Alvin P. Sanoff

[ Age 65 ] Former Sun reporter helped launch annual college rankings at U.S. News & World Report

May 21, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN REPORTER

Alvin P. Sanoff, a former Sun reporter who covered the 1968 riots here before moving on to launch U.S. News & World Report's annual "America's Best Colleges" editions, died of pancreatic cancer Thursday at Georgetown University Hospital. The Bethesda resident was 65.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Mr. Sanoff was the son of Russian immigrants who fled the communists and settled eventually in Brookline, Mass., near Boston. His father sold antiques and worked in a family meat business.

Mr. Sanoff graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1959 and entered Harvard University, helping to pay his way through as a soda jerk and with newspaper internships, according to his son, Geoff Sanoff of New York City.

In 1963, Mr. Sanoff graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in sociology, and a year later received his master's in journalism from Columbia University.

"He entered journalism at a time when it was transitioning from the old-school, working-class, hard-drinking ... guys, to the Ivy League, white-collar professional class, and he kind of lamented it," his son said. He felt journalists had become too distant from working-class people and too cozy with the powerful.

After a series of news jobs in Washington, Mr. Sanoff passed up another offer and accepted a position with The Sun in 1967. "While the Baltimore Sun paid less, they seemed more interested in him as an employee," his son said. He also wanted to stay close to Washington and Jane Blakely, a Labor Department employee who would become his wife in 1968.

He covered education and labor for The Sun, and would later write editorials for the Evening Sun. But when riots broke out in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Sanoff was among the reporters sent to cover the unrest. Miss Blakely and another reporter's girlfriend "holed up in my father's apartment while both their boyfriends were in Baltimore, running around trying to avoid getting hurt," Geoff Sanoff said.

"That was a time when there was really turmoil in the schools, particularly in the aftermath of the '68 riots," said John B. O'Donnell, who also covered the riots for The Sun. "The racial tension and animosity went on for years. ... He was an excellent education reporter."

Mr. Sanoff left Baltimore in 1971 to become editorial page editor for the Dayton (Ohio) Journal Herald. In 1977, he joined U.S. New & World Report as an associate editor, covering a broad range of issues in American culture.

From 1992 to 1998, Mr. Sanoff was managing editor of the magazine's annual guides ranking "America's Best Colleges" and "America's Best Graduate Schools."

"Education was something my father felt so strongly about, largely because he himself had been able to escape humble origins because of it, and he felt society needed to make opportunities available to people who worked hard," his son said.

The "America's Best" issues quickly drew controversy. Leaders at schools that fared poorly challenged its methodology.

Sanoff took the criticism "very seriously," his son said, and worked to make the methodology more sophisticated. "His goal was ... not to get the marketing people more applications, but to get people the best information about ... the best values in college education."

Mr. Sanoff's integrity was never at issue, according to an old friend and Harvard classmate, Judge Henry F. Greene, of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

"I've dealt with a lot of reporters over the years," he said. "Al was at the top of his profession, an extraordinarily thorough person. His own skepticism combined with his own integrity made him a terrific reporter."

To whatever extent the college guides were thought to be accurate and honest, Greene said, "it was largely because of Al Sanoff's input. He was untouchable."

After he left U.S. News & World Report in 1998, Mr. Sanoff became an adviser and consultant to colleges, universities and school systems, working to help them improve their long-term planning, marketing and communications.

His goal, Geoff Sanoff said, was not just to help them improve their guide rankings, but to "make the changes in how the schools functioned, helping them figure out what their strengths were and helping people know how to benefit from those strengths."

Mr. Sanoff also continued reporting and writing, his articles appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications.

Mr. Sanoff remained a longtime supporter of Harvard, the Boston Latin School and the Boston Red Sox. He also held season tickets for the Washington Nationals.

He and his wife also enjoyed trips to the beach. But "he was really a work-driven person. He was really driven by ideas," his son said. And he loved to talk. "You never had a conversation with my dad that was five minutes long."

Judge Greene said Mr. Sanoff's courage after his cancer diagnosis was remarkable.

"If anything, in the last six months of his life he was a more outgoing person," Greene recalled. "He never wanted to talk about his disease. ... He would never give me a moment to ask how he was. He was always asking me how I was."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Bethesda Jewish Congregation, 6601 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda. Burial will follow at 12:30 p.m. at Parklawn Cemetery in Rockville.

In addition to wife and his son, Mr. Sanoff is survived by two other sons, Dr. Scott Sanoff of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Michael Sanoff of Bethesda; and one grandson.

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