As editor and publisher of the Philippines Free Press, R. McCULLOCH DICK’s
professional obsession for fifty years has been publishing a just magazine
to serve the public interest. Often quoted solemnly to his staff has been a
poem by Joseph Story in which he found expression of his journalistic creed:
"Thus shall the Press, the People's right maintain,
Unaw'd by influence and unbrib'd by gain
Here patriot Truth her glorious precepts draw
Pledg'd to Religion, Liberty and Law."
ROBERT McCULLOCH DICK was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on January 22, 1873.
His parents were the former Lily Smith and John Dick, a businessman. He
attended a public school from the age of four and, at the age of 12, entered
a private academy where he finished a three-year course in two, while also
taking a two-year course in German at night school. Childhood memories are
of bitter poverty after his father's untimely death, which left the mother,
known, he proudly recalls, as "the honest widow Dick," as the family's sole
support. Faced in his early teens with earning his own living, he
apprenticed to a mapmaking concern in Edinburgh.
At the age of 19, he emigrated to the United States where he first made his
way doing odd jobs, including working as a farmhand in California. Later, he
enrolled at Park College in Missouri. As a self-supporting student, working
after classes and studying at night, he finished the preparatory course and
college in five instead of six years, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in
A severe case of typhoid fever contracted after graduation briefly impeded
his progress and ultimately determined his future. Upon recovering, he
secured a job on the weekly New Rochelle Paragraph, in New Rochelle, New
York. His advancement was rapid during the year he was with this periodical,
and life would have seemed good had not his hair begun to fall out as a
result of the typhoid fever. When all remedies for hair restoration failed,
his doctor suggested that a sea voyage might help. Promptly resigning his
newspaper job, he signed aboard the "Mary L. Cushing" as an ordinary seaman
with wages of US$14 a month. The ship regularly plied between New York and
Hong Kong, making each leg of the voyage in five months. Since the sea air
seemed to help his problem, he signed off in Hong Kong, intending to find
work on a local English-language newspaper. Times, however, were hard and
there were no vacancies. His cash had nearly run out when he learned from an
American journalist that English-speaking newsmen were needed in the
Philippines. Lacking sufficient funds for the fare, he persuaded the manager
of a British shipping company to advance him a ticket and set sail for
Shortly after his arrival, in October 1900, DICK found employment as a
reporter on the Cablenews-American, one of the pioneer American-owned papers
in the Philippines. With savings from his first pay envelopes, the shipping
company manager in Hong Kong was repaid. In 1902, he transferred to the then
American-owned Manila Times as a court reporter. On this assignment he
coined the name "Juan de la Cruz" in generic reference to Filipinos; quickly
accepted, it is still in common usage.
Soon promoted to city editor of the Manila Times and then to editor, he was
earning the munificent salary for those days of P550 a month, equivalent to
US$275, when new management took over, in 1908, and reduced his salary by
US$25 a month. By this time, he had saved P8,000 and, eager to be on his
own, he resigned.
Looking around for opportunities, he heard of an English-language magazine,
the Philippines Free Press, that had been started as an organ of the Moral
Progress League and had closed down after a few issues. The American
publisher of the defunct weekly, when asked by DICK what the assets were,
wryly pointed to a small stack of paper in one corner of the room. A sale
was made; DICK bought the name, goodwill and subscription list for one peso.
Setting up shop in an office on the second floor of a building on the
Escolta where the Manila Daily Bulletin was published, DICK used a work
table for a bed and arranged for the Bulletin press to print his magazine.
