Penn Kimball, journalist and teacher, dies at 98

Penn Kimball, a journalist and longtime Columbia University professor who sued the federal government in the 1980s after he learned that he was secretly declared a security risk decades earlier, died Nov. 8 at the Brighton Gardens retirement facility in Chevy Chase. He was 98.

A daughter, Lisa Kimball, confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined.

Mr. Kimball was a journalist in the 1940s and 1950s, with stints at Time, the New Republic, the New York Times and CBS-TV. He became a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1959.

What he didn’t know until decades later, however, was that the State Department, the CIA and the FBI had compiled secret dossiers in which he was called a “definite security risk.”

In 1977, under provisions of the relatively new Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Kimball filed a request for any materials the government had about him. After delays of months and sometimes years, the boxes began to arrive.

Penn Kimball, a journalist, author and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, died Nov. 8 in Chevy Chase. He was 98. (Family Photo)

“I was stunned,” Mr. Kimball wrote in his 1983 book, “The File.” “I simply had no idea that for more than half of my life my name had been on file in Washington as a dangerous radical, a disloyal American, a national security risk, a subversive ‘too clever’ to be caught holding a membership card in the Communist Party.”

Mr. Kimball was the very image of a stalwart member of American society: an Eagle Scout, a bow-tie-wearing New Englander, a football player at Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, a Marine Corps captain during World War II, an Ivy League professor.

In 1946, Mr. Kimball took the Foreign Service exam and turned down a State Department assignment to Saigon, then the name of the Vietnamese capital, because he had already accepted an offer from Time magazine.

But the federal background investigations continued for years without his knowledge. As he pored over the heavily censored documents decades later, Mr. Kimball saw comments from unnamed sources suggesting that he had been cozy with communists when he was a journalist. His jobs with the New York Times and with two Democratic governors — Chester Bowles of Connecticut and W. Averell Harriman of New York — were cited as evidence of leftist leanings.

Mr. Kimball believed the secret files sank his chances for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s and for academic fellowships.

“There’s nothing more precious to a man than his character and reputation,” Mr. Kimball told The Washington Post in 1983. “And what the United States government did is take that away from me.”

When repeated efforts to compel the government to divulge its sources were turned down, Mr. Kimball confronted some of them himself.

What truly infuriated him, though, was a CIA packet he received in 1982 indicating that his wife — a real estate agent — was also labeled a security risk. The documents arrived on the same day as his wife’s funeral, Mr. Kimball’s daughter said.

Mr. Kimball wrote his book in an effort to clear not only his name, but his late wife’s.

“If it weren’t so disturbing, the charge that Kimball was a dangerous communist subversive would be laughable,” journalist Jonathan Alter wrote in a 1983 review in Newsweek. “There are two lessons to be learned from ‘The File.’ The first is that we need the Freedom of Information Act. The second is that the government may waste more time and act in dumber ways than even its worst critics imagine.”

A documentary about Mr. Kimball was shown on PBS, and in 1984 he filed a $10 million lawsuit against the federal government to clear his name. Because he was not allowed to see the unexpurgated files himself, he arranged for then-Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.) to read them under tight security on Capitol Hill. Weicker said the government owed Mr. Kimball an apology.

In 1987, the State Department, the CIA and the FBI agreed to purge their files if Mr. Kimball would drop his lawsuit. A federal judge wrote that there was no evidence that either Mr. Kimball or his wife had committed a crime or had been “disloyal to the United States.”

After 40 years, Mr. Kimball finally felt vindicated, but he added: “I don’t think a citizen should have to go to such lengths to force the government to be more accountable for false accusations compiled in its classified files.”

Penn Townsend Kimball II was born Oct. 12, 1915, in New Britain, Conn. His father ran a hardware company.

Mr. Kimball graduated from the private Lawrenceville School in New Jersey as “head boy,” or the top student in his class. At Princeton University, he played center on the football team and was editor in chief of the college newspaper before graduating with honors in 1937. He was a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford in England, where he received a master’s degree in politics and economics in 1939. In Europe, he wrote about the first steps of World War II as a special correspondent for The Washington Post.

In the early 1940s, he worked briefly for the old U.S. News magazine before joining the staff of New York’s experimental PM newspaper — which came under FBI scrutiny for its left-leaning views.

After his Marine Corps service, Mr. Kimball worked for the New Republic and with several Democratic officeholders before serving on the staff of the New York Times from 1951 to 1954. He then joined CBS-TV as an editor and writer for “Omnibus,” a cultural program.

In 1954, according to his daughter, Mr. Kimball developed the idea of having conductor Leonard Bernstein explain works of music to viewers. The concept evolved into Bernstein’s long-running “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS.

Mr. Kimball also worked at Collier’s magazine and for pollster Louis Harris before teaching at Columbia. Over the years, his students included Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld and commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.

After retiring from teaching in 1985, Mr. Kimball stayed at Columbia as a graduate student and received a doctorate in political science in the late 1980s. In addition to “The File,” about his personal ordeal, he wrote several books about politics and urban planning. His final book was “Downsizing the News: Network Cutbacks in the Nation’s Capital” (1994).

He lived in Westport, Conn., and on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., before settling in Chevy Chase four years ago. He was a longtime member of the National Press Club.

His first wife, Janet Fraser Kimball, died in 1982 after 35 years of marriage.

Survivors include his wife of 28 years, Julie Ellis Kimball, of Bonita Springs, Fla.; a daughter from his first marriage, Lisa Kimball, and a daughter from his second marriage, Laura Kimball, both of Washington.

Mr. Kimball described himself as “a cantankerous old man” whose investigative instincts kicked in when he learned of the secret federal documents about him and his wife. After he was officially cleared in 1987, he said, “I refused to believe that you can’t fight the government and bring them to account.’’

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.