David Joseph McQuay, a Baltimore-born journalist with an unwavering passion for the written word, music and the human condition, died peacefully in his sleep Thursday in Orange, Calif., after a two-year battle with colon cancer. He was 40.
Mr. McQuay "was the kindest and gentlest and most spiritual person I know," said Tonnie Katz, editor and vice president of the Orange County Register.
"He never said a bad word about anybody or anything, except maybe a few politicians and leaf-blowers," she said.
Mr. McQuay's column, which he wrote three times a week, occasionally moved on a news wire to newspapers across the country and lately dealt honestly and courageously with his terminal illness.
His work stands nominated this year for the Pulitzer Prize, the most coveted honor in American journalism, Ms. Katz said.
In a column two months ago about his own mortality, Mr. McQuay wrote: "I thought I'd go while making love to my wife at 60 or foolishly playing basketball with a kid after a few glasses of wine. Or, collapsing at my desk after Cong. Bob Dornan announces he's running for president in 2000."
If Mr. McQuay found his niche in the land of earthquakes, moonlight surfing and violent cocaine gangs, he earned his journalistic spurs in Baltimore where -- from 1973 to 1983 -- he worked for the News American.
"He was made a cutline writer in the features department," recalled Sun columnist Jacques Kelly. "Almost instantly, his words under pictures sang with puns and McQuayisms, was recognized by the editors, and he was given more work to do . . . with, of course, no raise."
L At 24, he was appointed editor of the newspaper's book page.
Steve Gavin, an editor at the News American who worked later on the city desk with Mr. McQuay, said "the most impressive thing about David was he cared so much about his work and always wanted to learn about people. His reporting showed there was, and is, no substitute for shoe leather."
Perhaps Mr. McQuay's most memorable piece was written in 1977 about a visit to Baltimore by author Truman Capote. Mr. McQuay reported that the writer was incoherent from alcohol and barbiturates and could not keep a speaking engagement.
Mr. Capote admitted that he was addicted to alcohol and sleeping pills and spoke of the dark descent in his life, a matter treated tenderly in Mr. McQuay's story the following day.
Born in Baynesville in North Baltimore, Mr. McQuay attended the Immaculate Heart of Mary parochial school, Towson Catholic High School and Towson State University.
"He was reading before he went to grade school," said his mother Mary Marian McQuay. "He never stopped."
Mr. McQuay traveled extensively during his life and visited Europe and Africa as well as numerous points of interest in the U.S.
"David spent his life out here with people, books and music and his wife, Johnada," said the Register's managing editor, Kenneth Brusic. "He loved to be comfortable, and you could usually find some spilled barbecue sauce on his shirt."
During his final hospitalization in December, Mr. McQuay received a telephone call from former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, who was calling to cheer him up at the request of Nicole Brodeur, one of the columnist's close friends and colleagues.
"David was absolutely devoted to his hometown, the Orioles and Brooks," Ms. Brodeur recalled. "He loved them, Charlie Parker, Hemingway, Hendrix and the nobodies he found every day. He always looked like he just stepped out of a windstorm and didn't care . . . he had so much on his mind to worry about his appearance."
A wake will be held at 8:30 p.m. Monday in Baltimore at the Johnson Funeral Home, 8521 Loch Raven Blvd. A Mass will be celebrated at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 8501 Loch Raven Blvd. Burial will be in Bel Air Memorial Gardens.
Besides his wife, Johnada Elliott-McQuay, and his mother, Mr. McQuay is survived by a brother, Paul McQuay; a sister, Linda Hollingshead; and an uncle, Paul Miller, all of Baltimore. A niece and nephew also survive.