The first issue came out on August 29, 1908. For all his idealism, care for
quality and personal scrimping—his only indulgence was a bottle of soft
drink at the end of a week—the Philippines Free Press failed to attract
sufficient readers and DICK's P8,000 was soon gone. A loan of P2,000 from a
friend kept him going, but still subscriptions were too few. Refusing to
give up, he borrowed Pl,000 from another friend and continued printing the
magazine. At this juncture, valuable unsolicited assistance came from Theo
S. Rogers, who was to become DICK's life-long friend and associate.
Rogers, a happy-go-lucky Bostonian of Irish descent, had enlisted in the
army at the age of 16 and come to the Philippines in 1899. After the
fighting ended, he joined the contingent of American soldiers who laid down
their arms and took up schoolbooks to teach. Then an instructor at the
Manila Trade School and working at the Bureau of Education, Rogers gave DICK
leads on political developments in the country and, more important, garnered
a few advertisements for the Free Press from his host of acquaintances.
Recognizing in his new-found friend abilities the Free Press needed if it
was to prosper, DICK asked Rogers to join as advertising manager. This
assignment Rogers tackled with gusto; his many connections with prominent
businessmen made soliciting advertisements a challenging game at which he
excelled. The antithesis of the shy, self-effacing DICK, who disdained
social gatherings and had only a few intimates, Rogers was a bon vivant,
witty and incurably gregarious, but their differences in personality, taste
and talent were complementary. Fifty years later, the two are still together
as editor and publisher and business manager, respectively, of the
Readership grew slowly in the initial years, but the following was loyal,
particularly among schoolteachers for whom the magazine was not only a
source of news but also a useful teaching aid. At first writing everything
in the magazine himself in his precise, crisp, scholarly style, DICK, set
the tone; the Free Press stood for democratic education, Philippine
independence and, meanwhile, good government by the American administrators.
It could be counted upon for integrity and independence of view.
As finances permitted, DICK hired a Spanish editor, who ably conveyed his
ideas in a new Spanish section designed to reach a wider adult Filipino
audience. The first to encourage Filipino writers in English, DICK offered
prizes for the best short stories and poems in addition to attractive checks
for accepted contributions. Next, he began to train a staff of Filipino
Strong-willed, gifted and courageous, DICK expected new staff members to
adhere to the same high standards he set for himself. "No one is perfect,"
he stressed, "but everyone should strive for perfection."
While encouraging his staff to be crusaders and expose venalities, he at the
same time admonished them: "Be truthful. Be fair. Be accurate in your facts.
When you have come to enjoy attacking people, it is time to stop."
An unbreakable code of his own and extended to the magazine was never to
interfere with a man's religion: "Belief is between a man and his God. If he
sees Divine Light in the sun that is none of our business."
Mr. DICK has been difficult to work with, but newcomers have soon learned
not to take offense at his insistence on meticulous writing when they see
that he demands more of himself. He wants subordinates to reason out their
mistakes; a pet peeve is an "I'm sorry" reply. To a reporter who had
obviously written a story hurriedly, he cautioned:
"You should take your time. . . Haste is the enemy of good writing."
Particularly impatient with trivial mistakes that could be avoided, he
sharply calls attention to oversights in proofreading, grammatical errors,
misspelling and incorrect division of a word at the end of a line—standard
equipment has been several large dictionaries which staffers are expected to
use. If a choice of words is wrong, he patiently explains the reason for
another word. Placing high value on correct spelling, DICK customarily asks
applicants to spell a few words like "accumulate" and "accommodate" before
considering their employment. For a writer who showed off his erudition by
using high-sounding words, the editor had the reminder that the average Free
Press reader of high school level could not be expected to have command of a
large vocabulary and would miss his meaning. From the first issue to the
present, Dick has read proof, usually with a magnifying glass, checking
punctuation and the smallest mistake, even in advertisements. When he
traveled abroad at regular intervals in the 1930s, galley proofs were sent
to him by airmail and by return airmail came his notes to the editorial
staff on errors. In ready recognition of work well done but not given to
easy praise, his notes of appreciation to staff members are as carefully
composed as essays.
Orderliness has been for Mr. DICK a way of life: "Order is Heaven's first
law," is a frequent quotation to his staff. In his old-fashioned roll-top
desk with many cubbyholes, the smallest item is always in its proper place.
