Richard Stolley, a journalist who left an indelible imprint on two of the most influential American magazines of the 20th century, obtaining a copy of the Zapruder film footage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination for Life in 1963 and later building a newsstand juggernaut as the founding editor of People magazine, died June 16 at a hospital in Evanston, Ill.
He was 92.
The cause was a heart ailment, said his daughter Melinda Stolley.
An inveterate newsman, Dick Stolley became sports editor of his hometown Illinois newspaper during high school and spent nearly his entire six-decade career with Time Inc., the publishing empire that held the attention of millions of Americans with such magazines as Life, renowned for its riveting photography, and Time.
People, which was spun off from a celebrity section of Time in 1974, reached a circulation of 2.35 million readers during Stolley's eight years as managing editor and became the most profitable magazine in the United States.
Stolley owed what he described as the "single most dramatic moment" of his career to one such ordinary person who found himself in extraordinary circumstances: Abraham Zapruder, an immigrant dressmaker who, with his 8-millimeter camera, captured Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Stolley, then serving as Life magazine's Los Angeles bureau chief, hopped a plane to Dallas to cover the events. By Stolley's account, an enterprising stringer for Life alerted him to the existence of amateur film footage documenting the moment when Kennedy was shot. She could not spell the photographer's surname but told Stolley that it was pronounced Za-proo-der. Thumbing through the Z pages of the phone book, Stolley came upon the entry "Zapruder, Abraham."
He called, again and again, every 15 minutes, until sometime around 11 p.m., Zapruder answered in what Stolley described as a "weary" voice.
"I didn't press," Stolley wrote.
"Sometimes in this business, you know, you have to press, and sometimes there's a sixth sense that tells you don't press. Smartest decision I ever made."
They agreed to meet at 9 a.m. the following morning. In another wise decision, Stolley showed up an hour early, before other reporters arrived.
Sitting with Zapruder and two Secret Service agents, Stolley viewed the 26 seconds of footage that would become some of the most famous and contested bits of film in American history.
The magazine published 31 frames from the footage.
Stolley, who had also covered the civil rights movement and the space race before ascending through the editorial ranks at Life, described the end of the magazine's weekly run in 1972 as a "devastating blow." Two years later, he was selected to run People, a magazine that he envisioned not as a purveyor of "celebrity journalism" but rather as a legitimate source of "personality journalism."
Stolley developed a formula for determining which celebrity would appear on a magazine's cover, a decision that could rocket a star to even greater fame and make or break the magazine's weekly sales figures.
"Young is better than old," the formula went. "Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. TV is better than music. Music is better than movies. Movies are better than sports. Anything is better than politics. And nothing is better than the celebrity dead."
Stolley learned the final part the hard way, having declined, in what he said was the "biggest mistake" of his entire career, to put Elvis Presley on the cover after the rock-and-roll singer died in 1977.
Richard Brockway Stolley was born on Oct. 3, 1928, in Pekin, Ill., just south of Peoria. His father was a factory manager, and his mother was an English teacher.
Stolley served in the Navy before enrolling at Northwestern University in Evanston, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1952 and a master's degree in journalism in 1953.
He went to work for Life that same year, earning a reputation, according to Wainright, as "one of the magazine's best young editorial managers." A "hard-working, earnest" Midwesterner, Wainright wrote, "he wasn't one of the buttoned-down-collar crowd of eastern, Ivy Leauge hotshots who littered the premises in those days."
After leaving People in 1982, Stolley returned to Life as managing editor of its monthly incarnation.
He later became editorial director of Time Inc. magazines and then an adviser to the company before retiring in 2014.
Stolley's marriages to Anne Shawber and Lise Hilboldt ended in divorce.
Survivors include four daughters from his first marriage, Hope Stolley of Los Angeles, Martha Stolley of Manhattan, and Lisa Stolley and Melinda Stolley, both of Evanston; a stepson from his second marriage, Charles Hilboldt of Minneapolis; and seven grandchildren.
Sometime after he obtained the footage of the Kennedy assassination, Stolley gained a bit of insight into why Zapruder had given the film to him, and not to one of the many other reporters who were clamoring for it and would have paid as much or more.
In a 2013 interview with Bob Schieffer of the CBS program "Face the Nation," Stolley recalled a conversation with Zapruder's assistant.
"Do you know why you got it and not those other people out in the hall?" he asked.
"I have no idea," Stolley replied.
The man responded, "Because you were a gentleman."