Peter McGrath, an award-winning editor at Newsweek Magazine, father of two and a man of music, died July 15 in his Annapolis home at the age of 76.
“There are a lot of stories that my dad liked to tell about his career as a journalist, but for me, as his kid, one of the things that shone through was his love of music and his talent for playing music,” said Evan McGrath, his son.
As a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago in the early 1970′s, Peter McGrath developed a love for bluegrass. Born in Macclesfield, England at the tail-end of World War II to an English MI6 spy — who later worked at St. John’s College — and an American mother, McGrath first came to Annapolis when he was around 3 or 4 years old.
He worked on Capitol Hill for former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, of Colorado, prior to joining the Washingtonian as a senior editor.
He watched famous bluegrass musicians like Don Reno play at the University of Chicago’s annual folk festival and performed with a bluegrass student band called the Lake Country String Band.
“He fooled me into thinking he was actually more outgoing than he was,” McGrath’s ex-wife, Susan Seliger said with a chuckle. “He loved playing and performing in that band.”
She said McGrath primarily played the guitar but could play just about any bluegrass instrument, save the bass and the fiddle.
“Anything with strings really, he could play pretty well,” his eldest son, Alex McGrath, said.
Evan McGrath said his father always seemed to be playing music in their house, and the happiest memories with his father involve music.
“There were a lot of mornings where I’d walk downstairs to my living room, and my dad would just be sitting there, looking out the window, strumming on his guitar, just enjoying himself,” he said.
He said his father would recount to him the stories of when he performed at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis when the pair would drive by it.
McGrath used his music to remedy his son’s sleeping troubles as well.
“He would come and sit at the end of my bed and strum on this beautiful acoustic guitar he had, he would play the folk songs from the south and Americana type of music to help me go to sleep,” said Evan McGrath.
Music aside, McGrath’s sons described their father as a brilliant and philanthropic man who kept his emotions to himself.
“He wasn’t the dad that comes to every single one of your football games or baseball games or something, but... he would have something insightful to say when he was, and he would really make the impact of him being there felt,” Evan McGrath said.
Described by Seliger as “endlessly curious” and wielding an “expansive breadth of knowledge,” McGrath first joined Newsweek as a foreign editor, supervising coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Persian Gulf War. His team won an Overseas Press Club Award for its coverage.
“He wanted to learn how the sausage was made, rather than make the sausage,” Seliger, also a journalist, said of his shift to journalism.
McGrath eventually became the magazine’s first editor of digital journalism, known as “new media” at the time. He developed the earliest online versions of the publication and saw the internet as a means of reaching a new generation of readers, Seliger said.
He was the founder of the Washington Journalism Review, now the American Journalism Review, and taught journalism at George Washington University and Rutgers University after retiring from Newsweek.
McGrath leaves behind two sons, Evan and Alex, who couldn’t be reached by The Capital, grandchildren Jackson and Charlie, and his wife, Karen Helm, of Annapolis. He and Seliger divorced in 2006 but remained amicable.