During almost three decades in the Star Tribune newsroom, Martha Sawyer Allen cut a blunt, no-nonsense figure — particularly as a religion writer lending insight and asking tough questions as she covered bruising upheavals in local congregations.
But on the job and off, she also brought compassion and generosity. Her searing, sensitive profiles of public figures rebounding from tragedy or public downfalls were an Easter Sunday fixture of the paper. She traveled on aid missions to Africa, nurturing decadeslong relationships with families she supported financially. Never merely a dabbler, she was a irreverent commentator on politics, a member of several book clubs and a renowned flower arranger.
“Martha had so many facets to her,” said Allen’s friend and one-time source Marilyn Chiat. “Whatever role she was playing, she played it to the fullest.”
Allen died April 28 in Minneapolis. She was 75.
Growing up in Lawrence, Kan., Allen edited her high school paper and later attended the University of Kansas. A post-graduation trip to Uganda spurred a lifelong love for the African continent and an enduring friendship with her host family, which visited her in the Twin Cities years later.
After earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, Allen worked at an Iowa newspaper and later taught at the Missouri School of Journalism. She was the “fearsome” city editor at the campus Missourian, known for her forthright feedback on student assignments, recalled Jim Boyd, a graduate student at the time and later an editorial writer and editor at the Star Tribune.
Arriving at what was then the Minneapolis Tribune in 1976 when newspaper journalism was still largely male-dominated, Allen became a resident straight-shooter, at times profane and even abrasive.
“But first and foremost, she was a thorough professional,” Boyd said. “Her hard shell covered an extraordinarily gentle and sensitive interior that she needed to protect.”
After stints as city hall reporter and assistant city editor, Allen covered religion for 19 years, launching the paper’s award-winning Faith & Values section.
Allen first interviewed Peter Rogness shortly after his election as bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s St. Paul Area Synod, on the eve of a divisive battle over the ordination of gays and lesbians. She impressed him with a deep understanding of church issues and the homework she had done about him and his positions. Though she never shied away from tough questions, she was not interested in “gotcha” journalism, he said.
Beth Helgen, the synod’s former communications director, said Allen pressed church leaders about their stances amid the ordination standoff but also made time for deeply personal stories of faith, once visiting a tiny congregation near Cannon Falls that worshiped in a barn while a new church was built. Her coverage “made the whole church stronger,” Helgen said.
After retiring in 2004, Allen got involved with OC Ministries, a Minneapolis nonprofit working on aid projects in Africa and elsewhere. During a 2005 trip to Sierra Leone to help build a primary school, she befriended a blind teaching assistant and went on to support her bid to become a teacher and later the education of her daughter, named Martha after Allen. She gave away her clothes and suitcase before flying back to Minnesota, said Larry Shelton, a fellow Lake Harriet United Methodist Church member.
Allen was a passionate gardener and flower arranger who displayed regularly at the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Art in Bloom show. She brought her erudition to Peripatetics, a women’s study club whose members meet at each other’s homes to present in-depth research papers, and she led two studies of Minneapolis city government for the League of Women Voters.
At an annual July 4 party her college friend Lyndel King hosted in Minneapolis, Allen always came as Miz Liberty — complete with foam torch, crown and robe fashioned out of a shower curtain — and gave a funny and biting dissertation on contemporary politics.
“She was a big personality,” King said. “She participated in life to the fullest.”
Allen, who had battled bone marrow cancer, is survived by a sister, Mary Elizabeth Allen, of Lawrence, Kan. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 18 at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.