Irvin Lieberman, a newspaper publisher born for the job, passes away at 82
● By J. Chambless
Irvin Lieberman (center) with his family on the occasion of his 50th wedding anniversary.
Irvin Lieberman, the longtime publisher of the Chester County Press and other newspapers, passed away on Dec. 29, 2018, surrounded by his loving family. He was 82, and at the time of his passing he was still writing columns regularly for the newspaper that his family has owned and published for nearly five decades.
Irvin is survived by Judy Hartle Lieberman, his loving and devoted wife of 60 years; his sons Randall Lieberman (wife Amy McDowell Lieberman) and Andrew Lieberman (wife Ruth Posnak Lieberman); four grandchildren, Tara Lieberman, Avery Lieberman Eaton (husband Daniel Eaton), Benjamin Lieberman and Stone Lieberman; and great-granddaughter Violet Eaton. He is also survived by his favorite dog, Leo; as well as new and lifelong friends.
Born in Philadelphia on Aug. 6, 1936, he was the son of the late Dr. Louis Lieberman and Minerva (Buchecker) Lieberman. He attended Lower Merion High School and was a proud graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. While at the University of Pennsylvania, Irvin received many awards for his athletic prowess, including being selected as an Honorable Mention All-American in lacrosse.
After college, Irvin started his business career in Philadelphia in trade association management. He lived in Chester County and became very active in the Chester County Republican Party. Irvin was so passionate about politics that he was soon appointed to work in Harrisburg for the House of Representatives Republican caucus. It was in Harrisburg that Irvin became friends with then-State Senator John H. Ware, who later became a U.S. Congressman and a renowned Oxford philanthropist. Ware’s family owned the Oxford Press and a number of other newspapers. Irvin was able to convince Ware that he was the person to take over those newspapers, and on May 30, 1970, he officially purchased the Oxford Press and several other newspapers in the area, launching his career as a publisher.
It would turn that Irvin was perfectly suited for the role. As a newspaper publisher, he was an aggressive supporter of the freedom of the press, and he fought for -- and cherished -- investigative journalism throughout his long career. Irvin became influential as a critic of local government, and a champion of the First Amendment.
He had never run his own business or met a payroll, but Irvin learned the ins and outs of the newspaper business quickly. He published community newspapers like the Main Line Chronicle and The Archive. As the years went by, he replaced unprofitable newspapers with new titles. He increased the coverage area of the Oxford Press, a newspaper that debuted in 1866, and eventually the name was changed to the Chester County Press to reflect the new coverage area and its expanded presence in southern Chester County.
Irvin always had a clear vision of the journalistic approach he wanted the newspapers to strive for. From his experiences in Harrisburg, he learned to be skeptical about politicians and the political games that they play. He believed very strongly in a newspaper’s obligation to expose the missteps and misdeeds of elected officials and public servants who abuse their authority.
On one occasion, he published an anonymous letter to the editor that was critical of a police chief in Parkesburg. He agreed to publish the letter while withholding the writer's name because he felt the information contained in it was important for citizens to know, and the person who wrote the letter had a legitimate concern about revealing her identity. The police chief was upset about the article and filed a lawsuit against the newspaper. Irvin eventually won the legal battle that followed.
Irvin never shied away from taking on sacred cows when it was necessary. For example, one of his newspapers once wrote about Richie Ashburn’s failure to pay the taxes on a home that he owned with his soon-to-be ex-wife. The major league baseball player and broadcaster, beloved by several generations of Philadelphia Phillies fans, was furious about the article, but Irvin thought that readers would be interested in this aspect of Ashburn’s life because he was a public figure. He also deeply believed that the country was better when abuses of power were exposed, and when public figures were held accountable for their actions. Irvin's forceful assertions of freedom of the press were once mentioned in a news segment on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline.”
In 1993, Irvin sold the newspapers to his two sons, Andrew and Randall, and the family continues to own the business today. Irvin continued to write regular columns in the Chester County Press, utilizing the pen name “Uncle Irvin.”
He wrote widely about issues impacting southern Chester County, utilizing a no-nonsense style. Sometimes the columns were meant to educate, sometimes they were meant to entertain, and sometimes they were more blunt.
Irvin frequently criticized public officials for not doing more to keep taxes low. He loathed wasteful spending by governments at the local, county, state, or federal level. He was a strong advocate for commercial development, especially because it broadens the tax base and helps reduce the burden on taxpayers.
He was always suspicious of government overreach and wrote numerous columns urging London Grove Township not to purchase a private golf course. When the township did purchase the golf course, Irvin continued to write about how the decision cost the residents of the township money on an ongoing basis.
Irvin criticized an associate professor at Lincoln University when he questioned the historical validity of the Holocaust.
