Monday, June 29, 2009

Mary Lou Forbes, RIP

Sad news from the Washington Times: Longtime Commentary editor Mary Lou Forbes died over the weekend, just a few days past her 83rd birthday and not even two weeks after her retirement.

Mrs. Forbes had a journalism career that spanned six decades and two centuries. She became the Times' Commentary editor in 1984 and served in that role for 25 years. Earlier, as a reporter for the Washington Star, she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Virginia's shameful battle against the desegregation of its government schools.

Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Forbes, she was an early encourager of my work as an opinon writer. During the 1980s, when I was just getting started as an independent (for lack of a better word) pundit, she published dozens of articles that I submitted to the Commentary pages of the Washington Times. Together with the Times' late book editor, Colin Walters -- who often challenged me to review books that I otherwise never would have read, much less written about -- she gave me the boost I needed to know that my writing was worth reading, at a critical point in my nascent career.

Seeing the remembrances of Mary Lou Forbes by other writers in today's Times, I now realize I was not the only neophyte opinion columnist whom she nurtured. Cal Thomas, for instance, who is perhaps the most widely syndicated commentator today, writes:

Next to my mother, Mary Lou Forbes was my biggest cheerleader. She would call or e-mail about something I had written and praise it as if it were really that good. She persuaded me to submit some of my columns for Pulitzer Prize consideration. I told her there was no way I would ever win that prize, even if I was good enough because of the liberal tilt of the selection committee. She persisted, and just because it was her, I submitted an entry. I told her I was so confident I wouldn't even make the finals that if I did, I would make her house payments for one year. She laughed. I never had to pay up.

Mary Lou had talent and class. She was a lady in a day when that meant something. Every female becomes a woman because of time and biology. Not every woman becomes a lady. That comes about because a woman develops the inner qualities of character, virtue and modesty. Mary Lou had those in abundance.

It is a cliche to say a person who has died will be missed. It's true of Mary Lou Forbes. I shall miss her. Our profession will miss her because they don't make many real journalists like her anymore. All who knew her can say "amen."
The Times' current senior opinion editor, Franklin Perley, lists some of the other writers who benefited from Mrs. Forbes' nurturing:
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.
The contributions of Mary Lou Forbes to the world of journalism were remarkable. Given the torrent of comments in today's Washington Times, it is clear she left her mark on her colleagues and friends.

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