- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

Longtime Washington Times’ Commentary Editor Mary Lou Forbes, a trailblazing journalist whose reporting on Virginia’s civil rights struggles won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and whose editorial leadership helped pave the way for women to rise in a once-male dominated profession, has died after a brief battle with cancer. She was 83.

Mrs. Forbes’ career spanned more than six decades as a reporter, news chief and opinion editor, guiding hundreds of journalists from future Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein to nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, whose column debuted in The Times 25 years ago under her tutelage.

“The real thing about her was her imperturbable manner and her constant good nature. She could edit a story so fast and so deftly and a few minutes later your story would be better,” recalled Mr. Bernstein, who got his start in journalism as a copy boy at The Washington Evening Star before he made history by exposing the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward.

“I was chief dictationist then, and I sat literally five feet from her, so we had a kind of ongoing dialogue - a teenage boy and this fabulous, beautiful, brilliant, consummate professional who was the first person I ever knew who won a Pulitzer Prize,” Mr. Bernstein said Sunday.

Mrs. Forbes died late Saturday at Inova Hospital in Alexandria, less than two weeks after collapsing and being diagnosed with cancer. She worked at The Times right up until she was stricken with the fatal cancer, in recent months helping to reshape the newspaper’s famed Commentary section during a recent update of the publication’s opinion pages.

“Mary Lou was a journalistic giant, whose courage not only won her journalism’s highest prize, but paved the way for the thousands of women who followed her into the profession,” said John Solomon, executive editor of The Times. “For those of us who were blessed to work with her, we know another side of her: Her warmth, friendliness and mentoring spirit turned our newsroom into a home and every one of her colleagues into family members. We will sorely miss her.”

Mrs. Forbes, who took over editorship of the Commentary page two years after the founding of The Times in 1982, was an influential figure in Washington journalism.

“She established the signature pages of leading opinion writers in The Washington Times’ Commentary section as a pillar of American thought leadership for the past quarter century,” Times President Thomas P. McDevitt said. “Mary Lou set a very high bar for all of us as a writer, editor and colleague who blazed important pathways as a woman with a powerful intellect, grit, grace and humor. We will miss her dearly.”

Richard Miniter, editor of The Times’ editorial page, called Mrs. Forbes’ death “the end of an epoch in America journalism.”

“She created the nation’s first multipage commentary section, challenging the liberal establishment to confront ideas that, thanks to her, it could no longer ignore … her BS detector was always set on high - which is the best thing any journalist can say [about] another. I miss her already.”

Mrs. Forbes, known to her friends as “Ludy,” published a veritable Who’s Who of conservative columnists and other writers, including government leaders and think-tank experts who spanned a wide range of policymaking and political thought.

“I’m sort of a hawkish Democrat, but I was comfortable writing for The Washington Times and Mary Lou because she cared more about the ideas than about the ideology,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense- and foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “She found a way to encourage you and make you feel your work was important. She had very high standards, exuded an interest in public policy and liked provocative essays.”

Mr. Thomas called her “an encyclopedia of knowledge for the era she lived.”

“She was an excellent friend and a great journalist - and was an overcomer of discrimination in an era when women were expected to stay in their place,” he said.

Indeed, she was a groundbreaker in the formerly all-male profession of journalism, starting out as a 17-year-old copy girl at The Washington Evening Star in 1944 and eventually rising up the ladder in a long and eventful career covering a wide range of state and national issues and officials from governors to presidents that included Oval Office interviews.

But at a celebration of her 50th anniversary in journalism in 1994, she played down the issue of sex discrimination.

“There were hurdles, but they were out in the open. You could see them, and you could overcome them,” she said.

Mrs. Forbes’ success as a woman in the world of journalism opened the way for many other women who followed in her footsteps, said Jody Beck, a Star reporter in the 1970s who became the director of the Semester in Washington program for the Scripps Howard Foundation.

“She was a pathbreaker for women in journalism, absolutely. She was a career woman ahead of her time,” Ms. Beck said.

