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Deborah Howell: a life of saying, 'Yes,' to courage in journalism, compassion and imagination

Editor’s note: These remarks were delivered Friday at a Washington, D.C., memorial service for noted journalist Deborah Howell, who died in a pedestrian accident while visiting New Zealand. Jacqui Banaszynski, now Knight Chair Professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 in feature writing and was a 1986 finalist in 1986 in international reporting while working with Howell at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

A St. Paul memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, at Central Presbyterian Church, 500 Cedar St.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Jacqui Banaszynski

Twenty-five years ago, Deborah Howell hauled me into a conference room at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, scissors in hand. I was numb from my first overseas reporting trip, to the horrifying famine camps on the Ethiopian border. Usually a fast writer, it took me two weeks to batter out a story.

Now I watched in amazement as Deborah cut my work into pieces, tacked the pieces around the room, and put them under the microscope of her giant reading glasses. She moved some pieces. “Wrong place.” She tacked others on top of each other. “Redundant.” Some she just dropped on the floor, to be impaled under her tiny, spike-heeled shoes.

Then she turned to me and barked: “You overwrite!”

Soon Deborah and I stood toe to toe in a verbal smack-down. She demanded I cut my story — a lot. I demanded she explain herself — with precision.

She sputtered about overdone anecdotes and overripe scenes. Finally she spit out: “You put too much bleeping tinsel on your bleeping tree.”

 I laugh now at her audacity. She prunes my adjectives with a chain saw, but she can’t utter a simple sentence without a profanity— or three?

 At the time, I just wanted to set fire to her hair.

 Deborah, of course, was unfazed. She returned to her word hunt, dropped a few more passages to the floor and finally shrieked: “There it is!”

“What?” I said.

“Your ending,” she crowed. She grabbed a section from two-thirds into my story, and tacked it to the end. “Now put it back together. And this time, do it right.”

* * * *

I tell this story for three reasons:

One, it’s vintage Deborah. Exasperating and brash. Undeterred by others’ opinions and unapologetic about her own. Instinctively wise and infuriatingly right. I cut and rearranged my sections, then bowed to her demand that I add excerpts from my personal journal. A year later, our story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Two, I became a better writer that day. And as an editor and teacher, I am reminded daily of the lessons seeded in every encounter we had. As surely as those spiked heels left imprints in my copy, her ferocity left imprints on what so many of us have done in the service of journalism.

Three, Deborah loved a good story. She sent us off in search of them, then fought for them with valiance.

Deborah loved the words that were the soul of stories. So today, I wanted to be sure of mine. But in the past two weeks, I have been at a loss.

Then I remembered another lesson: Great writing comes from great reporting —from how well you listen and how much you care.

So I have been listening for words that do Deborah justice, words passed along by the vast chain of journalists linked to her. They wrote of her as exhausting and hilarious, stubborn and wise-ass, a fairy godmother, a drill sergeant, a junkyard dog. One called her a “lovely brute.” Another, “a lioness in her love.”

And then this: “She was the mother of us all.”

A copy editor sent me a haiku of grief: “It’s like contemplating the world without wind or thunder or song.”

But the words that brought me to my knees came from a former Pioneer Press reporter who now runs a newsmagazine in the Ukraine. His anguished e-mail: “No. No. No.”

****

“No.”

Yet as that word screams in my head, another whispers from my heart.

“Yes.”

Deborah said yes, without fail, to all that life asked. She said yes to love, yes to stepchildren, yes to adventure, yes to irreverence and yes to God. She said yes to the highest journalistic standards and the toughest journalistic trials, even when it cost her corporate favor or popularity with her staff.

She said yes to journalism as a public trust. As editor of the Pioneer Press, she took on a gubernatorial candidate with a penchant for teen-aged girls, a top hospital doctor who hid his HIV status, an archbishop who said one thing at the pulpit and did another in his personal life. As ombudsman at the Washington Post, she stood squarely on the side of readers. She stood up to vicious e-mails, Len Downie and Bob Woodward.

