Howard Norton, Pulitzer-winning reporter for Sun

March 14, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Howard M. Norton, who won a Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting at The Sun in 1947 and was the first journalist to provide eyewitness verification of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's death, died of a stroke Saturday in a hospital near his home in Wilmington, N.C.

Mr. Norton, who was 82, was remembered yesterday by his wife and former colleagues as an intense, no-nonsense reporter who wrote crisp, clean copy and whose stories sparkled whether he was covering local issues or World War II.

"He could smell a story almost before anyone else," said former Sun writer and editor Peter J. Kumpa, who worked with Mr. Norton in the newspaper's Washington Bureau. "He was a very sharp, colorful writer. Very fast. One of the fastest, cleanest, most colorful writers The Sun had at the time."

Mr. Norton's investigative reporting on fraud in Maryland's unemployment compensation system -- a series of 18 stories over a six-week period -- brought him and The Sun a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service in 1947.

The reports drew criticism from labor leaders, and a labor publication discounted the findings as false. But an ensuing state investigation led to the conviction of 200 jobless-pay claimants and major changes in the compensation law.

Mr. Norton also wrote a series of articles exposing deficiencies in Maryland's mental hospitals. The series, called "Maryland's Shame," published in 1949, led to changes in the state's mental health law and the appropriation of $28 million to rebuild mental hospitals.

Neil H. Swanson, executive editor of The Baltimore Sun newspapers during that period, often chose Mr. Norton to take on major projects, said Joseph R. L. Sterne, now editorial page director.

"He was a very driving, energetic reporter," said Mr. Sterne, who also worked in the newspaper's Washington Bureau during the latter part of Mr. Norton's career at The Sun. "He had a reputation for going after a very hot story and developing it."

Mr. Norton also reported the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and he understood economic issues well enough to produce clearly written business stories, former colleagues say.

"He was good because he knew money, he knew business, he knew economics better than anyone else in the business," said Mr. Kumpa.

He said Mr. Norton also made wise personal investments in the stock market, providing for himself a more comfortable lifestyle than most reporters had.

"When I met him, he said 'What's your portfolio like?' " Mr. Kumpa recalled. "I said, 'What do you mean, my portfolio?' He was one of the sharpest reporters The Sun had during the decades of the 1940s and 1950s."

Born in Massachusetts, Mr. Norton was raised in Los Angeles and Miami and graduated from the University of Florida in 1932 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He set sail for the Far East to write free-lance business stories a month after graduation.

He later worked at newspapers in Osaka and Tokyo before becoming a Japan correspondent for the Kansas City Star, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He returned to the United States in 1940 and married the former Marjorie Ellen Anderson, whom he met on vacation in Miami.

Mr. Norton joined The Evening Sun that October, working initially on the copy desk. The following spring he became a reporter, then Washington correspondent for the evening paper in August 1942. Three months later, he was appointed foreign editor of The Sun. The next year, he was named war correspondent for the Sunpapers.

"He thought he was working for the best paper in the world," Mrs. Norton recalled.

Mr. Norton was aboard a small military vessel bound for Guam in 1944 when the ship was shelled by the Japanese. He suffered a torn ligament in his shoulder and a sprained back when an explosion forced him to the deck. Twenty-one of the 25 men aboard the ship were either killed or injured.

In March 1945, Mr. Norton was transferred to the Italian front. In dramatic prose, he reported the death of Mussolini, the Italian dictator, coming upon a grisly scene in Milan with a group of correspondents who had "dashed in Jeeps through 200 miles in Partisan territory" in hopes of seeing and talking to a still-living "Il Duce."

Eleven years later, he was appointed to the Moscow Bureau of The Sun. Upon his return to the United States, Mr. Norton wrote RTC a book, "Only in Russia," describing everyday life in the Soviet Union.

He eventually wrote four other books, "The Miracle of Jimmy Carter," "Rosalynn -- A Portrait," "When the Angels Laughed" and "Good News About Trouble."

He left The Sun in 1964 to work for the magazine U.S. News & World Report. In 1976, he became Washington bureau chief at the old National Courier, a religious publication. Two years later, he became briefly the director of publications for the National Association of Community Action Directors, then published a trade newsletter until his retirement in 1984.

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