injuries late in his life.
“He could very easily have just led the good life and not dealt with the problems of the city and the state,” said Harvey Lindsay, a Norfolk real estate developer, civic leader and friend of Batten's for nearly 60 years. “But he chose to become very involved, and to do things that have helped so many people.
“I think he was certainly one of the great Virginians of the century.”
Louis D. Boccardi, retired president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press, called Batten “a teacher and a leader and a visionary.” Bruce Bradley, retired former publisher of The Virginian-Pilot and head of Landmark's publishing division, called him the embodiment of “hard work, humility and innovation.”
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim described Batten as that rare citizen to whom Hampton Roads turned for leadership time and again.
“There are two pillars of this community,” Fraim said. “One is Frank Batten. The other is everyone else.”
Measures of success
Until its partial breakup in 2008, Batten's Landmark Communications Inc. was one of the country's largest privately held media companies. The business's marquee properties were The Weather Channel and Weather.com, since sold. Its successor, Landmark Media Enterprises LLC, remains parent to nine daily newspapers and more than 100 nondaily newspapers and specialty publications, to TV stations in Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn., and to Dominion Enterprises, which produces a national chain of classified-ad publications and owns a large office building in downtown Norfolk.
At its height, the company employed more than 10,000 people throughout the United States and Europe, and annual revenues approached $2 billion.
Such measures of success were never Batten's, however.
“The thing I think I'm most proud of,” he said in a 2000 interview, “is developing what I think is a first-rate company that has high values and makes a contribution to all the communities we serve.”
That company and its many tendrils were shaken by news of his death.
“He's the reason I really believe in this newspaper,” said Pilot Editor Denis Finley, who visited an ailing Batten in the fall of 2007. “I told him I loved working for a company that put ethical conduct at the top of its core characteristics.
“To me, he's a visionary and his vision is unique. It's rare to find a guy with his business skills and humanitarian ideals.”
Bradley, the former publisher, said he considered Batten one of “the five most influential people” in his life.
“It's like being on a basketball team and being a rookie on the bench and watching Michael Jordan,” he said, “and thinking that's how you'd like to be.”
Batten was born in 1927 to Frank Batten, a local bank auditor, and Dorothy Martin Batten, the daughter of a wealthy Norfolk family. He had just turned a year old when his father fell ill and died at the family's Ghent home. His aunt Fay and her husband, Samuel L. Slover, invited young Frank and his mother to live with them.
Slover's was a prominent name in Depression-era Hampton Roads. A native of Tennessee, “the colonel” had been an advertising wunderkind in Richmond at the century's turn, had won control of a newspaper in Newport News and had sold it in 1907 to buy what would become the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, the biggest paper in town.
Childless, Slover raised young Frank as his own, imbuing the boy with his passion for news and newspapering.
“He was the biggest influence on my life,” Batten said decades later. “It was not so much his style but his values that influenced me. He had a lot of simple but very strong values — about truthfulness, the way you deal with people, being straightforward.”
He learned something else from Slover : That those enriched by a community are duty-bound to reciprocate with their time and talent. Slover devoted himself to a number of local causes and was even drafted by cash-strapped Norfolk to a yearlong stint as mayor.
The colonel's lessons took a while to sink in, however.
“I was part of a gang that was fond of pranks,” Batten said, “some of which would horrify me if they'd been done by my children.”
He and his family, said fellow “gang” member E. Bradford Tazewell Jr., agreed that “he needed the firm hand of some discipline that he wasn't getting at home.” The solution: Batten left Norfolk Academy — and the baronial Slover home on Ghent's Fairfax Avenue — for the austere, squared-away life of Indiana's Culver Military Academy.
The experience was transforming. By his senior year, Batten — whom Tazewell had known as “an upper-B student” who “never led the class” and was “never a brain” — had blossomed into a sharp, smart, highly focused company commander.
James A. Henderson, the son of a Culver administrator and today the retired chairman and CEO of Columbus, Ind.-based Cummins Engine Co., remembered being struck by the 18-year-old Batten's presence.