Any staff member who leaves his own desk in disarray usually finds a note in
the morning from Mr. DICK and, if it is not tidied by the afternoon, a
sarcastic rebuke is apt to follow. Included in Mr. DICK’s daily morning
inspection are the washrooms where carelessness has on occasion raised his
ire; a toilet clogged with copy paper he once cleaned out himself, dumped
the malodorous mess in the middle of the office floor and stalked out.
Along with his demand for order and cleanliness goes a personal discipline
and respect for this attribute in others. Himself soft-spoken as a rule, he
has a low regard for those who raise their voices at the slightest
provocation. Of his own quick temper he is apologetic, but nonetheless
insistent that the acts which trigger it are to be corrected. His dress
reflects his neat, clean mind. After a long day of hard work, he manages to
look fresh in his immaculate white shirt and linen suit, white buntal or
cotton hat, brown knitted tie and well-shined shoes.
A true Scot, he dislikes any form of waste. He does not expect his personnel
to be frugal but insists they live within their means. In the office, though
now walking with difficulty, he still stoops to pick up a pin, thumbtack or
paper clip and place it on the desk nearest him with the comment, "This cost
money." To improve the quality of the Free Press he has not stinted but for
himself thrift has been the rule. Remembering his mother's warning "too much
comfort is a sin," his office remains without airconditioning, for his
noonday siestas an army cot suffices and he has driven the same car since
Under the stern, austere, exterior is a warm heart. A former reporter
recalls that Mr. DICK, as an employer, was extremely kind and considerate,
daily inquiring about the well-being of employees of all ranks and their
families. Concerned about the health of his staff, he urges those who hunch
to sit straight and for proofreading use of a magnifying glass to save
"precious eyes." If a staff member is in financial trouble for reasons other
than squandering his money, Mr. DICK is quick to help. During the 1930s,
before vacations and other employee benefits were written into contracts at
the insistence of labor unions, Mr. DICK introduced a two-week vacation
leave for all employees each year and, when staff members fell ill, the Free
Press continued their full salaries and paid their hospital bills. Old
employees were given life pensions and families of those who died by
accident received generous compensations.
Mr. DICK avoids publicity about his many philanthropies. A bachelor, he
lives among the poor in a comfortable, old frame house in Tenejeros, Malabon,
Rizal, and the fisherfolk who are his neighbors know from experience that
they can count upon him in need. He has made regular anonymous contributions
to buy food for the poor: "I do not think we can tackle the problem of
poverty by doles," he said, in giving a staff member money for a particular
group, "but this will help. The poor will always be with us." Another
recipient of his gifts has been the American-Philippine Guardian
Association, to provide education primarily for illegitimate offspring of
American GIs and their Filipina friends.
While reporters and editors have not been pressed into a mold but encouraged
to develop their own style, the Free Press bears distinctly the stamp of R.
MCCULLOCH DICK's personal traits and his standards. Sometimes seemingly
abusive because of its unrelenting exposure of neglect, bungling and
corruption on the part of officials and leading citizens both before and
after independence, the Free Press has championed the general good, no
matter what the cost or risk, but always fairly.
One editorial attack led during the American administration to near
deportation of editor DICK. Though Governor General Francis Burton Harrison
had done more than any predecessor to Filipinize the government after 1914
in preparation for self-rule and eventual independence, Mr. DICK found this
popular official, toward the end of his term, giving less than proper
attention to his office and editorialized about his frequent absences from
Malacañang. An article lightly describing petty thievery on the part of the
National Guard that was to be sent to fight in France afforded the Governor
General a pretext for an investigation. The upshot was a recommendation for
DICK's deportation. Offered an opportunity to retract, DICK refused. Not
fazed by the deportation order, the editor calmly finished a golf game he
was playing when the news was brought to him. Intervention by Don Alejandro
Roces, a close friend then publisher of the Manila Times, and others
resulted in the order being rescinded by an acting Governor General during a
brief absence of Harrison.
