Deborah Howell, prominent editor, killed in car accident

She was a top editor at the Minneapolis Star and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and "a powerful force for good journalism," said Mayor Chris Coleman, her stepson.

Deborah Howell

Deborah Howell

Deborah Howell, a pioneering journalist who helped lead both major Twin Cities newspapers in the 1970s and '80s and later served as ombudsman for the Washington Post, died Friday after being hit by a car in New Zealand, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said.

Coleman, who is Howell's stepson, said the family received word that Howell, who was fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit New Zealand, was struck as she crossed a street near Blenheim, New Zealand. She was traveling with her husband, C. Peter Magrath, former president of the University of Minnesota.

Howell, 68, was city editor and later an assistant managing editor of the Minneapolis Star in the 1970s, and managing editor and executive editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the 1980s. Under her leadership, the Pioneer Press won two Pulitzer Prizes.

In 1990, she became the Washington bureau chief of the Newhouse newspaper chain. From 2005 to 2008, she was the Washington Post's ombudsman.

"She played a very important role in my life after my dad died, right up to editing my speeches," Chris Coleman said. "And she was a powerful force for good journalism."

Coleman said he had spent the day preparing for his Monday inauguration when he got the news about Howell's death. "The last thing I had yet to do was to send her my remarks for her edits," he said.

Among those she inspired to enter journalism was his daughter, he said, who will soon study it at the University of Missouri.

Journalism in the blood

Howell, a native of San Antonio, Texas, once said her career path was probably set when her parents met in a newsroom. Her father, Henry Howell, was a Texas newspaper reporter, editor and broadcaster. Her mother, Mary Dell Williams, was editor of her high school newspaper.

Howell graduated from the University of Texas and worked at the Austin American-Statesman and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times before joining the Minneapolis Star in 1965. She was city editor for four years, one of the few women to hold the job at the time. In 1979, she left for St. Paul.

"I'm feisty and aggressive and the [Pioneer Press] is feisty and aggressive," she said in 1990 when she announced she was leaving St. Paul to become chief of the Newhouse newspaper group's Washington bureau.

In 1975, Howell married Nick Coleman, the Minnesota Senate majority leader. He died in 1981. In 1988, she married Magrath.

In a series of interviews in 1993 and 1994 for a Washington Press Club Foundation oral history project on women in journalism, Howell described the challenges she faced upon becoming city editor at the Star, especially for the men who worked for her. "I had to be really tough, and I was," she said. "I had a vision of what I wanted that paper to be, and a bunch of people working for me who themselves -- my entire city desk, practically -- wanted my job, and I got the job most of them wanted, were all men older than I was.

"I was 34 when I became city editor. So I had some go-rounds with them, but I won them."

While city editor at the Star, she also led the paper's Newspaper Guild unit. Later, when she moved from a union position to management, Howell said she "had to screw my head on a different way. But I think I was a better manager because I had been a union type, because I knew what it was we needed to do."

She spoke of a friendly rivalry with stepson Nick Coleman when he worked at the Minneapolis Tribune. "I wouldn't let his father tell him that he, Nick Sr., was going to retire from the Legislature until he called him at one o'clock, because it was in my paper first, which was a lot of fun." She later hired him in St. Paul after his father died.

In 1986, the Pioneer Press won a Pulitzer for feature writing for "Life on the Land," John Camp's five-part series examining the life of an American farm family amid the agricultural crisis. Camp now writes best-selling mystery novels under the name John Sandford. In 1988, it won another feature writing Pulitzer for "AIDS in the Heartland," a series by Jacqui Banaszynski.

Star Tribune columnist James Lileks, who was hired at the Pioneer Press by Howell in 1987 and went to Newhouse with her in 1990, said of her, "She was the most fearless, fierce, fair and honest journalist I've ever met. The only thing she loved more than her profession were the people with whom she worked -- it was like living with a mixture of Lou Grant and a Cub Scout den mom.

"At a time when newspapers had become quiet, comfy places, she brought the spark and crackle of 'The Front Page' to any room she walked through.

"If any of her reporters had written about someone like her, she might have sent the story back and said, 'C'mon. Too good to be true. Get some more sources.'"

Of Howell's legacy, he said, "We have plenty of sources: those she trained and watched and guided. We feel lucky she was our boss; we feel honored to have called her a friend; we are disconsolate at the news."

Accident details sketchy

According to the Marlborough Express newspaper in New Zealand, a 68-year-old foreign tourist was taken to Wairau Hospital by ambulance with serious injuries and subsequently died, said Blenheim police Sgt. Dan Mattison. Blenheim is a town of 30,000 people on the northeast coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Chris Coleman said late Friday that the family knew little more about the accident than was in the New Zealand newspaper.

"New Zealand was a longtime love of hers," he said. "She was happy to be going there."

pmiller@startribune.com • 612-673-4290 vtuss@startribune.com • 612-673-7692

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Deborah Howell