“As a young man of 10 or 11 years old I really looked up to him,” he said. “He had an aura of leadership about him even then.”
After graduating in 1945, Batten immediately sought admission to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., and shipped out on several uneventful trans-Atlantic runs aboard the John Erickson, a large troop transport. He quit sea duty in 1947 to enter the University of Virginia.
His time there was “pretty typical,” he said in 2000. He sought a reserve naval commission through Navy ROTC, joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, earned the nickname “Jelly” for his reliance on jam-slathered toast for breakfast.
That summer, Batten went to work in the Ledger-Dispatch newsroom as a copy boy, a post that combined menial labor with exposure to every facet of the newspaper's production. He filed wire stories clattering over the Associated Press teletypes and ran copy from the newsroom to the sweltering, noisy “back shop,” where it was set into lead type.
Late in the summer, Managing Editor Tom Hanes, curious about the state's new auto inspection system, dispatched Batten to 14 inspection stations around Norfolk. He returned with repair estimates ranging from $1 to $37.80 — and a front-page story.
“I got some complaints from some of these inspection stations, and one of them called me at night and gave me hell about it and said he knew the publisher,” Batten recalled nearly 53 years later.
“Of course, the publisher was in the next room.”
The story spurred the General Assembly to modify Virginia's inspection laws.
“I was just thrilled,” he said.
Batten returned to the Ledger-Dispatch as an intern reporter for two more summers, graduated from U.Va. in 1950 and obtained his master's in business administration from Harvard in 1952.
When Batten became publisher of The Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Dispatch in 1954, Tazewell ribbed only a little inaccurately that “he went from copy boy to publisher in two years.” He was 27 years old.
“It was a much smaller company at the time, but it was enough for me,” Batten said. “I thought it was General Motors.”
If his view of the company was outsized, so were its problems. Each day's editions were seat-of-the-pants productions. News and advertising staffs were oblivious to each other's needs and routines. Turf wars were common. Neither the Ledger-Dispatch nor The Virginian-Pilot had a personnel department, or formal hiring standards, or a retirement program.
Batten imported a cadre of pedigreed editors and began professionalizing the papers' business side. He also bought his only competition — the afternoon Portsmouth Star — and folded it into what soon became the Ledger-Star.
He sought another merger as well.
Among the newsroom's staff was Jane Parke, who was both secretary to Managing Editor R.K.T. “Kit” Larsen and a lab technician in the photography department. Batten asked her out, and romance bloomed — “step by step, rather than like a lightning bolt,” as he later put it. They married in 1957.
“I used to kid Kit that I married Jane to get her off the payroll,” Batten joked, “so he couldn't use her to persuade me to hire a full-time lab technician.” Before long the couple had a son, Frank Jr., destined to follow his father into newspapers , and two daughters, Mary Elizabeth — Betsy, to the family — and Dorothy.
Slover remained a presence in those early days.
“Certainly at first, one of the biggest motivations I had was to live up to the colonel's expectations and the confidence he had in me,” Batten said. “That was a pretty tall order.”
During the Portsmouth Star takeover, Batten negotiated a contract buyout with one of The Star's suppliers. Afterward, he told Slover what he had agreed to pay the man.
“He said to me: 'That's not the way to handle that. You should pay him a lot more,'” Batten said.
“That really made an impression on me. Until then, I thought my job, first and foremost, was about money.”
He was on his own, unable to rely on the retired Slover's guidance, when he faced one of his greatest tests as a newspaperman. Virginia had struggled with school desegregation for years when, in September 1958, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. ordered six Norfolk secondary schools shut down to block the court-ordered admission of black students. The deed capped the state's officially mandated “Massive Resistance” to integration, a stand that made Virginia an international synonym for intolerance.
The battle against Massive Resistance
The Ledger supported the Massive Resistance doctrine. The Virginian-Pilot, alone among major Virginia papers, opposed it; its editor, Lenoir Chambers, showed up the policy as incoherent in an unflinching series of editorials.