Mr. DICK has not allowed friendship to becloud his judgment. The Free Press
ceased to advertize a small cylinder with cord to be attached to a patient's
wrist that purportedly had great healing power after DICK read in a
reputable medical journal an article ridiculing the contraption, though the
firm selling it was owned by the foremost Filipino philanthropist, Don
Teodoro Yangco, whom he admired.
Also buttressing the magazine's independence has been its refusal to carry
lucrative liquor advertisements. An unintentional boon, this policy stems
from a promise DICK made to his mother never to encourage others to drink.
He, himself, took no spirits for over 50 years but in later life has felt he
could safely enjoy an occasional cocktail.
Though Mr. DICK privately expressed pessimism about the future of an
independent Philippines out of fear that the country might eventually become
a Japanese possession, by the outbreak of World War II the Free Press had
become a symbol of freedom and a rallying point of the independence
movement. Giving an authentic view of a fun-loving, lively people scattered
across the archipelago, the magazine's circulation had increased to 30,000
and the basic format that remains today had become familiar to households
throughout the country: a hard-hitting editorial on national or
international issues properly illustrated on page one, followed by exposes
and articles on political affairs by staff members, a short story with
illustrations, barrio tidbits and human interest pieces on such subjects as
fiestas in Zamboanga and weddings of tribespeople in the mountains of
Because the Free Press had fought steadily against Japanese expansion in
Asia, the invaders, in January 1942, promptly suspended publication of the
magazine and interned DICK and Rogers in old Spanish dungeons at Fort
Santiago. Both refused collaboration. In his two years there, Mr. DICK
shortened the long, dull weeks for himself and his fellow prisoners by
giving lectures in his slow, deliberate, almost inaudible voice on life and
English writers, particularly Shakespeare, whom he could quote by the hour.
Already weakened by four previous operations for organic ailments and a
cataract, he suffered in Fort Santiago from malnutrition which induced in
his frail body severe edema. He also developed a festering ulcer on his
right knee from crawling to drink from a ground level faucet in his cell.
Despite daily exercises to keep in physical trim, the long incarceration in
a damp cell left him with chronic asthma, lumbago and a weak heart.
After liberation, DICK found the Free Press offices bombed out, its morgue
and back files completely destroyed. Already 73 and in poor health, he
immediately set to work restoring the magazine. With the help of the
faithful Rogers and many of the old Filipino staff, the Free Press resumed
publication in February 1946. The initial postwar years were reminiscent of
the early struggle but success was again achieved by hard work, and making
every centavo count—DICK himself rode by crowded bus and "jeepney" to his
home in Malabon. Circulation for the first few issues was no more than
12,000 but, by 1955, had increased to 100,000 and is still growing.
Whereas the Free Press earlier had exposed shortcomings of the American
administration, after establishment of the Commonwealth in 1936 and
particularly after independence in 1946, abuses of power by Filipino
officials and politicians became the magazine's targets. Still with
scrupulous care for the facts, Mr. DICK repeated to postwar newcomers to the
staff the rule laid down for their predecessors: "Say it, if you must, in
the public interest. If in doubt, cut it out. Never insinuate."
When a writer brought evidence that a rich businessman and important
advertiser was guilty of tax evasion, DICK’s prompt response was: "Never
mind the ads. Write the article. If you are convinced in your heart that the
man has to be exposed, do it. But make sure, doubly sure, that you are not
doing him an injustice."
Mr. DICK took out first papers towards naturalization as an American before
the war but never completed the process. Styling himself "Scotsman by birth
and Filipino by adoption," he has long regarded the Philippines as home but
remains a British citizen. His vulnerability as an alien, however, has not
been allowed to interfere with the magazine's performance or his own, and
the allies thus earned have far outnumbered the enemies. A move for DICK’s
deportation by an early Liberal administration was reportedly stopped only
by fear of public opinion. There have been several libel suits against the
Free Press and against DICK personally, as editor and publisher, but
prominent Filipino lawyers have willingly taken the cases and strongest
defense has been the irrefutable evidence that charges aired were valid.
