Sunday, January 25, 2009


Bart McDowell, an award-winning writer and senior editor at National Geographic magazine in Washington for 32 years, died Jan. 17 at his home in Forest Heights, Md. He was 85.

Born Hobart K. McDowell Jr., in San Antonio, Mr. McDowell is remembered by friends and relatives as urbane, gracious and witty. In the course of writing five books and nearly three dozen articles during his career at the magazine, he met President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird; Pope John Paul II; the kings of Thailand and Tonga; and Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Mr. McDowell worked on six continents and in 67 countries, including all the republics of the former Soviet Union. He traveled the world with Charles Lindbergh and Laurence and Mary Rockefeller and sailed the Indian Ocean with the U.S. Navy. He spent six months driving from London to New Delhi seeking the source of Gypsy culture for his book “Gypsies: Wanderers of the World.”

But whether in Peru or Pakistan, Russia or Romania, Mr. McDowell’s work always focused on the words and lives of common people.

“He was one of a kind, a natural diplomat, equally at home sharing a Moscow factory worker’s bread crust and interviewing a pope or president,” said veteran photojournalist Jim Stanfield, a longtime colleague.

Mr. McDowell grew up on Mexican ranches and in West Texas towns. He drew from his upbringing to write his 1972 book, “The American Cowboy in Life and Legend,” as well as his magazine stories about Sam Houston and artist Charlie Russell.

His five National Geographic articles about Mexico included a 1980 piece on the Aztecs, for which he added to his fluent Spanish by learning a touch of their ancient tongue, Nahuatl. “I think it’s a way of looking out through a person’s eyes,” he said, “to take in a bit of their language.”

“Bart was a great contributor to the success of National Geographic magazine,” said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society.

Mr. McDowell’s last National Geographic book, “Inside The Vatican,” came out in 1991. Published in several languages, it became National Geographic’s best-seller.

Following his retirement from National Geographic 20 years ago, he often reviewed books for The Washington Times.

He was an officer in the Navy during World War II.

In 1950, he married Martha Louise Shea, now deceased. He is survived by three sons, Kelly McDowell, mayor of El Segundo, Calif.; Joseph S. McDowell; and Federal Communications Commissioner Robert M. McDowell; a daughter, Tina S. McDowell; and four grandchildren.

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