“Those were pretty rough days,” Batten recalled in a 1987 interview. “We got a lot of bitter letters. We would have racist things spray-painted on the building rather frequently and occasionally had bomb threats.”
Gene Roberts, a Virginian-Pilot reporter who went on to become a dean of American journalism in Philadelphia and New York, recalled that Batten initially “seemed to take pride that the two papers could go their different ways.
“But ultimately,” he said, “he felt that the Ledger's position was reinforcing the closing of the schools.” When the Ledger's editorial staff proved unable to effectively change the paper's position, Batten did it himself.
“I would never ask an editor to write something he didn't believe in, but also, if I thought the paper was being irresponsible, I was going to either write it myself or get someone else to write it,” Batten said. “I think it's the only time I've ever had to … make a radical reversal on the editorial page.”
He also helped organize a full-page advertisement, signed by dozens of Norfolk's social leaders, calling for the schools to reopen.
“This was an old-fashioned Southern city, a small town,” said Landmark Vice Chairman Richard F. Barry III. “That really was a major turning point for the community and really sort of said a lot about Frank Batten and what he stood for.”
Norfolk's schools reopened peacefully in February 1959. Chambers' editorials won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize.
“To me,” Bradley said of the crisis, “it's the kind of stuff legends are made of.”
Batten's conduct in those dark days marked the emergence of a style that was to define his leadership for four decades.
The publisher was a quiet man, shy of the limelight and given to sometimes-lengthy reflection before important decisions.
“He was probably as open with me as he was with anybody, and there were a lot of times when I didn't know what he was thinking,” said retired Landmark President and CEO John O. “Dubby” Wynne. “He was a private guy, very self-dependent.”
True, said Frank Daniels, former president and publisher of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and a onetime member of Landmark's Board of Directors. “He's a very good card player.”
Just the same, Batten always sought his lieutenants' views before making big decisions.
Keys to success
“He would always take what you said and think about it, even if he had a negative reaction to it initially,” said Anne Shumadine, a past rector of Old Dominion University as well as Batten's friend and legal adviser. “He was open to new ideas but at the same time really thought about things carefully. He was very judicious, very smart.”
The company's collegial atmosphere manifested Batten's awareness that success lay in his cadre of brainy, imaginative colleagues.
“His whole belief has been in people,” Wynne said. “He believed you hired the right people to do the job and you stayed out of their way.”
Bradley recalled meetings of the company's leadership where “there'd be 120, 130 people in the room, and he used to go around and introduce everyone by name. And as far as I know, he never got one wrong.
“To me,” Bradley said, “that was a symbol of the importance he put on the culture of the company, which held that its people were key to its success.”
Sandra M. Rowe, who led Batten's Norfolk newspapers in the 1980s and early '90s and is today the editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., said her former boss' style inspired a loyalty she still feels.
“There was never a day I worked for Landmark that I wasn't proud that Frank Batten was my employer,” she said. “I'm running my own paper, and I still have every note Frank Batten ever wrote me.”
It wasn't long before the company began aiming for bigger opportunities. It found its first in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where, in 1964, Batten launched a cable television system called TeleCable Corp. that over the following three decades built cable networks in 15 states.
In 1967, Norfolk Newspapers Inc. became Landmark Communications Inc., amid a growth spurt in which it bought North Carolina's Greensboro Daily News and Greensboro Record, The Roanoke Times & World-News, a host of nondaily papers and several TV stations.
Duty to the public
Now the chairman of a fast-growing media empire, Batten wrote a platform for his papers, presaging the mission statements embraced by corporate America years later.
“Newspapers live entirely on the bounty of the public,” the document opened. “The ability of journalists to report and to comment is based upon a unique grant of freedom from the public. Thus our duty is clear: It is to serve the public with skill and character, and to exercise First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility.”
Landmark papers had a duty to “be aggressive in publishing the news,” to publish editorials of “vigor and courage,” to “present a faithful and accurate picture of the life of their communities.”
