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Remembering Deborah Howell

By Andy Alexander

Years ago, when I was chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau, a young reporter from a small mid-Atlantic newspaper came to me in search of a job. We weren’t hiring, but I suggested he query several other bureau chiefs, including Deborah Howell at Newhouse Newspapers. A few days later, she called after meeting with him.

“We don’t have any openings, either,” she said, “But he seemed awfully good. We’ve got to help him.” Before I knew it, she had compiled a list of fellow Washington bureau chiefs and assigned me to call some and she’d contact the rest.

It was classic Deb, going out of her way to help someone she couldn’t hire and barely knew. My mind wandered back to that story last night after hearing the tragic news that she had died after being hit by a car while vacationing in New Zealand with her husband, Peter Magrath. It made me think about her legacy. She’ll surely be remembered as the crusading editor who led the St. Paul Pioneer Press to two Pulitzer Prizes. And she’ll be recognized for breaking the male-dominated ranks of Washington bureau chiefs in 1990 when she was named to head the Newhouse Washington operation.

But mostly, I hope Deborah will be remembered for helping people. She did it tirelessly as The Post’s ombudsman, giving voice to thousands of readers who came to her with complaints or concerns. She did it for women and people of color in the news business who struggled to break barriers. And she did it for so many people outside of journalism who simply needed a helping hand.

Deborah could come across as crusty. Some journalists swear like sailors; she swore like the fleet. When I took over for her as ombudsman about a year ago, she left me some brass knuckles taped to a three-word note that read: “Good F------ Luck!” And in an e-mailed rundown on The Post’s staff, the names of especially talented scribes were followed in parenthesis by “RFR.” From conversations with her over the years, I knew this was Deb’s shorthand for “Real F------ Reporter.”

When necessary, she could be exceptionally tough. I think this came from enduring tragedy and hardship. The loss of her first husband. A bout with breast cancer. Constant struggles early in her career to prove herself in a business controlled by men. But maybe that also explained her tender side. When friends were in need, no one was more compassionate. She was quick to offer praise. But she also wasn’t shy about privately telling you when you’d fallen short, and offering suggestions for how to do better. That's true friendship.

As a journalist, she was close to perfection. Honest. Trustworthy. Aggressive. Caring. And she was hard charging. Everything Deborah did was full throttle, whether pursuing a story or assisting a friend. She lived life fully to the end, at age 68, when she and Peter were on their dream vacation in New Zealand.

In the news business, she knew everyone and everyone knew her. During my long career with Cox Newspapers, I often contacted her to learn what was going on in my own company. She was widely seen as the industry’s best gossip, but that’s unfair because it suggests she traded in rumor and hearsay. Deborah took great pride in learning things first and getting them right. For years, she delighted in publicizing the list of Pulitzer Prize finalists only hours after they had been selected, despite the pledges of judges to keep them confidential. She was a phenomenal reporter. As an editor and bureau chief, her journalism was innovative and bold.

She should be remembered for that. But don’t forget how she helped people. She did it through her journalism. But she also did it in quiet ways, large and small. Rather than saying goodbye to Deborah, perhaps it’s better to say: “Thanks.”

By Andy Alexander  | January 2, 2010; 11:29 AM ET
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