Michael Powell, 53, top editor of The Frederick News-Post

January 23, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Michael S. Powell, who fought for press access to public records and meetings of public officials as managing editor of The Frederick News-Post and president of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, died yesterday of esophageal cancer complications at his longtime Catonsville home. He was 53.

Mr. Powell was hired by the Frederick newspaper in 1986, after the closing of the Baltimore News American, where he had been a reporter and columnist for 13 years.

"Mike was one of the finest human beings I ever knew. He exuded integrity," said James S. Keat, a former editor for The Sun and a press association colleague.

"He was a great editor who cared deeply about people. He put in a lot of energy into opening meetings and gaining access to public records. The guy was a saint. He never smoked. He never drank. He was the opposite of the public character of a newspaper editor."

"Mike had this indomitable attitude about his life and his work that it was a great gift and opportunity to make things better," said Michael R. Enright, Baltimore's first deputy mayor, who was a Frederick News-Post reporter from 1987 to 1989.

"He never seemed to have a bad day," Mr. Enright said. "He would come bounding into the newsroom full of energy and creativity, thinking how we were going to turn out a great newspaper that day. He was every young reporter's dream editor."

Mr. Powell and his wife of 31 years, the former Anne Parrish, were foster parents to 60 children over the past 15 years, in addition to their four sons and two daughters. They worked with social service agencies to give a temporary home to children whose parents were unable to care for them.

Mr. Powell was born in Oneida, N.Y., and grew up in Wheaton, a Washington suburb. He was a graduate of Wheaton High School and earned a bachelor's degree in business and public administration from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Friends recalled that while he was a reporter on the UM student paper, The Diamondback, he wrote stories about faculty salaries.

In 1973, he impressed editors at the News American, who wanted to give him a job but had only one opening, as typist for the Sunday bridal listings. After consulting with his father, Roland Powell, who was the Washington reporter for The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, he accepted the job and became a staff member in the Women's World section of the paper.

"He would often finish the bridal work early and would use the opportunity to dream up some really good feature stories," said Anne Childress, the paper's former women's and features editor. "He followed the Jones Falls from Baltimore County to the harbor. He also spent a week growing a scruffy beard and went on the street, homeless.

"He also got interested in Hurricane Agnes and followed a rumor that cloud-seeding had been involved. He proved his worth over and over again, and he was a delightful guy."

Joe Nawrozki, a Sun reporter, recalled his years with Mr. Powell as a colleague at the News American.

"In those days, Mike was a barrel-chested triathlete who often rode his bike to work from his Catonsville home. We both were happy when we brought our children to work a lot, so they knew where their fathers were. Mike was a great champion of the underdog and held the newspaper reader at the top of his priority list."

Mr. Nawrozki said that as a columnist, Mr. Powell fit the Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko mold.

"He loved Baltimore stories and could spin them so well because people trusted him. They knew from his actions, not his words, that he would be their advocate when no one else would be," Mr. Nawrozki said.

After the demise of the News American, Mr. Powell turned his energy to running the news operation of the Frederick newspaper. Under his leadership, its staff grew by about 25 percent. Colleagues said he often took phone calls from agitated readers.

"The angrier the person was, he was able to turn their position 180 degrees. As painful as those calls can be, they ended amicably," said Doug Tallman, the Frederick paper's city editor. "He liked grabbing ahold of a reader's eyeballs. He loved the kind of story the whole world would be talking about."

Mr. Tallman said Mr. Powell lived modestly and did not like business lunches. "He would rather eat at McDonald's than any place. On lunch breaks, he played basketball at the Y lot. He'd come back with story ideas."

Mr. Powell was accessible. "If someone asked to meet him, his door was always open," Mr. Tallman said."

He was a longtime officer in the press association and, from 2001 to 2002, its president.

Mr. Powell spent many of his nights and weekends tending to the needs of the foster children. He built additions to his house to accommodate the children, who were often placed with the Powells through Baltimore's Department of Social Services.

Surviving, in addition to his wife, are their four sons, Michael C. Powell and Matthew Gregory Powell, both of Baltimore, James Alexander Powell of Dallas and Eric Keon Powell of Catonsville; two daughters, Megan Powell and Crystal Powell, both of Catonsville; his parents, Helen and Roland Powell of Wheaton; two brothers, Peter Powell of Chicago and Thomas Powell of Harrisonburg, Va.; and two sisters, Mary Tappan of Rockville and Lisa Gossart of West Point, N.Y.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11:30 a.m. Monday at St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church, 27 Melvin Ave. in Catonsville.

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