Their independence “is not for sale,” he wrote. “There are no sacred cows. No territory of legitimate public interest is off limits to fair and competent report and comment.”
Batten concluded the credo by urging his papers to search “as hard for strengths and accomplishments as for weakness and failure. Rather than demoralize its community, the great newspaper will by honest and intelligent journalism inspire people to do better.”
Rowe considered it “one of the most moving, lasting statements of the best that journalism could be.
“That's not the result of some committee,” she said. “That's the passion of a newspaperman who wants to run a company with integrity.”
Retired Virginian-Pilot Editor Kay Tucker Addis found similar inspiration in a collection of Batten's speeches distributed to top Landmark managers.
“On just about any problem I'm facing, I can turn to these speeches and find something that helps me,” she said. “I almost wish there were an index in the back.
“These are principles that don't change over time. He took the high road and demanded that we did as well.”
Over the years, that approach helped cement Batten's position as a civic leader in Hampton Roads. He presided over the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce in 1961 and chaired the 1964 drive of what's now the United Way. Education became his personal focus: Gov. Linwood Holton appointed him to a seat on the State Council of Higher Education. He served as a trustee of Norfolk Academy and Roanoke's Hollins College.
And in 1962 he became Old Dominion College's first rector, a post from which he shepherded the campus's break from the College of William and Mary. Batten guided the school through its first eight years, during which it achieved university status. He also contributed money for building projects and continued to raise money for the school until his death. His $32 million gift in 2003 was the largest in campus history.
“Nobody has meant more to Old Dominion than Frank Batten has,” said James L. Bugg, an early ODU president who was lured to the campus from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “In terms of time and talent and money and everything else, Old Dominion owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
Over the years, the ODU Board of Visitors gave his name to a campus landmark, the nine-story Arts and Letters building, and to the university's College of Engineering and Technology. Batten also received the University Medal for his long service.
His high-road style also made him attractive to The Associated Press, the 163-year-old wire service for newspapers, radio and TV outlets around the world. Batten was nominated to AP's board of directors in 1975 and named the organization's chairman seven years later.
“He did a superb job as chairman,” said Daniels, of The News & Observer. “AP was broke and didn't know it. He, along with other board members, put through a big dues increase and got it on the road to financial health — the biggest restructuring in AP's history.”
Batten's tenure as chairman lasted five years, a period that Lou Boccardi, AP's retired president and CEO, called “a critical time” for the organization “in both the ways we were managed and the kinds of things we did.”
“He was a very effective leader and mentor for that,” said Boccardi, who was hired to his post by the Batten-led board. “And we were all so inspired by his personal courage.”
Courage through adversity
“Courage” crops up often in the words of his friends, for in 1977, Batten — blessed with a fast-growing company, a loving family, long-standing friendships, a beautiful home, a private jet — learned he also had cancer.
After two years of radiation treatments, he lost his larynx to surgery. Afterward, he was mute and breathed through a hole in his neck.
“The idea alone scared me stiff,” he wrote in The Virginian-Pilot a month after the operation. “The enforced silence has been the most difficult adjustment. … What sustained me is an abiding conviction that I will learn to talk again.”
And so he did, devoting months to “taming and disciplining an ungoverned burp to shape it into a new voice.”
Private though he was, Batten's recovery was remarkably public.
“The minute he was ready to get out of bed, he went into the office,” said Walter Rugaber, former president and publisher of The Roanoke Times and past president of the Landmark Publishing Group. “And really, right out there in front of everyone, he transformed himself from the initial stages of having lost his larynx to the point that a couple years later, as the chairman of AP, he'd get up and deliver speeches.”
Batten told readers the following June that he was proud of his new growl.
“Already it represents one of the most exhilarating accomplishments of my life,” he wrote. “The truth is that I have gained more than I lost from the encounter with cancer.”
Rowe, the former Virginian-Pilot editor, remembered attending a Landmark leaders meeting not long afterward and sitting stunned as Batten rose to introduce everyone in the room by name, as he had always done.
