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Magrath talks about trip to New Zealand, Howell's death

As the Minnesota journalism community mourns the death of Deborah Howell, her husband, former University of Minnesota President C. Peter Magrath, provides his personal perspective.

MARLBOROUGH, NEW ZEALAND — The husband of a leading United States journalist killed while holidaying in Marlborough says his wife always told him to face reporters if anything happened to her.

Former Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, 68, a veteran newspaper editor, was fatally injured when she was struck by a car on Rapaura Rd, near Spring Creek, north of Blenheim, about 12.10pm Saturday.

She had stepped out of the car she was in to take a photograph when she was hit by an oncoming vehicle. Her husband, Peter Magrath, said he believed she was not used to cars driving on the left, and had looked the wrong way.

Sergeant Dan Mattison, of Blenheim, said Ms Howell was taken to Wairau Hospital by Blenheim St John Ambulance with serious injuries. She died soon after.


Mr. Magrath, a former University of Minnesota president, agreed to talk to The Marlborough Express, because his wife always told him to face reporters.

"You don't have to answer questions, but I would dishonour her if I didn't talk to reporters," Mr. Magrath said.

Ms Howell led two newspapers to three Pulitzer prizes.

According to the Pioneer Press, Ms. Howell spent 14 years at the Minneapolis Star as a reporter and editor. She joined the Pioneer Press in 1979 as assistant managing editor. She became managing editor in 1982, executive editor in 1984 and editor in 1987.

C. Peter Magrath
Photo by Ben Curran
C. Peter Magrath

She left the paper in 1990 to become chief of the Washington bureau for the Newhouse newspaper group and editor of Newhouse News Service, before she was named ombudsman, or reader representative, of the Washington Post, a position she held until 2008.

Mr. Magrath said his wife worried very much about what effect new media would have on newspapers.

"She wanted [newspapers] to continue to be strong for democracy and information."

Mr. Magrath said the couple, from Washington, DC, arrived in Wellington on December 30 from Sydney. They travelled to Blenheim on the Interislander ferry on Saturday, and intended to spend more than two weeks in the South Island, travelling to Christchurch, Franz Joseph, Wanaka and Queenstown.

"We came because we wanted to be in the mountains and we wanted to see New Zealand."

Mr. Magrath said the couple were being transferred to accommodation by Marlborough Travel when his wife asked the driver to stop, because she wanted to take a photograph on Rapaura Rd.

"She got out of the car. I think she looked the wrong way — right instead of left.

"I didn't see it happen, but all of a sudden I knew."

Mr. Magrath said New Zealanders were "good people and nice people, but I'm finding that in a way I didn't want to find out.

"Everyone is being compassionate and helpful. I have nothing but appreciation for the people here."

He said he had "lost the love of my life."

"I lost my lifetime girlfriend, my wife, my companion.

"I wish it was a nightmare, because you can wake up from nightmares."

He said his wife of more than 21 years was one of the United States' leading women journalists and was — "tough and good and not a self-promoter."

Reprinted with permission from The Marlborough Express.

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Comments (1)

If Mr. Mcgrath should read these messages - please know that I (and I am sure many others) are deeply sorry for the loss of your wife. She was certainly a most remarkable person with a great zest for life.