Dale Austin, a retired Baltimore Sun reporter whose coverage of Maryland horse racing spanned a half-century and took him on assignments as far away as England, died in his sleep Friday at his Bayside Beach home. He was 81.
His wife of 38 years, the former Ann Brownhill, said Mr. Austin had spent Thursday at the doctor's office and was feeling frail and "very, very tired," but the specific cause of death is unknown. Mrs. Austin said she discovered early Friday that her husband — an enthusiastic Baltimore sports fan — had gone to lie down before watching the NFL draft and never woke up.
Born on St. Patrick's Day in Poteau, Okla., Mr. Austin was the son of Jefferson Davis and Eula Grace Austin. He graduated in the late 1940s from Bokoshe High School.
While a senior engineering student at Oklahoma State University, Mr. Austin was drafted by the Army and served two years at Fort Myer in Northern Virginia. He then took an opening for a part-time sports writer at The Washington Post in 1959.
He wrote for the Washington Star and the Air Force Times before joining The Evening Sun in January 1962. Mr. Austin's career highlights included covering the Grand National in England.
Mr. Austin, who retired from the newspaper in December 1990, served as president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters and of the Maryland Racing Media Association. In his retirement, the award-winning journalist wrote for The Capital in Annapolis.
Mr. Austin and his wife met at Laurel Park racetrack while Mr. Austin was a newspaperman and the future Mrs. Austin was a model. They married on Valentine's Day, not for sentimental reasons, but because "that's the only day he could get away," Mrs. Austin said.
Ross Peddicord, director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board and a longtime colleague of Mr. Austin's, said Mr. Austin's drive was hard to match.
Mr. Peddicord worked for The Evening Sun while Mr. Austin worked for the morning edition.
"He had great sources, a thorough knowledge of racing and an insatiable desire to get the page one sports story above the fold," Peddicord said. "So he was a tough opponent. I learned so much from him just by trying to beat him every day. He was very proud that he was the reporter for 'Maryland's paper of record' and regarded his own stories as the definitive ones on racing."
During Mr. Austin's tenure at The Sun, there were three Triple Crown winners, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed; a former Maryland governor, Marvin Mandel, was sent to jail for allegedly accepting bribes from racetrack investors and related charges; and a fixed-race scandal erupted at the now-defunct Bowie Race Track, Mr. Peddicord said.
"Dale was always in the thick of it — and you had to go at all lengths to try to scoop him," Mr. Peddicord said.
"In an odd way, it is entirely appropriate that he passed right in the middle of the Triple Crown season, just as the action swings to Pimlico this week for the Preakness. That's where Dale always wanted to be — at the top of the game, in the middle of the action, and reporting it all on the pages of Maryland's paper of record."
The Morning Sun
Josh Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said that while a cub reporter with a national horse magazine, he counted on Mr. Austin to "slide me jockey notes" or give him tips on covering the Preakness. Mr. Austin also taught him to judge the quality of the press box catering by the number of raisins in the rice pudding.
"He was a mainstay," Mr. Pons said. "He was sort of a tenured professor. He'd seen a lot, and he knew how to turn a phrase."
A memorial service will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Stallings Funeral Home, 3111 Mountain Road, Pasadena. Friends also are invited to a celebration brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 19 at Tall Oaks, 1541 Colony Road, Pasadena.
Mr. Austin's ashes will be interred in his wife's hometown of Madras, Ore.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Austin is survived by two sons, Grant Austin of Crownsville and David Austin of Durham, N.C.; four stepchildren, Stephen Mueller of Palm Springs, Calif., Donald Mueller of Houston, Jan Johnson of Charlotte, N.C., and Dorothy Blasdell of Winston-Salem, N.C.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.