“Half of us were sitting there weeping,” she said. “It was so inspiring, and it was so perfectly Frank.”
The resolve Batten displayed in that fight came as no revelation to those who knew him well.
Modest, but determined
Batten shirked many of the trappings of his growing wealth — he drove a succession of nondescript Buicks for most of his adult life — but his modesty masked a rock-hard determination.
“Frank was not a natural athlete, but he was dogged,” Brad Tazewell said. “Everything he did he did intellectually and doggedly. He was a decent golfer — not a great golfer, but a decent golfer — and a good tennis player, and really a very good skier. He was always determined to be as good as he could possibly be.”
He also harbored a notorious competitive streak. When Batten took up sailing in the late 1960s, he didn't pussyfoot: He skippered four boats, each bigger than the last, all named “Shadow,” in races around the Chesapeake and Atlantic. In 1976, he owned the Bay's high-point boat and was thus considered the region's top sailor.
“He was never one to go cruising,” his son, Frank Jr., said of outings aboard the Shadows.
“Whenever he took the boat out, he was looking to get it going at as high a speed as he could.”
In his later years, Batten's thirst for competition was most often slaked on Interstate 264. Beach-bound Landmark executives knew that if they left the firm's downtown offices when the boss did, they were in for a race.
“I have ridden with him,” said Louis Ryan, retired as Landmark's executive vice president and corporate counsel, “and it's not an experience I'd recommend.”
His determination came to the fore most publicly in 1982, when Batten embarked Landmark on its most audacious venture: the creation of a coast-to-coast, 24-hour cable TV channel that broadcast nothing but weather information.
Creating The Weather Channel
That The Weather Channel was greeted with skepticism understates the case. The undertaking was the butt of incredulous jokes and dire predictions of failure — and, indeed, it seemed bound for ruin in the early going.
“It was a really messy deal,” Rowe said. “A lot of the people in the cable industry didn't think it could be successful. A lot of the journalists in his own company were skeptical. And Frank said, 'No, I believe in this, and it's going to go forward.'
“Even though Frank came from a very traditional background in terms of business, I don't think he was ever afraid to go outside that conventional approach when he thought it would work.” Board member Daniels agreed.
“It was Frank's vision, I believe, that saw The Weather Channel for what it would become,” he said. “It sure looked like it was going to go down the tubes.”
The succeeding years vindicated Batten's faith. The Weather Channel became Landmark's highest-profile property and a mainstay of cable systems around the country. When the company announced its plans to sell the channel, its Web site and an associated weather data firm in January 2008, it made headlines around the country. The sale to NBC Universal and two private-equity firms reportedly netted $3.5 billion.
“Most people tend to overanalyze everything or can't stand details and underanalyze everything,” said Ryan, who retired in 1999. “More than anyone I've ever met, he had the best ability to spot what the really important issues were and to spend a lot of time analyzing those.”
As bold as that endeavor was, Batten may have matched it in 1988, with his role in creating the Tidewater Scholarship Foundation.
With auto dealer Joshua Darden Jr., he founded a program that helped acquire college scholarships for Norfolk and Portsmouth high school students in need who earned decent grades, had good attendance and stayed off drugs through high school. It also provided qualified students with cash awards to meet expenses not covered by scholarship money.
The foundation's potential client list was daunting.
“Money's always an issue when you have a program that is promising a college education for an unlimited number of people for an unlimited time,” said Anne Shumadine, a past foundation chairwoman. “But when you help people grow and improve themselves, everyone benefits. That's one thing that Frank has really impressed upon me.”
Dedication to education
Over 20 years, the program has helped more than 70,000 graduates from South Hampton Roads obtain $200 million in college aid.
“The basic philosophy I've had about education is that it's the best means we have of perpetuating an open society, one in which people from all walks of life can have the opportunity to progress and succeed,” Batten said . “I think that the program goes right to the heart of that, by making college available to people who otherwise would not have access to college.”
