Elliott Maraniss

Death 1 May 2004 (aged 86)
Burial Unknown
Memorial ID 92271425 · View Source
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Capital Times, The (Madison, WI) - May 3, 2004
Elliott Maraniss, who began his Wisconsin newspaper career as a crack investigative reporter and went on to become The Capital Times' third editor-in-chief, died Saturday afternoon in a Milwaukee hospital at age 86.

Long one of the state's most respected newspaper people, Maraniss joined the staff of The Capital Times in 1957 and served with journalistic distinction for 26 years. He worked as a reporter for nearly 10 years, led the newsroom as city editor during the tumultuous Vietnam War period and served as editor-in-chief from 1978 until he retired in 1983.

In the newsroom, his feistiness and crusading spirit were legendary. He not only helped shape the course of Wisconsin and Madison area issues but inspired the careers of dozens of young journalists, including that of his son David, who as a reporter for the Washington Post went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the most coveted award in journalism.

Indeed, his and his wife Mary's four children were his constant source of pride. Another son, Jim, a Spanish literature professor at Amherst College, also won a Pulitzer Prize in music for an opera libretto he co-authored. His daughter Jean Alexander lives in Pittsburgh and heads the reference department at Carnegie-Mellon University's library system. His younger daughter, Wendy, was an accomplished musician who was tragically killed in a car accident near her home in Ithaca, N.Y., in November of 1997.

Maraniss often told the story of how he was personally hired by the late William T. Evjue, the newspaper's founder, when he was down on his luck in 1957. He had been working for a feisty strike newspaper, Labor's Daily, in Davenport, Iowa, when it suddenly suspended publication. He had heard about Evjue and his newspaper and decided he wanted to work there. So, with four young children to support, he drove to Madison and appeared unannounced at Mr. Evjue's office door. In about an hour, he had talked himself into a job.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, where he served as editor of the student paper, the Michigan Daily, Maraniss began his professional newspaper career with the Detroit Times in 1940 during the height of the Detroit newspaper wars. Pearl Harbor soon intervened. He immediately joined the thousands of young men who volunteered for the Army and soon was serving as a private in the Pacific. He left military service after the war as a company commander with the rank of captain.

* Following the war he returned to the Detroit Times and then went on to jobs with newspapers in Cleveland and New York before taking the ill-fated Iowa job.

Shortly after he joined Evjue's newspaper, the editor sent him off to investigate why the Wisconsin River was becoming polluted. The result was a prize-winning series that documented how the paper companies were using the majestic river as their private sewer, dumping untreated chemicals and effluent into its waters. His groundbreaking stories forced the state to move against the paper mills and enact environmental reforms to clean up the river, long before the environment became a national issue.

During his reporting years -- he always said they were "my happiest years, there's something special about being a reporter" -- he won numerous awards for investigations that often exposed the misdeeds of the powerful, both in government and the private world. His coverage of a heated internal dispute at the UW Medical School, the controversy surrounding the death of UW boxer Charlie Mohr, and the trial of a mentally ill woman named Jane Dakin remain textbook examples of how to do it to this day.

He was promoted to city editor in 1966, replacing the legendary Cedric Parker, who had been in the job for some 20 years and was known for his clashes with the notorious Joe McCarthy.

The Vietnam War was heating up and so was unrest on the UW campus. The volatile issue soon consumed the city and, of course, the local news. Unlike other newspapers that sent veteran reporters to cover the campus unrest, Maraniss dispatched younger members of the staff who he felt could better relate to the students. The result was a more complete picture of the anti-war protests, and The Capital Times' coverage helped the community understand what was at stake.

Beginning as city editor and then later in his roles as executive editor and then editor, he broke down the traditional walls of a mostly all-white, male reporting staff. He hired women and minorities and put them on key beats and assigned them major stories. He took chances with inexperienced young people and almost always got excellent results. He was proud of the youngsters he hired and turned into seasoned journalists, many of whom now hold key positions at The Capital Times and at other newspapers around the country.

* During his editorships, he treated each day's paper as a special work of art. The final edition of the paper would be dispatched to the newsroom just as the presses started to hum and if he was particularly pleased with the local content of that day's paper, he'd hold it up and boom to the rest of the newsroom, "Hell of a paper today."

Maraniss replaced Miles McMillin, the paper's second editor, who retired in 1978.

When Maraniss retired from the editorship some 5 1/2years later at the age of 65, Whitney Gould, one of the first reporters he hired, wrote:

"He enlarged the paper's role as voice against social injustices, large and small. He kept our readers alert to the overriding perils of the arms race and nuclear war. He made the paper a consistent champion of the First Amendment.

"He tried to make the paper an extension of himself: impatient, curious, skeptical, irreverent, straightforward and caring. When we have succeeded in doing that, it has been due in large measure to Elliott and the force of his personality. We love him and neither we nor this newspaper will be the same without him."

Many of those traits that Gould attributed to Maraniss were what led him to Milwaukee shortly after his retirement at The Capital Times. He had long admired the outspoken, no nonsense mayor of Milwaukee at the time, Henry Maier, and Maier admired him. As editor of The Capital Times, Maraniss relished tweaking the noses of the powers that be at the Milwaukee Journal, which delighted Maier, who loved to do the same.

So Maraniss moved to Milwaukee and worked as a consultant to the mayor. He and Mary moved into a home near the UW-Milwaukee campus, where they've remained until this time.

Maraniss' interests weren't confined to newspapering, however. He was an avid sports fan and for years served as a scout for the Detroit Tigers, keeping an eye out for promising young baseball players in the area. He had earned a baseball scholarship at the University of Michigan, but before graduation went off to fight in World War II. He spent nearly five years on active duty, rising to the rank of captain, commanding an all-black repair and salvage unit.

His widow, Mary, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that that experience fueled his lifelong passion for social justice and his hatred of war.

He was also a voracious reader, devouring everything from best-sellers to the classics in his free time. He always advised young reporters to "read, read, read."

* And, although he had been away from the newspaper for more than 20 years, he remained a passionate cheerleader of The Capital Times. On its 70th birthday in 1987, he did a major presentation to the Madison Literacy Club on the paper, its founder William T. Evjue, and the newspaper's long-held progressive ideals and what they've meant to the city and state. He also kept in touch with the staff as best he could and often would call the editor with a comment about an issue or an idea for a story.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Mary, their three surviving children, James, David and Jean, their respective spouses, Gigi, Linda and Michael Alexander; Wendy's widower, Brian Keeling of Ithaca, New York; and nine grandchildren, with whom, son David commented, "he had an incredible relationship."


Thursday: The Maraniss family has scheduled a memorial service at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, at 4:30 p.m. All who knew and were touched by the former editor are invited.


Elliott Maraniss age 86, died on Saturday, May 1, 2004. He was a resident of Milwaukee, and former resident of Madison. Elliott was the beloved husband for 65 years of Mary (nee Cummins); father of James (Virginia Kaeser) Maraniss, Jean (Michael) Alexander, David (Linda) Maraniss and the late Wendy Maraniss; father-in-law of Brian Keeling; brother of the late Celia Kushner; grandfather of Andrew, Dan, Ben, Sarah, James, Lucia, Elliott, Max and Dave.

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  • Created by: Rita & Lee Gordon
  • Added: 20 Jun 2012
  • Find A Grave Memorial 92271425
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Elliott Maraniss (23 Feb 1918–1 May 2004), Find A Grave Memorial no. 92271425, ; Maintained by Rita & Lee Gordon (contributor 46554879) Unknown.