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Posted at 9:55 AM ET, 01/ 2/2010

Remembering Post ombud DEB HOWELL

By Michael Cavna

It is one of my favorite stories about cartoonists, for which the tales and anecdotes and fabled shenanigans are legion:

Some years back, Mike Luckovich and at least several other editorial cartoonists were attending a national political convention and, in the journalistic tradition of any self-respecting staff cartoonist, wanted to crash a few convention parties. The simplest way to do that? Luckovich and the rest of the merry band, all clean cut and wearing sunglasses and suitably dark suits, unclipped coiled phone-receiver cords from handy office-style phones and tucked one end down their crisp white collars while putting the other end of the coil to their ear.

Voilà! The roaming band of hard-partying cartoonists crashed unquestioned because really -- at such a pre-Salahi gathering, who questions someone who looks for all the world like a member of the security staff, perhaps even the Secret Service?

That story was related to me by former Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, who has died at age 68, reportedly killed in a roadside accident while vacationing in New Zealand. Shocked and saddened deeply by the news, I share the above cartoonists' anecdote because Deb's mere telling of it encapsulates so much about this dedicated journalist and generous friend.

First, the anecdote speaks to Deb's utter love of not only cartooning, but also cartoonists. She rejoiced in "Doonesbury" and Opus the Penguin, yet her delight in cartoons was deepened appreciably by getting to know some of the creators personally.

In 2008, during the heat of the presidential election, legendary political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant drew a controversial cartoon that depicted Sarah Palin speaking in tongues. The cartoon appeared on The Post's Web site, sparking more than 750 reader complaints. It quickly became clear: Either Deb or I was going to have to call Oliphant for comment.

Little to my surprise, Deb had known Oliphant for years, had befriended him. The sure proof: She had a signed, personalized Oliphant original in her office. As I sat admiring the draftsmanship and craft of the Oliphant original, I let Deb make the call.

When Deb cleared out her Post office upon retiring at the end of 2008, she warmly, thoughtfully gifted me with some of her cartoon originals, of which she had many. One she said she just could not part with was the Oliphant. Her affection was too great.

The Cartoonists-as-Security Anecdote reveals another powerfully great trait about Deb. After she relayed the story to me, admitting she couldn't recall some of the details, she said perhaps the truest words any journalist can speak: "Check out the story for yourself."

Not every Post reader, not even every Post colleague, knew what a storied journalist Deb was. She was one of the first women ever to lead a top newspaper, guiding the St. Paul Pioneer Press to two Pulitzers. She was Washington bureau chief for the Newhouse newspaper chain, which during her time there won a Pulitzer. And coming out of a family tradition of Texas newspapering, she was simply as committed a journalist as you could find.

Which is why I took her advice. I called Luckovich, the great Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoonist. Luckovich not only confirmed the story -- he also filled in colorful details. Bottom line: Even with the most casual anecdote, Deb had gotten the story right.

Now, all my sources check out again: Deb was a pioneering editor, a consummate dogged journalist, an enormous supporter of newspaper cartooning and cartoonists and as big as Texas in her generosity and friendship.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Check out her story for yourself.

(ADDENDUM: In his book "Four More Wars," Luckovich tells of doing the same phone-cord stunt with Mike Peters at the White House Correspondents Dinner. And in a CNN interview after the 2000 Democratic National Convention, Luckovich spoke about pulling the same prank with several cartoonists, including Chip Bok, and humorist Dave Barry.)

By Michael Cavna  | January 2, 2010; 9:55 AM ET
Categories:  General  | Tags:  Deborah Howell  
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I, too, am shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Ms. Howell's untimely death. I've been an avid reader of the ombudsman's column every Sunday since its inception, and I was sorry when her tenure in that position at The Post came to an end.

It went with her territory to quote reporters' and editors' responses to the comments she received from readers. Of course, a few of their responses were very defensive or even downright hostile. In one of her more memorable columns (to me, at least), Dana Milbank's indefensibly rabid response to a question she'd posed demonstrated that he is not only snarky (as his columns consistently demonstrate), but also rude, vituperative, and utterly classless.

As those who knew her well or were familiar with her columns might expect, Ms. Howell graciously took his paranoid (or at least neurotically egotistical)comments in stride.

Journalism has lost one of its most skilled and experienced practitioners, and she will be missed. (Just because the latter is a cliche doesn't mean it isn't true.)

Posted by: USAF-Economist | January 2, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Could not have said it better myself. Deb simply loved news and the news business.

Posted by: JamesGrimaldi1 | January 2, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Gove me a break. Howell was an atrocious embarrasment as the Post ombud, enabling the worst excesses of Fred Hiatt and Jim Brady (not to mention all the Abramoff apologists out there). "Stay tuned," indeed.

Posted by: wapo1 | January 2, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

It continues to amaze me when someone submits a comment that contains an incredible amount of vitriol,hate and anger that they lack the courage to post their name. I'm sure there is a Shakespearean quote to cover that lack of civility...can't think of it, however.

Paul Czerny
Lexington, MA

Posted by: pczerny | January 4, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

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