During his more than 60 years in the news business, Timonium resident Lou Panos crossed paths with people from legendary Baltimore scribeH.L. Mencken to the Kennedy brothers — as in RFK and JFK.
Along the way, Panos, 86, who was inducted last week into the Maryland/Delaware/DC Press Association's Hall of Fame, cranked out articles, editorials and columns for the Associated Press for 20 years and later for the Baltimore Sun and the Patuxent Publishing Company newspapers, including the Towson Times.
In the course of covering the rough and tumble of state politics with all its heroes, villains and occasional felons, he maintained a record of integrity and fairness, tempered with a robust sense of humor and a surprising lack of cynicism.
"I told people that when I was a reporter I couldn't understand why those sleazy politicians tried to hide so much from us," said Panos, who also did a six-year stint as press secretary to former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes from 1981 to 1987.
"Then when I became a press secretary," he added, "I couldn't understand why those muckrakers in the press wouldn't let us do the public's job."
Len Lazarick, a former managing editor of Patuxent newspapers, considers Panos a mentor and a role model. In a letter endorsing Panos' induction into the MDDC Hall of Fame, he highlighted Panos' analysis and style.
"Not only did he have an insider's grasp of what was going on, but he relayed his analysis in a style that was smooth, deft and easy to understand," Lazarick wrote. "These were traits he maintained in his writing throughout his career."
Former Maryland Sen. Julian L. Lapides was also among the notables who seconded Panos' Hall of Fame nomination.
"(Panos) was an outstanding reporter, a brilliant writer and a model, ethical journalist," Lapides wrote in his letter to the MDDC. "As a journalist, he had great integrity — always reporting fairly and honestly."
Panos is grateful for such accolades, but his own assessment is, typically, a bit more self-effacing.
"I was just a work-a-day, slug-a-day newspaperman, that's all," he said.
Panos traces the inspiration for his career as a scribe, columnist and editor all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe Junior High School No. 1, at Fayette and Green streets. The school was, appropriately, just across from Poe's tomb and only a block from Baltimore's Lexington Market, where Panos' father, George E. Panos, owned and operated a restaurant stall from 1932 to 1965 and where Lou washed dishes as a boy.
"In junior high school one of my teachers, Ida Levin, read an essay I'd written as an assignment and suggested that I go to work for the school paper," he said.
A couple of years later, Panos became editor of The Collegian, the student newspaper at Baltimore City College, now Baltimore City College High School.
"When I was there, H.L. Mencken came up and spoke to what was called The Bancroft Literary Society, and Mencken was asked a question by one of the members, 'Why do you say war is a good thing?'" Panos recalled.
"Mencken's reply was, 'For the same reason I have written before: War gets rid of a lot of unnecessary people and it gives many young people a chance to experience things that they never would otherwise.' "
"Well," Panos added, , "one of the staff members on the school newspaper wrote an editorial blasting Mencken and, as editor, I was the one who had to defend the writer to the newspaper's faculty advisor and the school principal."
Panos remembers seeing Mencken around the old Baltimore Sun building, then at Charles and Baltimore streets. That was when Panos, while still in high school, made his entry into his chosen profession — as a part-time copy boy for the Associated Press.
"There was a very well-known cartoonist at the Sun at that time named 'Moko' Yardley," Panos said. "One day during the Christmas season Mencken stuck his head in the AP office, which at the time was in the Sunpapers building, and said 'Bah Humbug!' and Yardley replied, '##&&@@ you, Scrooge!'"
Panos went on to attend the University of Iowa, but his college career was permanently sidelined by World War II. He spent two and a half years in the Army and one-and-a-half years overseas.
"I was a cryptographic technician in the signal corps, a code specialist and a truck driver on the Burma Road, driving 900 miles across China, Burma, India, during a monsoon," he said. "That was at a time when it was tough for me to get loan of the family car on weekends, and here was the Army entrusting me with a two-and-a-half ton GMC truck worth thousands of dollars."
After the war, Panos headed back to college, until his junior year, 1947, when he applied for and was hired full time by the AP. He worked there 20 years, including a two-and-a-half-year stint inWashington, D.C., where he covered and got to know the Kennedy brothers.
"At that time, the press office in the Justice Department building was directly across from (U.S. Attorney General) Robert Kennedy's office," Panos said, feigning a Boston Brahman accent. "In the morning Bobby would stop in for his keys, and as he was unlocking his door, he would always call across the hall, 'Good mohning, Lew, how ah yew?'"
It was in 1950 that Panos married Aphrodite "Dottie" Stavropoulos, a graduate of the (then) Institute of Art, now Maryland Institute College of Art, whom he first met in junior high school. The couple have four children and four grandchildren. "Sixty-two years, still married to the same women, and we're still speaking to each other," he quipped. "Just today she told me to take out the trash."
But he quickly adds, "During my frequent and prolonged absences covering the Maryland General Assembly and presidential elections, Dottie was the glue that held our family together for all those years."
In 1967, Panos left AP to begin a 15-year stint as a columnist and editorial writer for The Sun. That was followed by six years as Hughes' press secretary. In 1989, he went to work as chief political reporter for the Patuxent newspapers, from which he retired in 2007. During his newspaper years he covered an astonishing 40 sessions of the Maryland Legislature.
And there was more. In 1990, he co-authored (with Stanley A. Blumberg) "Edward Teller: Giant of the Golden Age of Physics," a biography of the so-called "Father of the H-Bomb." He was also recruited by the late R Adams Cowley, a pioneering in shock-trauma treatment, to serve two years (1987-1989) as director of media relations for the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
For all those of who have known and worked with Panos, it's impossible to overlook another facet of his temperament that has made him so effective at what he does: his kindness.
"Lou was always a gentleman... a gentle man, as well as a gentleman," said former Towson Times reporter Loni Ingraham, who worked with Panos for many years. "He was always polite, in the nicest of ways."
At 86, Panos is still keeping busy.
"People ask me what I'm doing now and I tell them I'm writing three books, one is fiction, one is nonfiction and one is my memoir," he said. "But sometimes I can't remember which is which.
"A sage man once said that one of the most difficult jobs of a writer is to convince his wife that when he's sitting at his desk staring at the wall that he's working."
When asked for some parting words of wisdom, Panos offers advice he doubtless received many times early on in his career and dispensed many times in his later years as an editor.
"Just remember: Keep it short — that's the old AP model," he said with mock sternness. "Keep it short ... and write it so people understand it!"