There she stood. This woman of small stature and enormous spirit, atop one of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press metro desks. Yes, literally, on the desk. Deborah was leaving the paper after a decade of pulling and pushing it into the modern age, moving onto to Newhouse Newspapers in D.C.
Her assembling staff knew her farewell talk would be feisty, the word today's obits seem to have fastened on. There was no question of that. The question: how many times, during the farewell, might she drop one of her favorite swear words? Small bets were placed (I believe five was the winning play), and none of us were disappointed in her remarks. She went out, as she came into the Saint Paul. A whirlwind.
Now, she's taken her final parting, a sudden one, near Blenheim, New Zealand, as she walked across the street.
She had the energy of a hummingbird and the restless spirit that seems to accompany it. That could annoy you when you wanted to hold her attention to a single point, but it enabled her to have an outsized impact on her trade, and, importantly, on hundreds, probably thousands, of journalists' lives that she touched.
She wasn't so much of a human Rolodex as a pre-digital Linked In. She kept in touch. She was a connector, one of the few among us who sees their role as staying in touch, making useful connections, offering career and personal advice. She was Karmic in a mid-century West Texas shit-kicking kind of way.
Her holiday card -- "I'm flunking retirement and very busy with consulting....We're headed for New Zealand on Dec. 26 for three weeks!" -- now is an aching reminder of that spirit and that connectedness. She was an editor unafraid to use an exclamation point; a "bang" says so much about her many enthusiasms. The thought of her beloved Tetons moved her as much as a kick-ass Page One exclusive.
Deborah Howell met me at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport in early 1986. Before we got out of the terminal, we both knew this was a job fit -- features editor at the newly combined Saint Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch -- that would work. I took the job, and Deborah tutored me on the ways of big-city union newsrooms, The Cities themselves and how to buy "a good Knight Ridder suit" for my first corporate conference.
Her greatest gift to me is a saying I still hear, as I hit the send button on posts today. She told me that great editors listen to the voice in the back of their heads. In the cacophony of newsroom deadlines and multi-tasking, there are often too many competing voices coming in through both ears. Every once in a while, Deborah said, a voice will say, hold on, check it again, is that what you really want your newspaper to say?
That lesson has saved me countless times.
She had a hard edge and a soft heart. The edge was honed by the all those early years of being a woman in what was supposed to be a man's profession. When Old Boy's Clubs met Deborah Howell, the fight wasn't really fair; the old order, as it often does, fought with half of her passion. She was of that generation of women pioneers, arriving in Saint Paul in 1979. Three decades ago. It was not long after the Saint Paul Athletic Club, connected by skyway across Cedar Street, had just gotten rid of its elevator operators (much to Bernie Ridder's chagrin, I'd heard), but still had only a fleet of black-and white photos of suited white men on its walls.
She enjoyed the editor's prerogative of intoning "because I said so," partly for dramatic effect -- the woman knew how to command a meeting or a room -- but also because she'd learned it was a way to get lesser-talented males to back off.
That Texas-honed hard edge didn't get in the way of her learning, as Jeff Jarvis -- a collaborator of hers through work with Newhouse and Advance Internet -- points out well in a post today. She was endlessly curious about how our world of journalism is changing, what fit and what didn't. As her time as Washington Post ombudsman ended a year ago, she had new scars of the trade earned in that meat-grinder of a job, as the Post toddled into unprecedented engagement of its audience. The last time I saw her, she was beginning to pack up her mementos of a lifetime in dailies, and talking about moving on to consulting, to keep her hand in the game.
Today, on a light, holiday news weekend, the news of her passing has spread like wildfire.
As the first commenter on Jeff's post noted: "So odd to get news of a death via social media." Odd, but increasingly common, as we all become each other's editors. Odd, but an irony Deborah would have found first fascinating and then worth knowing about.
As we think of how to memorialize her -- "The Howells"? -- and that spirit we should keep lit, her own words, also well-quoted today, stand as clearly in the gawky adolescence of the digital news age as they did for an early one:
"Journalism should be as accurate as human beings can make it and it should be enlightening, fair, honest and as transparent as possible. Mistakes should be acknowledged and quickly corrected. When you finish reading The Post, you should feel more informed than when you began. I truly believe a democracy can't operate without a free press."
We are left, almost wordlessly, in our offering our condolences to her husband Peter McGrath and her extended clan, one of whom -- Chris Coleman -- is being sworn in Monday as mayor Saint Paul.
Let me end with her own words, taken from her first column as Washington Post ombudsman. They ring true and give us all direction on the digital frontier:
"I consider myself half-Texan, half-Minnesotan, all-American. I am a reporter in my bones....
After his newspaper career, my father, the late Henry Howell, had a 12:15 p.m. radio show on WOAI, aimed at farmers and ranchers while they were eating lunch.
He began that show by saying: "Good afternoon, farm and ranch friends."
That always stuck with me: Journalists should think of readers as their friends. Because if we're not in this business to inform and help readers, we're not doing our jobs."
NOTEWORTHY POSTS ON DEBORAH
David Carr: The editor everyone should have
Michael Cavna: On cartoonists' hijinks and getting the story right
Tim McGuire: On the his arch-nemesis
Bruce Nelson: Never file a grievance before the muffins come