Another column aimed to raise awareness about a civil rights lawsuit that was filed by a group of Lincoln University students against the Chester County Board of Commissioners and the county Board of Elections after hundreds of students spent hours in a line waiting to vote in the 2008 election.
He frequently encouraged municipalities to collaborate to form regional police departments to boost public safety while reducing the costs for the individual municipalities. He used his column to advocate for a regional police department in southern Chester County two decades before it finally became a reality.
He wrote about the tragic death of a state trooper who was killed on Route 41, which came after many, many columns that Irvin had written about the need for safety upgrades to Route 41.
He wrote about the need for local municipal officials to keep the townships and boroughs that they represent out of costly legal battles.
While most of the columns focused on southern Chester County, Irvin would sometimes write about state and national issues. In one column, he called for Pennsylvania lawmakers to follow the example of New Jersey lawmakers and require state public school teachers to pay more toward the costs of their health insurance plans so that the school district’s costs could be reduced. He frequently wrote abut the benefits gap between public employees and private employees.
In a column titled, “The stench of political stew,” he wrote about how a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would reduce the state Auditor General’s ability to audit the expenditures by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
He criticized Pennsylvania’s new open records laws when they failed to deliver the promised outcomes, and he also took state lawmakers to task for not changing the out-dated rules regarding the sale of wines in Pennsylvania. In another column, he made the argument that the drinking age should be raised, and not lowered, because of the dangers of binge drinking on college campuses.
Irvin's experiences at Lower Merion High School, for decades one of the best in the state, led him to be critical of public school districts that fell short of Lower Merion’s lofty standards.
He would write frequently about the need for public schools to deliver a quality education.
On several occasions, Irvin wrote about the need for public schools to invest in technology. He also championed the idea of school resource officers to help keep schools safe for students.
He advocated for a more modern school district model of having someone with business expertise to be the top administrator of a school district, while a chief education officer would oversee the academic aspects of the school district.
An avid reader, Irvin was a decades-long supporter of libraries, particularly the Kennett Library. In a February 2002 column, he wrote about how the Kennett Library -- then the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library -- needed a rainmaker to lead the fundraising effort to build a brand new library. It took more than a decade before the Kennett Library got that rainmaker, and the fundraising campaign is still underway.
Occasionally, Irvin would even write about changing social norms. In a June 2005 column, for example, he wrote about families turning to professional daycare facilities for their beloved dogs.
His last regular column of 2018, appearing in the Dec. 19 issue of the Chester County Press, focused on a look ahead at the 2019 county commissioner races, as well as the need for county officials to institute a county-wide real estate reassessment to make taxes more equitable. The column is an illustration that he never lost his zeal for writing about politics, government, and the world around him.
“He was a fierce defender of the First Amendment,” said Dr. Richard Winchester, a retired Lincoln University history professor. “He believed very strongly in the importance of freedom of the press, and he was a defender of the utility of the free press.”
Winchester explained that Irvin saw it as the newspaper’s responsibility to keep an eye on elected officials, and to be critical when necessary.
Winchester first met Irvin shortly after he became the publisher of the Oxford Press in the 1970s, and the two became very good friends through the years. For more than three years in the early 1980s, Winchester even wrote a column every other week for the Chester County Press. Irvin enlisted Winchester to write a column even though the viewpoint offered would often be very different from his own. Their differences never got in the way of their friendship, Winchester said.
“I've known Irvin for nearly 50 years, and I got to know him very well,” Winchester explained. “I was obviously a Democrat and he was obviously a Republican. We disagreed on a lot of stuff, but we found a common ground. We found both local issues and national issues that we agreed on. We were born the same year, 1936. We were both born and raised in Philadelphia. We were both Presbyterians. We found those things in common.”
Winchester noted that, with significant changes to the newspaper industry, there aren’t many newspapers practicing that kind of journalism that Irvin was committed to any longer.
While Irvin enjoyed his long and successful career in publishing, the highlight of his life was his family. He loved going with his family to the Henlopen Acres Beach Club in Delaware, as well as boating and fishing trips with his grandsons and granddaughters. He also loved talking with friends about politics and Philadelphia professional sports teams. Irvin especially enjoyed watching the Philadelphia Eagles with his family every Sunday.
Friends are invited to a visitation with the family at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at the Bethany Presbyterian Church, 316 Kennett Pike in Kennett Square. A service in celebration of Irvin’s life will be held at 11 a.m. that day. The family requests those who wish to honor Irvin’s memory to make contributions in his name to the Kennett Library Building Fund, PO Box 730, Kennett Square, PA 19348, kennettlibrary.org, or to the American Heart Association.
Online condolences may be made at www. ecollinsfuneralhome.com.