E. Michael Pakenham, former Baltimore Sun book editor whose career in newspapers spanned nearly a half-a century, dies

E. Michael Pakenham, former Baltimore Sun book editor whose career in newspapers spanned nearly a half-century, died May 9 of heart failure at Homewood at Plum Creek in Hanover, Pa. The former Federal Hill resident, who had lived in Wellsville, Pa., for 17 years, was 85.

“Michael loved journalism and journalists,” said William K. Marimow, former editor of The Baltimore Sun, who is vice president of strategic development for Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer. “When I was a young reporter in the 1970s covering police violence, he wrote strong editorials on why covering police violence was important. He was outraged by such injustice and his editorials were literally thundering.”

Mr. Pakenham’s editorials were considered so strong that the Pulitzer Prize board awarded the 1978 Pulitzer to the Inquirer for public service.

“He had a passion for journalism and justice, and that was apparent in everything he wrote,” Mr. Marimow said.

Scott Higham, a former Sun reporter who has been an investigative reporter for The Washington Post since 2000, was a colleague and friend who called Mr. Pakenham “a true Renaissance man.”

“He loved opera and memorizing them. He loved fly fishing, hunting elk, traveling the world and befriending scores of famous authors,” said Mr. Higham, a Bethesda resident. “He was friends with presidents and doormen and everyone in between.”

Edward Michael Pakenham — he never used his first name — was born in New York City. His father, Compton Pakenham, was an Englishman who joined the staff of The New York Times and later was a founder of Newsweek. His mother, the former Sara Pigue Villepigue, was a homemaker.

He was raised in Manhattan and graduated from Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J. He served as an Air Force translator in the Pacific during the early 1950s. After being discharged, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied economics. He later studied liberal arts at Columbia University but did not obtain a degree.

Mr. Pakenham began his newspaper career in 1958 as a reporter for the City News Bureau in Chicago, and from 1960 to 1963 was a reporter and an assistant city editor for the Chicago Tribune.

He then spent two years as Washington correspondent for the paper, covering the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1965 as assistant foreign editor.

Mr. Pakenham was named associate editor and assistant managing editor in 1966 for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where his duties included editing the editorial and op-ed pages.

“He was a gentle giant, but that does not mean that he could not be fierce. I always thought I’d hate to be on the receiving end of his thunder. He could do that if he got upset, if he became outraged over people in power, politicians, the police and government.,” Mr. Higham said.

“He did not suffer fools gladly and he saw lots of fools in government in Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He felt it was his job to call them out and hold them accountable,” he said. But he also has a “kind side” toward young journalists, Mr. Higham said.

“He always had young assistants out of college and he launched them on their journalism careers. He cared deeply about young people and wanted to show them the ropes about a business that had defined his life,” he said.

From 1972 through 1984, he wrote a weekly column, “Michael Pakenham on Wine,” for the paper and for the Knight-Ridder news service.

“Michael was a study in contrasts. I’d see him in the morning in the newspaper’s cafeteria dressed in a pin-striped suit looking more like a Morgan Stanley broker than a rumpled journalist,” Mr. Marimow said.

In 1984, he was appointed editorial page editor of The New York Daily News. He left New York in 1990 and spent two years in London as executive editor of the Sunday Correspondent, a weekly national newspaper, before joining Spin Magazine as executive editor in 1991.

Mr. Pakenham came to Baltimore in 1994 as book editor and literary columnist at The Sun. He purchased a home on Warren Street on Federal Hill overlooking the Inner Harbor, which “became a center of intellectual, social and neighborhood gatherings,” Mr. Marimow said.

“Being around him was like being on an intellectual thrill ride,” said Stephen R. Proctor, former deputy managing editor of The Sun, who lives in Malabar, Fla.

“He was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known, and had a tremendous intellectuality and brought it to everything he was interested in,” said Mr. Proctor, who retired as managing editor of The Houston Chronicle. “Michael would say that no editor could presume to edit if they didn’t write, and that’s what he did for me. He’d give me books to review and he got me writing again, and I owe that to him.”

Another close friend was Dr. Paul R. McHugh, former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, whom Mr. Pakenham enlisted to write book reviews.

“He’d say, ‘You write like a scientist because you put the [main point] at the end of your review when it should be up front. You only have 800 words and you have to get ‘em at the beginning,’ ” said Dr. McHugh, a Guilford resident. “He wanted his book reviewers to shake things up. He wanted families to argue over them.”

Mr. Pakenham and his wife, Rosalie Muller Wright Pakenham, former editor-in-chief and vice president of Sunset Magazine who had also been managing editor of features for the San Francisco Chronicle, were known for their dinner parties.

“They were wonderful occasions,” Dr. McHugh said. “He introduced me to wonderful people from all around Baltimore who had a broad view of things. He had so many friends.”

In a farewell column at the time of his retirement in 2004, Mr. Pakenham wrote that he carried from The Sun an “indomitable inventory of friendships, professional challenges and inspirations, and fondness for a legendary newspaper that is in a process of change — but which is, I am confident, immortal.”

He said he would continue writing, and that “inescapably there will be controversies that will drive me to rage and scribbling. Watch out, I may come your way.”

A memorial celebration will be private.

In addition to his wife of 18 years, he is survived by a daughter, Catherine Dempsey Pakenham of Boston; and two stepsons, Anthony Wright and Geoffrey Wright, both of San Diego. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.

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