Gerald E. Griffin, 94, longtime Sun reporter, editorial page editor

August 15, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Gerald E. Griffin, whose distinguished 40-year career with The Sun included stints as chief of the newspaper's Washington bureau and editorial page editor, died of heart failure yesterday at the home of a daughter in Silver Spring. He was 94.

Born in Lincoln, Neb., and raised on a farm in nearby Greenwood, Mr. Griffin had his first newspaper writing experience as an eighth-grader in a one-room school when his teacher sent his essay on a poem to the local weekly.

"Even at that age, I knew the piece was pretty bad," he wrote in a biographical sketch for The Sun library at his 1972 retirement. "I was embarrassed at seeing it in print, and did not mention its publication to my parents. They did not mention it to me; to the best of my knowledge, they never saw it."

After graduation from Greenwood High School, he attended the University of Nebraska, where he wrote for the campus daily and was a sports stringer for one of the Lincoln dailies, The Star.

After earning his bachelor's degree in journalism in 1929, he married Amy G. Olsen, his high school sweetheart. They moved in 1930 to Towson, where Mr. Griffin briefly worked as a reporter on the old weekly Union News before being hired as a reporter for The Sunday Sun by editor Mark S. Watson.

In 1934, he joined the Washington bureau as news editor, and later covered President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agencies, World War II boards and Congress.

William F. Schmick Jr., publisher of the newspaper during Mr. Griffin's era, recalled him last night as "a newspaperman of the highest integrity, very knowledgeable of history and current events," adding, "In my book, he was a great editor."

In his reporting and editing, from the New Deal to the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Griffin "saw an awful lot of history," said Joseph R.L. Sterne, who succeeded Mr. Griffin as editorial page editor of The Sun in 1972. "He always loved talking about covering FDR when only a handful of reporters gathered around his desk in the Oval Office."

Mr. Griffin's biggest story of the World War II years was one that couldn't be printed.

He and a colleague from the Washington Star discovered that construction workers were building facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Pasco, Wash., to handle a new explosive.

"They kept asking questions until they reached a member of the Cabinet, who told them succinctly but confidentially, `They'll try to split the atom. Whoever [the United States or Germany] does it first will win the war,'" the late Harold A. Williams wrote in a 150th- anniversary history, The Baltimore Sun 1837-1987.

His 30-year tenure in the Washington bureau was interrupted by naval service in the last year of World War II as a shipboard communications officer in the Pacific, and as chief of the newspaper's London bureau from 1947 to 1949.

He was chief of the Washington bureau from 1955 until taking over the editorial office in Baltimore in 1964. He retired in 1972.

"He was highly respected by the Washington press corps because he was level-headed, not excitable, and shrewd in his political assessments. He always had a sureness of judgment and a marvelous feel for issues," Mr. Sterne said.

"When he left for Baltimore in 1964, Philip Potter, who succeeded him, gave a rather small party for him at his home, and who should show up but President Johnson, who stayed for over an hour."

As editorial page editor in 1970, Mr. Griffin introduced an op-ed page with syndicated opinion columns.

When the Watergate scandal erupted in 1972, Mr. Griffin realized and quickly addressed its importance.

"He didn't write it off as a joke as some newspapers did. He saw the potential of the story and his editorial page dealt with it," said Mr. Sterne, now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

In retirement, Mr. Griffin lived on a 6-acre farm near Emmitsburg in a converted 19th- century, one-room schoolhouse.

He wrote his unpublished memoirs and a history of Emmitsburg Presbyterian Church, where he was a member. He moved to the Carroll Lutheran Village retirement community in 1999, and recently to the home of a daughter, Sally J. Griffin, in Silver Spring.

"He remained vigorous into his 90s, and was still able to recite Shakespeare from memory and remembered the name and details of every bill that went through Congress during his time," said another daughter, Mary P. Simms of Washington.

Mr. Griffin's wife died in 1990.

Funeral plans were incomplete yesterday.

He is also survived by a third daughter, Ellen A. Burgoyne of Winchester, Va.; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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