Wesley Pruden would have wanted to spend his final hours at his keyboard, deftly deflating the pompous, entitled and arrogant of the political establishment, and he came awfully close.
The venerable Washington Times editor, columnist and journalism institution was found dead Wednesday morning at his home, after putting in a full day Tuesday at the newsroom on New York Avenue in Northeast D.C., where he had worked since 1982, four months after the newspaper’s founding.
He was 83.
His remarkable career began 67 years ago as a teenage copy boy in Arkansas, making him among the few old-school newsmen whose sharp political acumen, elegant writing style, and keen sense of the absurd allowed him to remain as relevant in the digital age as he was in the days when the rumpled shirts of reporters were splattered with ink.
After stepping down as editor-in-chief in 2008, Mr. Pruden assumed the title of editor emeritus, writing staff editorials, helping edit the Commentary section, and filing his twice-weekly column, “Pruden on Politics,” a politically incorrect must-read for decades in Washington, D.C.
He was named editor-in-chief emeritus in 2015. His first column, about then-Sen. John Glenn’s Democratic presidential primary bid, ran Feb. 27, 1984; his final column, about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the squad,” ran Monday.
Christopher Dolan, president and executive editor of The Times, said Mr. Pruden’s “contributions to The Washington Times and its employees are innumerable.”
“Mr. Pruden was born to be a newspaperman and he relished the various roles he had at The Times, especially the outsize part he played in defining what The Times should be and remains,” Mr. Dolan said in a memo to staff. “For Mr. Pruden, the mission of a newspaper was simple, cover the news without slant or bias and do it without ever belittling a reader’s freedom, mocking his faith or ridiculing his family.”
Ink in his veins
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Mr. Pruden was “a competitor in the world of journalism.”
“He competed in terms of ideas and business,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “I will always remember his political stories from our first meeting over 30 years ago. He never forgot his Arkansas roots, and our prayers are with his family.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called him “a classic newspaperman who had ink instead of blood in his veins.”
“Wes hailed from my home state of Arkansas, and I can’t recall a conversation with him when that common ground wasn’t proudly mentioned,” Mr. Huckabee said. “I will miss him, but I especially will miss his craftsmanship as a writer, editor, and old-fashioned newspaperman.”
Born in Arkansas to one of the state’s earliest families, Mr. Pruden broke into the business as a 10th-grader at Little Rock High School, running copy at night and later working as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Gazette. He was assistant state editor when he left in 1956 to join The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
He was hired in 1963 by the old National Observer, a national weekly newspaper published by Dow Jones & Co., and covered national politics and the civil-rights movement before being assigned to cover the Vietnam War in 1965. For the next decade, he was a foreign correspondent based in Saigon, Hong Kong, Beirut and London.
Mr. Pruden launched his career at The Washington Times as chief political correspondent. The day after he was hired, he was assigned to cover the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He was named assistant managing editor in 1983 and managing editor in 1985, according to his staff biography.
He won the 1991 H.L. Mencken Prize, awarded annually to the U.S. columnist who best captured “the fire and spirit” of the famous “sage of Baltimore.”
Mr. Pruden considered himself a “newspaperman,” never a “journalist,” a term he viewed as pretentious.
‘Seersucker suits and fine fedoras’
Those meeting him for the first time inevitably remarked on the contrast between his punchy, forthright writing style and his soft-spoken personality. He was quiet, private, even shy. His manners were courtly and Southern. His reserve hid an incisive sense of humor.
“Inside the Beltway” columnist Jennifer Harper, who had worked with him since 1985, said, “Wes set the pace for all of us, both in his journalism skills and the authentic spirit and drive which accompanied his work.”
“Accuracy, insight and some pretty fabulous humor were the hallmarks of this master journalist — along with precision barbs, seersucker suits and some fine fedoras,” she said.
He held strong, conservative opinions about politics, and stronger views about writing. At one point, he banned the word “controversy,” saying it was overused; another time, he told reporters to stop using “quip.”
He often communicated with staff via memo. Former national reporter Audrey Hudson recalled his classic critique of an especially lengthy article: “Sominex is not in the business of publishing newspapers, and we should not be in the business of putting people to sleep.”
Columnist Suzanne Fields said Mr. Pruden hired her in spite of her Ph.D. in literature, advising her to “forget all that,” and handed her a copy of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”
“He loved the word and was the fastest gun on deadline I ever met,” she said. “He was a natural writer, a rigorous editor, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He feared that the Internet would destroy the printed word, but thought he would be ‘long gone’ before that happened and was doing his best to hold the line.”
Cal Thomas, whose syndicated column runs in The Times, called Mr. Pruden “a great journalist of the old school” in a profession that “could use more of the old school.”
“His wit, Southern charm and experience were unparalleled,” said Mr. Thomas. “He leaves a gap, not only in journalism, but in the lives of those who knew and loved him. He was a true friend and encouragement to me during his years with The Washington Times.”
Fran Coombs, who served as managing editor from 2002 to 2008, said, “Wes Pruden was the finest newspaperman I’ve ever had the honor to work with. Under his leadership, The Washington Times went from good to great, and I’ll treasure to the end of my days the time we worked together.”
After a brief early marriage, Mr. Pruden spent his last 50 years with companion Corinna Metcalf, who remembered him as a “wonderfully old-fashioned gentleman, courteous, generous and kind, a great friend, and always ready to help or pick up a check.”
“He was a raconteur of fascinating and witty tales, a wonderful writer and superlative editor,” she said. “He was a loving father figure to my son, and grandchildren. He loved us but above all, he loved the newspaper. He loved writing. He loved life. He always wore a hat. He was sui generis.”
Mr. Pruden, who lived in the District, is survived by Ms. Metcalf; her son Alex Metcalf and his two children; his sister Joan Pruden Guthridge of Little Rock; and four nephews.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
• Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.