J.Y. Smith, 74; Raised Standards for Post Obituaries

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

J.Y. Smith, 74, a former foreign correspondent who transformed the backwater reputation of The Washington Post obituaries desk as its first official editor, died Jan. 17 at his home in Annandale. He had lung cancer.

"Joe" Smith was a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a sinewy Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War. Fourteen months on the front lines proved a shattering experience that influenced a gruffer aspect of his personality. But he also was a graduate of the exclusive Choate private school in Wallingford, Conn., and Harvard University, and in middle age he developed a consuming interest in dressage and fox hunting.

Capable of displaying great courtliness, almost to the point of an F. Scott Fitzgerald hero, he also could be unpredictable and moody. Some colleagues joked it was risky to change his copy, if only because he let it be known that he really liked guns.

Mr. Smith arrived at The Post in 1965 after several years with the United Press International wire service, lastly as bureau manager in Poland. As an assistant foreign editor at The Post, he contributed admirably to coverage of the Middle East War of 1967.

Starting in 1969, Mr. Smith began long service on the metropolitan staff. Initially, he had great latitude as a "Virginia rover" and wrote about everything from the state Supreme Court to Franklin County moonshiners, bringing home a quart of the strong liquid given to him by a beverage control agent.

Later based in the District, Mr. Smith helped cover the trial of the Hanafi Muslims who in 1977 armed themselves heavily, took hostages and shot up a city government building, the Islamic Center and B'nai B'rith International. One person was killed.

Until that time, Metro editors routinely tapped young, inexperienced or bored-looking staffers to write the major obits that flashed across the wire. The "anybody free?" method had persisted even as The Post emerged as a national newspaper in the early 1970s by publishing the Pentagon Papers and breaking the Watergate scandal.

The Post's obit tactics at the time contrasted embarrassingly with policies in force at other leading papers, from the Times of London to the New York Times, which had dedicated staff members to craft prominent obituaries.

Mr. Smith had a complex history at The Post. He was admired for the crispness of his storytelling and the breadth of his capabilities, but he also was an alcoholic and his addiction made him erratic for years until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and quit drinking in 1983.

Leonard Downie Jr., a younger colleague who is now executive editor, said Mr. Smith "could do anything" and retained the allure of a "gruff-voiced, hard-bitten veteran journalist" who had been a foreign correspondent and exuded an appreciation of history.

In 1977, Downie had a large part in Mr. Smith being named the obituaries editor.

The beginning was not particularly easy, with Mr. Smith writing on deadline about figures as diverse as silent-film genius Charlie Chaplin and Hitler associate Albert Speer. He managed many gems despite the immediacy of deadlines.

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