The magazine has also looked for and praised men who concerned themselves
not merely with their own interest but the interests of others. A staff
member remembers Mr. DICK’s first meeting with Ramon Magsaysay, who called
when he was Defense Secretary at the editor's office. Their conversation was
interrupted each time the Secretary addressed Mr. DICK as "Sir," by a plea
from the editor to refrain from this address. Thereafter following
Magsaysay's policies carefully, Mr. DICK developed a great admiration for
his dedication to the public good. He was seen weeping upon learning that
President Magsaysay had been killed in a plane crash and today mention of
the late President's name still brings tears to his eyes.
Though Mr. DICK belongs to the "old school," he has been quick to see
advantages of new journalistic trends and techniques. He takes pride in the
Free Press being the first to promote beauty contests in the Philippines.
Staffers who have worked with Mr. DICK over 22 years say they have never
seen him betray the faith of the Filipino people. They honor and respect his
humaneness and sense of fair play from which long-term employees all have
benefited; explaining that the Free Press had flourished and given him a
good life in the Philippines and he wanted to give something back to
Filipinos, Mr. DICK has made them shareholders. Even his explosive temper is
forgiven because it is never spiteful but provoked by some admitted
mistake—his anger is not at a person but an act—and, if he is wrong, he does
not hesitate to express regret. These old timers mention with affection his
courtly manners, the sight of him munching a delectable candy whenever
writing serious editorials, his noonday siestas, his pink memorandum pads
and his spotlessly white apparel.
Staffers and readers alike testify that the Free Press has influenced their
way of thinking and philosophy and they say they are really talking about
Mr. DICK: "One cannot read the magazine week after week," a long-time
subscriber has said, "without absorbing some of the idealism and integrity
of the editor."
Now 85 and in considerable pain from aftereffects of the wartime
incarceration and a broken femur that did not heal properly, Mr. DICK still
comes daily to the office, reads galley proofs from cover to cover,
including the advertisements, and wields vigorously an editorial blue
pencil, seeing to it that no mistakes are found in the Free Press. Refusing
to yield to the sentimentality that often accompanies advanced years, he
retains the professional detachment and objectivity that has given the
magazine its special quality.
Acknowledging their contributions to the Republic, R. McCULLOCH DICK and
Theo S. Rogers were awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor, rank of
Commander, by the Philippine Government on August 7, 1958. Mr. DICK was
cited for "extremely meritorious services rendered the people of the
Philippines and the cause of Philippine independence during the past five
As the Free Press prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on August
29, 1958, a grateful Filipino reader said in simple tribute to the editor:
"ROBERT McCULLOCH DICK has cultivated and fertilized a free press and good
government in my country."
August 1958 (with additions in 1961)
At the necrological services held for Mr. DICK in September 1961, Joaquin
Roces, son of Don Alejandro Roces, owner of the Manila Times, spoke as
"Time is too short for us to record here the early career of his
plain-speaking magazine, which in the span of a few short years gained the
position of monitor for the government and the nation. But the time is never
too short to omit mention of R. McCULLOCH DICK, the uncompromising Scot who
maintained the simple creed: 'The people can never be wrong.'
"In the spirit of tolerance that he brought to his task, there was always
room for the little man who sought justice—but there was not an inch of
space for the powerful in the land, the tycoons of government, the men who
sat in the seats of the mighty—whether they were Filipinos or Americans—if
they were not on the people's side.
"R. McCULLOCH DICK was not the most tolerant of men where his most cherished
ideals were concerned. There was a sign on the door of the Free Press
editorial rooms: 'No crooks or grafters need apply.' It may have been
invisible, but it was there.
"R. McCULLOCH DICK left for us a heritage. It is not a formula for making
money fast; it is not a prescription for getting close to the powers in the
government. Those who accept it will be accepting a burden to carry—the
burden of the journalist's duty to the people."
New York Times Magazine, August 28, 1955.
Philippines Free Press files.
Interviews with staff members and readers of the Philippines Free Press.