She had the even greater courage to say yes to compassion. Just as she knew we had to chase the news and confront the powerful, she knew we had to hold the hand of the dying AIDS patient and live on the floor of a farm family facing bankruptcy.

She said yes to imagination. She sent me to Antarctica to explore the passions of explorers on the last clean place on Earth. She sent Newhouse’s Jonathan Tilove along the MLK Boulevards of the country to explore the heart of urban black America.

She said yes to the women who came behind her and held us firmly on her narrow shoulders. She told us tears didn’t cut it in the tough world of newsrooms — then showed us the last stall in the ladies’ room where she shed many of her own.

She said yes to what others would not. She hired an ordained minister to cover religion and helped salvage Religion News Service from obscurity. She published freelance photos of female circumcision in Africa and won a third Pulitzer Prize.

Those prizes never carried her name, but would not exist without her. She called this work “journalism of the spirit,” and her spirit was present in every word, every image. There was no story too big, no person too small, for her vision, her courage and her heart.

Her spirit did not stop in the newsroom or at deadline.

When a reporter in St. Paul was diagnosed with brain tumors, Deborah went to war to have his health insurance extended, then found him the best brain surgeon and, as the reporter put it, “maybe saved my life.”

When a young correspondent in the Newhouse Washington bureau joined the Marines after 9/11, Deborah protected his job during extended duty in Iraq. She was at his wedding and, after he was killed in Afghanistan last summer, his funeral.

I could go on. So could all of you.

****

When I was a kid, my father took us on a tour of a pit mine in northern Wisconsin. As we stood over the lip of the pit, the mine foreman dropped a coin into the void. We held our breaths - waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting - to hear the clink that would tell us the coin had hit bottom.

I feel that way now — waiting, waiting, waiting — for a clink that never comes. This loss feels immeasurable.

But then I hear the stories, passed on from one to the other, from those who know each other and those who don’t, from those she hired and those she inherited, from those who told the stories and those the stories were about, and I realize this loss is immeasurable because Deborah’s reach was equally so.

We in journalism have lost a guiding star. But Deborah’s star sparkled at the center of a constellation that continues to grow and shine. Stories beget stories beget stories, and live on. So if I look down to find the bottom of my grief, I am looking the wrong way. I need to look up, into a universe that is infinite and eternal. And in that universe, I see not cold ash, but the finest stardust.

****

The morning after Deborah’s death, I got a call from a young reporter at the Pioneer Press, assigned to gather obituary information. She was nervous and stumbled as she tried to frame her questions. I should have helped her out right then. She was just doing her job — one I know only too well. But I was without words or breath.

In the din of my silence, the reporter continued. She had read about Ms. Howell and heard some stories. She had never worked for anyone like that and wanted to know what it was like.

As I took a few more ragged breaths, the young reporter paused, then blurted: “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

That’s when I found some words.

“Oh, my dear,” I said. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry you didn’t know her. I’m sorry you’ll never have the chance to work for her. I’m sorry she’ll never send you out or kick your ass or dress you down or lift you up. Yours is the greater loss.”

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Comments (5)

It is clear from what I have read that Deborah was a character in many, many ways for those who had the privilege to work for her.

You and your colleagues are now responsible for continuing her work as passionately as you can. Given her apparent flair for being salty, she might say, "don't f*** it up."

This is beautifully written, Jacqui. I am curious, though. Is there a pit mine in northern Wisconsin?

Jacqui's eulogy was beautifully written and eloquently delivered. The stories shared by Jacqui and other colleagues of Deborah have really meant a lot to her family - thank you.

Carrie Coleman

Thank you Jacqui for finding the right words to share with us Deborah Howell's life in her work. What a loss...

Jacqui,
There is no better way to share a memory of a friend than to make us wish we had known her. Thank you.