John Wilke, at 54, reporter for Wall St. Journal, Globe

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2009
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John Wilke was an investigative reporter for much of his career, most recently at the Wall Street Journal. That made him one of a special breed, who produce some special stories for their papers and about one another.

After he died Friday at 54, his friends and former colleagues in Boston got together at The Bell in Hand, a pub near Faneuil Hall, to share a few pints and more than a few Wilke stories.

"John would've liked it that way," said Mark Maremont, senior editor of the Wall Street Journal's Boston bureau, adding with an inflection of sadness in his voice that most of the stories were "hilarious."

Wilke's work won him a measure of renown, including the prestigious Everett McKinley Dirksen Award from the National Press Foundation in 2007 for his work covering Congress, and great respect from colleagues and competitors who knew him as an inexorable reporter and tough competitor.

But he was also remembered for his gift for friendship, and bringing people together.

One time, in New York, he found a hole-in-the-wall rooftop bar that he liked. So he got many friends to show up there one night. In Boston, he would frequently gather crowds at Jacob Wirth's. In Washington, the devout Red Sox fan was known to buy tickets and get on a plane, calling up old colleagues after landing in Boston.

"He was like a pied piper. All these people would just come out of the woodwork," said Maremont. "He wasn't like a party animal but just liked to have people around him."

Mr. Wilke died at home in Bethesda, Md. He had been working out of the Washington bureau of the Journal until he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 17, his wife said.

Born in Illinois and raised in White Plains, N.Y., he graduated from New College in Sarasota, Fla., in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in psychology and biology. He received his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1983.

Mr. Wilke started writing for BusinessWeek in 1984. In 1986, he joined The Boston Globe, where he a top-flight technology and business reporter. He left the Globe in 1989 to cover the same beat for the Journal. He went to the paper's Washington bureau in 1995.

"He was a little intimidating. He was a big dog at the Wall Street Journal who lived for investigative reporting of the sort we don't see much of anymore," said New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. "You couldn't help but like him."

"John was Mr. Scoop and he owned that [technology] beat," said Steve Bailey, a features editor for Bloomberg in London who recruited Mr. Wilke when he was the Globe's business editor. After Mr. Wilke left, the Globe got a major scoop, landing an exclusive interview with the chief executive of Digital Equipment Corp. of Maynard.

That night, at a Dorchester bar known for its reporter-regulars, Bailey set out to rub it in on his former reporter, taunting him about it, nearly causing a barroom brawl.

"John didn't take to getting beaten very easily, and he didn't get beat very often," Bailey said. "He really knew how to get a scoop. He broke a lot of news. That's what they pay you to do, and he did it very well."

"John was a wonderfully versatile reporter who was also inquisitive and hard-nosed," said Larry Ingrassia, the business editor of The New York Times.

Family members recalled another side of Mr. Wilke: a loving father, brother, and husband who always made time for his family.

"He was equally dedicated to his family, which was not an easy thing to pull off when you have that kind of work to do," said his wife, Nancy (Nadler). "He really loved his family and organizing things with the family and doing things with the kids."

She said her husband applied his love of outings to his family, specializing in cookouts and food on the grill during trips to visit the family in New England.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilke leaves a daughter, Robin, ; a son, Jackson; four brothers, Bill of Watertown, Christopher of Long Beach, Calif., Mark of Arlington, and David of New York City; and, his mother, Peg, of Claremont, Calif.

Robin, a freshman at the University of Vermont, said she hopes her father's life and work stands "as a prime example of the fact that serious, well-done, important, and relevant journalism is not dead yet."

Services have not yet been arranged.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at