Joseph F. Nawrozki III, a retired investigative reporter who served on the staff of three Baltimore daily newspapers and was a Vietnam War combat veteran, died of leukemia Saturday at his Bel Air home. He was 70.
"Joe had a real instinct for the underdog. He looked into their hearts," said Michael Olesker, a former Baltimore Sun columnist who was Mr. Nawrozki's investigative partner at the old News American. "His working-class background and his experience in Vietnam informed everything he wrote."
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Joseph Francis Nawrozki Jr., a Baltimore police officer, and the former Honore A. Bennett, a homemaker. Raised on Cliftmont Avenue near Clifton Park, he was a 1962 City College graduate. He attended the Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities.
In an autobiographical sketch, Mr. Nawrozki recalled being hired at the old News American by its sports editor, John F. Steadman. He became a copy boy and apprentice reporter, covering amateur sports and handicapping horses. He once said he "took advantage of being among gifted journalists who encouraged and supported" his work.
He also recalled being in the Delaware Park press box when he got a call from his mother telling him he had been drafted into the Army. He fought alongside an elite Korean unit and led a unit that brought food and medicine to villages. While he served, he wrote dispatches that were published in the News American. He received the Army Commendation Medal and two letters of commendation for his work in civil affairs.
After the Vietnam War, he rejoined the News American and worked the rewrite desk and did feature articles on colorful Baltimoreans.
"Joe was sincere. He was real. He had that touch, too. People were willing to tell him their stories," said a former Sun colleague, Linda L. Linley. "He would give you the flavor of the person without demeaning them."
During a newspaper strike, he worked at a Johns Hopkins Hospital methadone clinic as an intake counselor. He later said the experience informed him about the city's drug problem.
Working with Mr. Olesker, he uncovered political corruption in the Baltimore sheriff's office and in the office of the clerk of the Court of Common Pleas. The pair also investigated narcotics trafficking in Baltimore. They focused on James A. "Turk" Scott, then a member of the Maryland House of Delegates who was accused of being a major city heroin dealer. In 1973, Scott was killed in a Baltimore apartment building.
They also helped change Maryland's law covering what was then widespread illegal surveillance and wiretaps by police operatives during the administration of Commissioner Donald Pomerleau. The surveillance was later investigated by the state Senate.
The two reporters exposed conditions and brought reforms to the state's Patuxent Institution. Mr. Nawrozki also exposed conditions surrounding the death of a Baltimore Marine recruit at Parris Island, S.C., which helped lead to changes in boot camp regulations.
"Joe wrote several pieces for Baltimore magazine," said Stanley Heuisler, its former editor. "He was a tough, funny, irreverent, smart, fair and compassionate street reporter. He was also a vet who fought, so he knew the smell of blood and cordite. He was a good man who loved the streets of Baltimore and its quirky, lovable nature and the people thereon. And he reflected all he had come to know."
In 1986, after the News American closed, Mr. Nawrozki became director of public and governmental affairs for the board of trustees of the state university system.
In a memoir, Mr. Nawrozki said that in 1988, he "returned to [his] first love of newspapers when [he] went to work for the Baltimore Evening Sun."
When that paper closed, he went to work for The Sun, retiring in 2005.
"Joe was the paragon of an excellent investigative reporter," said William K. Marimow, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and former Sun editor. "He was tenacious, determined and fair-minded. … He was also an A-plus colleague. He had a big heart, and was generous and fun-loving. He was a great spinner of stories, too."
"Watching the man work was a wonder in itself," said retired Sun reporter Robert Erlandson. "Joe's energy and authority in digging ... was a lesson in how good reporters work."
While in Vietnam, Mr. Nawrozki learned martial arts. This year, he was named a 7th dan black belt master in tae kwon do. He founded Jarrettsville Tae Kwon Do, a Harford County recreation program, and taught martial arts for more than 40 years.
He received numerous awards for his writing and reporting. The Poynter Institute selected his 1984 writing as some of the year's best. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford presented him with a No Greater Love Award at the White House for his service in Vietnam and in civilian life.
In retirement, he worked with the homeless, coached elementary school students on writing and worked with at-risk middle-school students.
Plans for a memorial gathering are incomplete.
Mr. Nawrozki is survived by a son, Damon Joseph Nawrozki of Dunedin, Fla.; a daughter, Lisa Beverly Nawrozki of Palm Harbor, Fla.; and two grandchildren. His two marriages ended in divorce.