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Spotlight >> The Powers Behind the Throne: Sue Fillion/St. Paul Pioneer Press

“Things have changed so much in the time I’ve been here.”

Spotlight feature photo
Sue Fillion, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Photo by CHERYL BROWN

Sue Fillion has worked as assistant to four generations of Ridders, beginning as a 21-year-old secretary to then 85-year-old Bernard H. Ridder Sr., retired publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He was succeeded by his son, Bernard Jr., known as Bernie, and then by Bernie’s son Peter (brother of Knight Ridder CEO Tony). Her current boss, Par, Tony’s son, said that not only does Fillion know most of the Ridder family, “she knows everyone in town and everyone knows her. When I first took over as publisher, the mayor came to see her before he came to see me.”

People often ask her how she could stay in one job for so long, says Fillion. “But I haven’t,” she said. “Things have changed so much in the time I’ve been here.”

Fillion’s career at the newspaper began because she was “bored to tears” as a young mother staying home with a 13-month-old son. Over her husband’s initial objections (working mothers weren’t as common in the 1960s), she applied at the Pioneer Press because it was on a bus line not far from her house.

When she started working for B.H. Ridder Sr., the family patriarch was in his 80s and still came to the office every day despite being retired. One of Fillion’s most interesting duties was working with him and a University of Minnesota professor to plan the tulip plantings at the Ridder Test Garden. “They were experimenting to see what kinds of tulips from Holland would grow best in St. Paul. Some of them grew as big as coffee mugs. The gardens were open to the public, and thousands of people visited them. To this day people tell me they remember taking their families to see the tulips.”

Fillion then became assistant to Publisher Bernie Ridder. “At the time, he probably thought I was too young – I was 21 – but because I had a desk next to his former secretary and knew something about her duties, he gave me a chance.”

The contrast between father and son was great, says Fillion. “B.H. Ridder Sr. was colorful; he had a great sense of humor. When I knew him he was an elderly gentleman,” she said. “Bernie Ridder was a dynamic businessman.”

Bernie Ridder was one of the driving forces behind the merger of Knight Newspapers and Ridder Publications. He also helped bring the NFL’s Vikings to Minnesota and was on the boards of the U.S. Golf Association and the Professional Golfers’ Association. “The amount of travel he did was incredible,” Fillion recalled. “And all correspondence was done by the good old mail. There wasn’t Federal Express or fax machines. The paper had one copying machine and it wasn’t on our floor.”

Par Ridder says that his grandfather came to consider Fillion “sort of as his fourth daughter. The first time I met her was at my grandfather’s funeral. She was the only nonfamily member there.”

Recalling Bernie Ridder, her boss of 35 years, Fillion said: “I miss him every day. He was so considerate of everyone. He was a gentle man and wonderfully kind.”

When Peter Ridder took over, Fillion knew him as one of Bernie’s children. “Peter and I are close to the same age,” she said. “He was active on many boards and foundations, and had the admiration of the community as well as the paper. He was good for St. Paul.”

Her latest boss has brought a whole new dimension to the Pioneer Press, says Fillion. “Par is loads of fun,” she said. “He’s active in the community, and we were all so happy when Dean Singleton announced that Par is staying on as publisher.”

As for her own plans, Fillion hasn’t decided how many more years she’ll be staying in the executive offices at the Pioneer Press.

“Par has a 2-year-old son named Ben and when he was 6 months old I was carrying him and I realized that he was my fifth Ridder. I said to him, ‘Ben, I probably won’t still be working when you’re publisher.’ ”

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