Peter J. Kumpa, 76, Sun reporter, bureau chief and state historian

February 24, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Peter J. Kumpa, a Sun and Evening Sun reporter and columnist for 40 years who reported on the Vietnam War from Saigon, directed the newspaper's coverage of Watergate and wrote more than 600 columns about politics and Maryland history, died of cancer yesterday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Baltimore. He was 76 and a longtime resident of Lutherville.

On his last day at the newspaper in 1991, a Sun editorial stated, "They don't make 'em like Peter Kumpa anymore. No story was too large or too small for Peter to cover with speed, accuracy and clarity that have made him a legend in his time in Baltimore journalism - and far beyond."

"He was the old-style journalist - battered trench coat, heavy smoking, heavy drinking, very hardworking," said his daughter Margaret "Liz" Kumpa Gordon of London.

He was born in Marcinkance, Poland, which is now part of Lithuania, and moved to the United States as a 5-year-old who didn't speak English, his family said. He was an American citizen because his father had been born in the United States.

Mr. Kumpa grew up in south Boston and Brockton, Mass.

He graduated from Boston's prestigious, public Latin School as part of the Class of 1945. But he had left school in 1944 to begin a two-year stint as a World War II Navy medic, serving in the South Pacific.

Upon returning, he graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in 1949 and New York University's Graduate School of International Finance in 1950.

"He didn't think the writing of it was the great skill; he thought having an intellectual knowledge of the world ... was the harder skill" to develop, Mrs. Gordon said.

Mr. Kumpa began at The Sun as a copyboy in its Washington Bureau during college, picking up news releases and getting coffee for reporters. In 1951, he moved to The Sun's Baltimore office as a reporter covering crime news. Among his assignments was Maryland's last hanging - the botched 1954 execution of convicted killer G. Edward Grammer.

He returned to the Washington Bureau in 1954, and later was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and White House correspondent. After a year at Harvard University on a Nieman fellowship, he became The Sun's Moscow correspondent from 1958 to 1961, covering Vice President Richard M. Nixon's historic visit and the spy trial of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Kumpa returned to the United States and covered civil rights, including the 1963 march on Washington and the 1965 march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., as well as several political campaigns. He then reported on the Vietnam War for six months in 1965 before settling in as Hong Kong bureau chief from 1966 to 1970.

After a stint covering diplomats and the United Nations, he became chief of the Washington Bureau from 1972 to 1975.

His last foreign assignment was in London from 1975 to 1979. He then joined The Evening Sun as a columnist, writing about history and politics.

"Peter had this fascination with politicians and their views and their foibles," said Ernest F. Imhoff, a former editor and reporter at both Sun newspapers. "Peter just loved politics. He loved the color of it and the flavor, the crooked politicians and the honest politicians."

Mr. Kumpa wore thick, black-framed glasses, and typed as fast as 70 words per minute - always using two fingers.

Mr. Kumpa's strength, his colleagues said, was his dogged reporting.

"He could write well off the top of his head about a lot of subjects, and when he couldn't write off the top of his head, he did the research," said James Keat, a former assistant managing editor at The Sun.

His columns on Maryland history were a precursor to his next job after retirement - as a state Senate historian. But he continued to write occasional guest columns on history for The Sun. His last offering appeared on Memorial Day in 1998.

After retiring from state government in 1998, Mr. Kumpa spent many hours tending his organic garden, always while wearing a baseball cap.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Kumpa is survived by his wife of 48 years, the former Margaret Anne Balch; three other daughters, Jacqueline Anne "Jaja" Kumpa Milanesi of Boston, and Katherine Balch Kumpa and Lydia Rouse Kumpa, both of Baltimore; three sisters, Frances Valente of Phoenix, Ariz., Rita Sukola of Blaine, Wash., and Anna Becker of Tacoma, Wash.; and five grandchildren.

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