Richard P. O'Mara, longtime Baltimore Sun reporter and editor, dies

Mr. O'Mara was known for his elegant writing, particularly leads — the opening sentences of a story that

Richard P. O'Mara, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, foreign correspondent, editorial writer and editor whose career spanned four decades, died Thursday from frontal temporal dementia at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The Mount Washington resident was 80.

"Rich O'Mara was a very graceful writer who could take mundane stories and make them interesting," said Robert A. Erlandson, a retired Sun foreign correspondent. "He was an example of The Sun at its best."

"Rich and the late Carl Schoettler were the most beautiful and lyrical writers on the paper," said G. Jefferson Price III, a former foreign editor for The Sun.

"He was a dear, dear guy. He had a marvelous sense of humor and was Irish to the core," said Mr. Price. "He always had a delightful smile on his face, and you could never tell if he was taking you seriously. He certainly did not take himself too seriously."

The son of Edward O'Mara, a Navy veteran, and Helen O'Mara, a bank teller, Richard Paul O'Mara was born in Philadelphia and raised in the city's Cork neighborhood.

In his 2011 memoir, "The Street Where They Lived," Mr. O'Mara recalled his early days in Cork. "I grew up in a slowly decaying neighborhood in West Philadelphia populated by Irish Catholics, African-Americans, a sprinkling of Armenians and Jews, the later groups mostly shop owners. The Irish, both American-born and immigrants, were the more numerous in that cramped pocket of the City of Brotherly Love."

As a student at St. Agatha's Grammar School, Mr. O'Mara recalled thinking about hell and "suffering never ending pain, and never ending despair" during eighth-grade lectures about eternal damnation by an instructor, Father Loney.

"Father Loney comes to mind, with his small red eyes set in a narrow face, reddened across its entire surface by a web of exploded capillaries, most vivid along both side of his knife-like nose," he wrote.

He attended St. Thomas More High School — until he was expelled — then West Philadelphia Public High School. He eventually dropped out and joined the Army in 1956, serving in Alaska until being discharged in 1959.

He then went to College Park and applied to enter the University of Maryland despite not having a high school diploma.

"He charmed or cajoled an admission official into letting him into Maryland," said Rob Kasper, a retired Sun columnist and food writer.

Based on his test scores and English and history credits, he entered the university as a sophomore and graduated in 1962.

While at Maryland, he met and fell in love with Susana Maria Hanza, a young lawyer from Argentina who was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. They married in 1962.

Mr. O'Mara's first job in journalism was with the old Baltimore News-Post as a $97-a-week reporter. In his book, he said he didn't work very hard — but had lots of fun.

"Reporters have fun; editors go to meetings," he wrote. "Fun, it seemed, was the attraction of newspapering."

Before coming to The Sun in 1965 as a reporter, he worked for about a year in the Washington bureau of United Press International, writing radio news for the wire service's clients.

Mr. O'Mara rose through The Sun's newsroom from reporter to editorial writer for The Evening Sun, a job he held for six years. He worked as a Washington correspondent and overseas as chief of the paper's Rio de Janeiro bureau.

Mr. O'Mara became editor of Perspective, a commentary and analysis section in The Sunday Sun and served from 1976 until 1979, when he was appointed foreign editor, a job he held for 12 years.

"I used to sit near Rich when I was assistant national editor, and he was the most easygoing and stressless editor I've ever known," John M. McClintock, The Sun's Mexico City correspondent from 1987 to 1992. "He had tremendous knowledge about the world, and he worked hard getting stories about Latin America on the front page.

"He gave you free rein and respected your judgment when it came to stories and he did not insert his ideas. He was a hands-off editor par excellence," he said.

Mr. McClintock was covering the 1989 election in El Salvador, during which three journalists were killed by Salvadoran government forces. He recalled that in his performance review that year, Mr. O'Mara wrote "that I had the 'most dangerous job on The Sun.'"

"He was my foreign editor when I was in the Middle East from 1982 to 1987," recalled Mr. Price.

"Richard did not second-guess you or try to improve your judgment of what the story should be," he said. "He was always very solicitous of safety issues and that you were to take care of yourself first before the paper."

Mr. Price later succeeded Mr. O'Mara in 1991. "He had been my boss, and then I was his boss when I sent him to London in 1991 as our correspondent."

When Mr. O'Mara returned from London in 1994, he joined The Sun's features department and turned out memorable stories that displayed his curiosity and showcased his elegant writing style.

He was known for his leads — the opening sentences of a story that catch a reader's attention.

When then-Archbishop William H. Keeler was elevated to cardinal in 1994, he wrote: "For William H. Keeler this is not a day like any other. The quiet boy from Texas, raised in Lebanon, Pa., who decided early in his life to become a priest and went a good deal further, becomes a prince in the Roman Catholic Church today in Rome."

In a 2005 piece for The Sun's travel section, he wrote: "London won't be forgotten. The city binds the expatriate tight by the fibers of his own simple recollections: the taste of a smooth ale in a pub on a dark night, the smell of old houses, even the dogs in barking conversation with each other while leading their owners through Kensington Gardens."

He could even find prose in a garden: "Snails are in my wife's garden. They are active throughout the warm months. But it is in late summer when they are much on the march. Forget the 'dog days.' These are the 'snail days.'"

"Rich was that rare combination of a foreign correspondent who was not just a reporter of facts, but a graceful, elegant writer," Mr. Kasper wrote in an email.

"When he came back to Baltimore from far-flung posts, instead of disdaining the city, he reveled in it," Mr. Kasper wrote. "He sought out a prolific letter to the editor writer from Dundalk. He rode buses to see how well or poorly bus drivers were treated. He was a ball of energy, turning out stories in hours, not days."

Mr. Kasper recalled Mr. O'Mara's "rapier wit."

"His sense of humor drew me to him — along with a willingness to slip out of the office late in the day to sip beers and solve the world's problems at The Brewer's Art on North Charles Street," he wrote.

A former Tuscany-Canterbury resident who later moved to Melrose Avenue, Mr. O'Mara resided since last year at Springwell Senior Living Community in Mount Washington, where former newsroom colleague Ernest F. Imhoff, longtime Evening Sun and Sun editor, also lives.

Mr. O'Mara was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia five years ago. He and Mr. Imhoff often sat on the veranda reminiscing about their newspaper days.

"I mentioned colleagues like Jim Keat and John Plunkett after I visited or spoke with them. Rich liked that and smiled and even laughed and seemed to recognize the names; sometimes he didn't connect with the names," Mr. Imhoff wrote in an email.

Mr. O'Mara enjoyed spending time at a second home in Bethany Beach, Del., and also enjoyed reading, painting, gardening and riding his bike.

Plans for a memorial gathering are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, a retired Loyola University of Maryland Spanish professor; he is survived by a son, Michael O'Mara of Towson; two daughters, Andrea O'Mara and Lisa Armquist, both of Towson; and five grandchildren.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of journalists killed during the 1989 elections in El Salvador, and how they died. It has been corrected here. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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