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Posted at 09:55 AM ET, 01/02/2010

Remembering Post ombud DEB HOWELL

It is one of my favorite stories about cartoonists, for which the tales and anecdotes and fabled shenanigans are legion:

Some years back, Mike Luckovich and at least several other editorial cartoonists were attending a national political convention and, in the journalistic tradition of any self-respecting staff cartoonist, wanted to crash a few convention parties. The simplest way to do that? Luckovich and the rest of the merry band, all clean cut and wearing sunglasses and suitably dark suits, unclipped coiled phone-receiver cords from handy office-style phones and tucked one end down their crisp white collars while putting the other end of the coil to their ear.

Voilà! The roaming band of hard-partying cartoonists crashed unquestioned because really -- at such a pre-Salahi gathering, who questions someone who looks for all the world like a member of the security staff, perhaps even the Secret Service?

That story was related to me by former Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, who has died at age 68, reportedly killed in a roadside accident while vacationing in New Zealand. Shocked and saddened deeply by the news, I share the above cartoonists' anecdote because Deb's mere telling of it encapsulates so much about this dedicated journalist and generous friend.

First, the anecdote speaks to Deb's utter love of not only cartooning, but also cartoonists. She rejoiced in "Doonesbury" and Opus the Penguin, yet her delight in cartoons was deepened appreciably by getting to know some of the creators personally.

In 2008, during the heat of the presidential election, legendary political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant drew a controversial cartoon that depicted Sarah Palin speaking in tongues. The cartoon appeared on The Post's Web site, sparking more than 750 reader complaints. It quickly became clear: Either Deb or I was going to have to call Oliphant for comment.

Little to my surprise, Deb had known Oliphant for years, had befriended him. The sure proof: She had a signed, personalized Oliphant original in her office. As I sat admiring the draftsmanship and craft of the Oliphant original, I let Deb make the call.

When Deb cleared out her Post office upon retiring at the end of 2008, she warmly, thoughtfully gifted me with some of her cartoon originals, of which she had many. One she said she just could not part with was the Oliphant. Her affection was too great.

The Cartoonists-as-Security Anecdote reveals another powerfully great trait about Deb. After she relayed the story to me, admitting she couldn't recall some of the details, she said perhaps the truest words any journalist can speak: "Check out the story for yourself."

Not every Post reader, not even every Post colleague, knew what a storied journalist Deb was. She was one of the first women ever to lead a top newspaper, guiding the St. Paul Pioneer Press to two Pulitzers. She was Washington bureau chief for the Newhouse newspaper chain, which during her time there won a Pulitzer. And coming out of a family tradition of Texas newspapering, she was simply as committed a journalist as you could find.

Which is why I took her advice. I called Luckovich, the great Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoonist. Luckovich not only confirmed the story -- he also filled in colorful details. Bottom line: Even with the most casual anecdote, Deb had gotten the story right.

Now, all my sources check out again: Deb was a pioneering editor, a consummate dogged journalist, an enormous supporter of newspaper cartooning and cartoonists and as big as Texas in her generosity and friendship.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Check out her story for yourself.

(ADDENDUM: In his book "Four More Wars," Luckovich tells of doing the same phone-cord stunt with Mike Peters at the White House Correspondents Dinner. And in a CNN interview after the 2000 Democratic National Convention, Luckovich spoke about pulling the same prank with several cartoonists, including Chip Bok, and humorist Dave Barry.)

By  |  09:55 AM ET, 01/02/2010

Categories:  General | Tags:  Deborah Howell

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