“When I went there, women were not allowed to be on the police beat at night, but that changed. There were a lot women there, and having someone like Ludy there, they knew that was possible, and she was someone who could make that happen, [because] Ludy was in a leadership position,” she said.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, who supervised Mrs. Forbes’ work from 1985 to 1991 as The Times’ editor-in-chief, called her “a force of nature with that indefinable, multidimensional quality that comes from intelligence, enthusiasm, happiness and success.

“We both started in journalism over six decades ago and shared a passionate conviction that the capital of the free world reduced to one newspaper, which Washington was after the demise of The Washington Star, was a total perversion of democracy,” he said.

“For six years, we also had a special link - direct access through a door that linked our two offices. Not once did we disagree on her selection of pieces for Commentary. Invariably ahead of the news, Mary Lou was prescient, intuitive, sagacious and indefatigable. She was also a good and dear friend.”

Mrs. Forbes, who was born Mary Lou Werner, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for her coverage of the Virginia school-desegregation crisis, when state and local officials bitterly opposed the integration of public schools after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruling of 1954.

“Integration anywhere means destruction everywhere,” Virginia Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. said in January 1958 in a defiant inaugural address that Mrs. Forbes reported on for The Star.

In a period long before computer laptops, e-mail and cellular phones, Mrs. Forbes had to report under almost impossibly tight deadline pressures for an afternoon newspaper with five editions, dictating late-breaking court decisions and state actions “that charted the course of the ultimately unsuccessful ‘massive resistance’ campaign,” author Karen Rothmyer later recounted in her book “Winning Pulitzers.”

“Ninety percent of my stuff would be dictated [over the phone] right off the top of my head. I guess there aren’t many of us left who are used to doing that,” Mrs. Forbes told Ms. Rothmyer.

Sidney Epstein, The Star’s former city-desk editor, called her work on the desegregation story “a remarkable feat because the story was so complicated.”

“She had to walk out of a meeting and dictate. It had to be letter-perfect,” he said.

The year Mrs. Forbes won the Pulitzer, Newbold Noyes Jr., a member of the family news dynasty that ran The Star, named her the paper’s first full-time female editor, placing her in charge of state coverage of Virginia and Maryland.

“We had a meeting and he asked me, ‘Do you think that men will take orders from you?’ ” Mrs. Forbes related later. “I responded: ‘Of course, they will. They know I’ve been a very good reporter and will have done everything I ask them to do.’ He promoted me on the spot. It demonstrated his willingness to try new things, to cross new thresholds.”

Four years after winning the Pulitzer, she married James Forbes, a businessman, and they settled in Alexandria, where they had one son, James. Her husband died in 2002.

Mrs. Forbes worked with a stellar cast of aspiring reporters in those years, many of whom went on to become famous names in journalism.

John Rosson, a close friend of Mrs. Forbes who was a restaurant critic and photo editor at The Star and later a food writer for The Times, remembers Mrs. Forbes as a reporter “who ran rings around everyone.”

“She never became one of those tough, hard-nosed women. She was always smooth, kind and pleasant, and never less than a lady, and a hard working one at that,” Mr. Rosson recalled.

In her last years with The Times, after her husband died, she rarely took vacation time off and could be found in her office each weekday, sometimes on weekends, on the phone, asking when a late column would get in, writing headlines and choosing which pieces would make her pages. She said she had “no interest in retiring” and kept an active social life. A close friend said that “if there was a dinner, reception or party anywhere in town, Ludy would be there.”

A day or so before she entered the hospital, after collapsing in her home, she was at an editors and reporters meeting at The Times with Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell, recalling the state’s conservative past and asking the former state attorney general to comment on how “politics has changed in the state since those days.”

When she was inducted along with other newspaper colleagues into the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hall of Fame in 1992, she recalled “falling in love with journalism” from the day she started work at The Star as a copy girl.

A viewing will be held at the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home at 1500 W. Braddock Road, Alexandria, Va.. Tuesday evening between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Funeral services will be at St. Mary’s Catholic Church 1 p.m. Wednesday at 310 South Royal St., Alexandria, followed by internment at 2 p.m. at Ivy Hill Cemetary, 2823 King Street, Alexandria.

• Richard Slusser contributed to this report.

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