Batten also created the Landmark Foundation, which has funneled millions of dollars to educational charities and other nonprofit organizations. His philanthropy reached a new peak in his last years, during which he donated $100 million to U.Va. — the largest gift in the university's history — to create its first new school in more than half a century, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. His 2008 gift of up to $70 million to Culver Academies followed an earlier donation of $20.8 million; taken separately, let alone together, they were among the largest ever to an American secondary school.
He contributed $20 million toward a new Norfolk library and $7 million to the Virginia Zoo . His largesse also boosted U.Va.'s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, to which he donated $60 million, and numerous other colleges and charities. In March 2003, Batten made contributions totaling $170 million to educational institutions including ODU, Virginia Wesleyan College, Hollins College in Roanoke, and the Harvard Business School.
“I think all of his philanthropy is characterized by his desire to make a real difference,” said Linda Hyatt Wilson, former executive director of the Landmark Foundation . “That money isn't going to be swallowed up as part of a huge endowment.”
Batten had a personal connection to many of his beneficiaries: Virginia Wesleyan was the alma mater of his older daughter, Betsy; his wife, his mother and his daughter Dorothy attended Hollins. (Betsy would later become a Buddhist and change her name to Maitri Leela Bavana.)
Frank Jr. and Dorothy obtained MBAs at the Darden school.
“She went to a fortuneteller in California while visiting a friend there,” Batten said of his youngest child. “The clairvoyant said she saw her at business school getting an MBA.
“Betsy accused me of paying that fortuneteller to send Dorothy to business school,” Batten said, adding, “She did go.”
Handing over the reins
Batten stepped down as Landmark's chairman in 1998, handing over control of the company to his son. By that time, Frank Batten Jr. was well-grounded in the company's businesses, having worked in the newsroom and in advertising in Roanoke and as publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, the Ledger-Star and a Landmark paper in Kentucky.
“He's a lot smarter than I am,” Batten Sr. wrote in an e-mail in 2000. “He was a top student in all of the schools he attended. I recall an incident when he was about 8. I had bought him an electric train for Christmas the previous year and came home early several days before the next Christmas to set up his train. I couldn't get the train working and thought there was some electrical problem.
“When Frank got home from school I told him I would have to get an electrician to get the train working,” Batten Sr. wrote. “About an hour later, I heard the train running upstairs, and I told Jane, 'That little #@% has fixed the train.'”
Batten Sr. remained chairman of the Landmark board's executive committee. For several years, he continued to spend a couple of days a week at his downtown office, answering correspondence and consulting with the new chairman and company officers on Landmark's direction. He also co-wrote a book about the creation of The Weather Channel that was published by the Harvard Business School.
“What Frank did was create a culture,” said Barry, Landmark's vice chairman . “That's an overused term, 'corporate culture,' but in Landmark's case it's real. That culture is a living and breathing organism, and it gets in the air, in the blood.”
Decker Anstrom, Landmark's retired president and CEO, said that culture stands apart “in a world in which you have big multinationals that are, you might say, values-challenged.
“He's given us this wonderful gift of a values-based culture that's founded on ethics and has, at its base, his own personal behavior.”
In his final years, Batten battled a host of physical ailments. Still, he made regular appearances in The Virginian-Pilot's cafeteria, where he and Frank Jr. would lunch. He never failed to greet a large number of the paper's employees by name. He always seemed genuinely pleased to meet a new one.
“There's a real modesty there,” said James Henderson, who admired Batten as a boy at Culver and decades later served on Landmark's board. “He just does not use the personal pronoun. He never seeks the limelight. He never seeks the microphone.
“Therefore, when he speaks, everybody listens. And that modesty is genuine as far as I can tell. In fact, I think he's uncomfortable when people laud him.”
That didn't change: He never achieved comfort talking of himself.
“I guess I'd like to be remembered as someone who did some worthwhile things, who left this community — and in fact, this nation — a better place,” he said in one interview.
Then he grimaced and shook his head: “That's really a platitude, isn't it?”
Pilot writer Dave Mayfield contributed to this story.
Earl Swift, (757) 446-2280, email@example.com.