- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On what would be her last day in the office of her 65-year journalism career, Mary Lou Forbes spent nine hours at her desk. After putting to bed the Opinion pages for Wednesday, June 17, she headed for the door, looking and sounding tired as she bid goodnight to colleagues.

“Mary Lou, you should see your doctor,” advised one. “Let’s not go there,” were her last words as she waved and disappeared down the hall.

Always believing hard work the best medicine, Mary Lou opted to forgo a visit to the doctor and was felled by illness the following morning. She passed away late Saturday night, six days after her 83rd birthday.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for her coverage of desegregation, Mary Lou knew no discrimination: She treated everyone like family.

She came to work with a smile and the feisty greeting, “Let’s see what damage we can do today.” Once settled in front of her computer, she was fully absorbed with the task of preparing the next day’s opinion pages. So focused on her work would she be that she wouldn’t notice if someone stepped into her office. Then, even a simple greeting like “Hi, Mary Lou,” would so startle her that she that would let out a yelp of surprise. Many a young staffer learned about this the hard way and most picked up some early-warning system, such as jingling keys or pocket change so as not to give her a start.

She did not stop for lunch unless she took a guest to the company dining room. Seldom wanting for energy, I never saw her drink a cup of coffee, the ubiquitous beverage of the overworked news editor. Only in recent years would she even set aside her work to buy a bottle of water or her beloved diet green tea in the company cafeteria.

Mary Lou sometimes spoke about her early years in Alexandria and often remarked how fortunate she was to live her whole life in her hometown. Alexandria was a close-knit community then, where everyone knew each other. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother took in boarders to make ends meet. She grew up accustomed to seeing strangers at her dining room table. Consequently, she learned to treat each acquaintance like a member of her family.

Mary Lou’s love of family appeared to be informed by her own personal experience. She was devoted to her husband of 37 years, James Forbes, and her son, Jim Jr. She and James had made retirement plans, but his death in 2002 left those plans undone. “After Jim died, there just wasn’t any point to retirement,” she confided. Instead, she redoubled her dedication to her job. During her final years, she took no vacation.

Although she spent the last 25 years of her life as the editor of The Washington Times’ conservative Commentary (now Opinion) section, her personal political philosophy defies simple definition. She often said her job was to puncture the trial balloons that waft above Washington, filled with the hot air of bloviating politicians, whatever their political persuasion. A senior editor of The Washington Times, she participated in an Oval Office interview with President George W. Bush.

Mary Lou had been a city editor for the Washington Star and never forgot the importance of pocketbook issues — those that affect the finances of breadwinners struggling to provide for their families. Accordingly, she was always on the lookout for economists who could write clearly on financial matters. A skeptic of unrestrained government spending, she shared the conservative view that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

But more fundamental to her than conservatism was her embrace of traditional family values based upon her Catholic faith. On occasion, she would contrast her views of love and marriage with the contemporary practice of “hooking up.”

“I’ve always believed that love is a special secret that two people share,” she would say. “If you share it with just anyone, it isn’t special anymore, and it’s no longer a secret. These kids don’t know what they’re missing.”

As Commentary and Opinion editor, she said it important to provide a counterweight to the prevailing liberal perspective of the dominant media culture. In the early 1980s, when The Times was struggling to establish itself, that was no easy task. “Back then, we had to beg writers to submit their material to us,” she said recently. “Now we’re inundated.”

By providing them exposure in the nation’s capital, she played a vital role in the career success of more than a few media luminaries, including syndicated columnists Cal Thomas and Austin Bay, and syndicated artist Bruce Tinsley, creator of the “Mallard Fillmore” comic strip. One of the early resources she developed was the late, great economics columnist Warren Brookes.

Still, her conservative inclinations were not doctrinaire. She said that it was important to give the other side a chance to make their case. Among liberal columnists she published regularly were Clarence Page and Donna Brazile, and she often carried columns from the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon.

At the Washington Star, she taught the fundamentals of the reporting trade to Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. After the Star folded in 1981, she was a driving force behind annual reunions of Star staff members, with whom she stayed in close touch.

She was comfortable in her profession and community and always appeared to be right where she wanted to be. Entering a new office to which she was assigned recently, she remarked, “It feels like home.”

Mary Lou Forbes’ passing is a loss not just to her friends and colleagues, but to all those who honor freedom, faith and family. When will we see the likes of her again?

Franklin T. Perley Jr. is senior opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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