2004-05-06 07:07:18 UTC
Elliott Maraniss, a crusading newspaperman who loved
baseball, literature and underdogs in equal measure, was a
force of nature: a hard-driving but generous-hearted
muckraker who nurtured several generations of young
reporters and lived long enough to see one of them - his
younger son, David - grow up to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Maraniss, the retired editor of the Capital Times in
Madison, died Saturday in Milwaukee. He was 86.
Despite his sometimes bluff exterior, "he was always the
most forgiving and gentle person when you were screwing up,"
David Maraniss recalled. "He understood people, and he saw
the best in everyone. He loved underdogs, and that includes
every bad team in sports."
Good teams, too. On his deathbed, Maraniss was studying the
Green Bay Packers' draft choices with his grandson, Andrew.
He also loved literature. From Jane Austen to Tolstoy to
current biographies, he was usually reading three or four
books at a time. A few days before Maraniss died, his older
son, James - also a Pulitzer Prize winner - was rereading
"War and Peace" to his father at the hospital.
When his health began to fail some time earlier and a
physical therapist allowed him one trip out of the house a
week, perhaps to church, Maraniss told her, "My church is
the public library."
A native of Boston, Maraniss was the son of a printer and a
Latvian-born homemaker. The family moved to Coney Island
when Maraniss was 8, and he learned to set type at 11. He
attended public schools in Brooklyn and, besides history and
English, excelled in baseball, which he played barefoot on
He earned a baseball scholarship to the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor but, just shy of graduation, his
education was interrupted by World War II. He served in the
Army from 1941 to 1946.
In Okinawa, where he rose to the rank of captain, he ran an
all-black salvage and repair unit. That experience, at a
time when the Army was still segregated by race, helped fuel
his lifelong antipathy toward social injustice and his
hatred of war, said Mary Maraniss, his wife of 64 years.
"He kept that capacity for indignation at wrongs until the
day he died," she said.
Maraniss began his newspaper career in college as editorial
director of the Michigan Daily. He went on to work as a copy
boy at the New York Post; a copy reader at the Detroit
Times, the New York Compass and the Cleveland Plain Dealer;
and an editor and sports columnist for Labor's Daily, a
labor union publication based in Davenport, Iowa.
His work in Davenport caught the eye of William T. Evjue,
the Capital Times' iconoclastic editor, whose column was
carried in the labor paper. Evjue hired him in 1957 as an
Maraniss exposed the pollution of the Fox River by the paper
industry; racketeering and gambling scandals; controversy at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School; and a
UW-Madison boxing scandal that resulted in the death of a
young boxer and in the sport's banishment from the campus.
He also covered the 1960 presidential primary in Wisconsin
and taught part-time in the UW-Madison School of Journalism.
In the mid-1960s, he became city editor of the Capital Times
and later ascended to managing editor and finally editor, a
job he held from 1978 until his retirement in 1983. While he
was editor, the paper won two Sigma Delta Chi national
awards, for public service and investigative reporting, both
"He was a man of consummate integrity," syndicated columnist
Jacquelyn Mitchard said. "He never, ever, pulled a punch."
Maraniss was proud of his pioneering role in opening up the
paper to minorities and women and in mentoring young
reporters, whom he taught to be fearless in questioning
authority, standing up for the First Amendment and exposing
"He really had a unique ability to inspire the people who
worked for him," said David Zweifel, who succeeded Maraniss
as the Capital Times' editor. "He always appeared to be a
gruff guy, but he really had the softest heart of anyone in
management," with a genuine concern about his staffs'
Maraniss "called the Capital Times a haven for the gifted
eccentric," recalled Mitchard, one of the reporters he hired
30 years ago.
"Being a reporter is the best job you can have," Maraniss
liked to say. "Who would believe you could have this much
fun and get paid for it?"
He kept his hand in headline-writing. One of his favorites,
accompanying an obituary of the golf-loving crooner Bing
Crosby, was: "Bing at 74, 2 over par."
After his retirement, and his wife's retirement as an editor
at the UW Press, he and Mary moved to Milwaukee, where he
worked as an aide to then-Mayor Henry Maier from 1984 until
His daughter, Jean Alexander, remembers her father's love of
life, his sense of fun and his unstinting support for his
"When we were just toddlers, he was teaching us to play
football, poker and blackjack," she said. "He never tried to
tell us we should be this or that when we grew up. We could
be anything we wanted. He was such an optimist about
David Maraniss said his father lost some of that buoyant
spirit in November 1997, when Wendy Maraniss, David's
younger sister, died in a car crash.
"He had always said, when something went wrong, 'It could be
worse.' After Wendy's death, he never said that again,"
David Maraniss recalled.
In addition to his wife, Mary, Elliott Maraniss is survived
by his son David, an associate editor of the Washington Post
who won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Bill
Clinton's run for the presidency; his son James, a professor
of romance languages at Amherst College in Massachusetts who
shared a 2000 Pulitzer for his work on the opera "Life is a
Dream"; daughter Jean Alexander, head of the reference
department at Carnegie-Mellon University's library system in
Pittsburgh; and nine grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the
First Unitarian Meeting House in Madison. The family
suggests donations to the Milwaukee Public Library.