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Journalist Benjamin F. Holman, 76; Advised Nixon, Ford on Racial Issues

Ben Holman broke barriers in Chicago, as the first black reporter at the Daily News and the first black journalist in TV news in that city, at WBBM.
Ben Holman broke barriers in Chicago, as the first black reporter at the Daily News and the first black journalist in TV news in that city, at WBBM. (Philip Merrill College Of Journalism)

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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Benjamin F. Holman, 76, a pioneering newspaper and television reporter who also worked for the Justice Department and at the University of Maryland as a journalism professor, died Jan. 20 of complications from emphysema and congestive heart failure at George Washington University Hospital. He lived in Greenbelt.

Mr. Holman, who broke through color barriers in the media, spent eight years as director of community relations in the Nixon and Ford administrations, where he held the status of assistant attorney general and was the Justice Department's highest-ranking black person. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s, he crisscrossed the country to help mediate racial disputes.

A year after going to the University of Maryland in 1978, and without the credentials of a doctorate, Mr. Holman became a full professor at what is now the university's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He played a key role in building the journalism program and in mentoring hundreds of students over 25 years before retiring in 2004.

Mr. Holman drew from his experiences to teach courses in newspaper, radio and television reporting and in covering sports, homelessness and racial issues. He served on several committees, edited the independent faculty newspaper and was acting dean of the journalism school in 1980 and 1981. He was a force on campus, both respected and loved, said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the journalism school.

"Over the years, I can't tell you how many former students made a point of telling me how influential Ben Holman was to them, not only in terms of their careers, but their lives," he said on the school's Web site.

Mr. Holman, who went by Ben, was born in Columbia, S.C. At age 4, his father died, and his mother moved with him and his sister to Bloomfield, N.J. As a youngster, he dreamed of writing musicals -- to combine his passion for writing and music, his sister said -- and also of training to be an engineer. But by his junior year in high school, he knew he wanted to become a journalist.

After finishing at the top of his high school class, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and then went on to graduate first in his class with a journalism degree from the University of Kansas. He later pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago.

He spent two years in the Army in Germany as a driver with the historical division. He said he felt exiled in the motor pool, knowing that he was equipped to do more. But, he also wrote in his unfinished memoir, "by the time I had finished my Army tour in Germany, I had learned to fit comfortably in a bi-racial lifestyle."

Mr. Holman entered journalism as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News at a time when only a few African Americans worked at large-city daily newspapers. He remained the Daily News's first and lone black reporter for 10 years, often challenging white and black communities with his coverage. His series about problems in the Black Muslim movement, which the paper promoted by putting his picture on the sides of delivery trucks, led to him being beaten by those who did not like his reporting.

In 1962, Mr. Holman reported for radio in Chicago before becoming the first African American in television news in Chicago, at CBS's WBBM-TV. He later joined CBS News in New York as a reporter.

The Johnson administration sought him in 1965, and he was named assistant director of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service. He created media relations programs to help the media deal with racial problems during the volatile days of the civil rights movement.

He was a network producer with NBC in Washington and an on-air correspondent for NBC News for a year. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed him director of the Community Relations Service. His appointment was renewed by President Gerald R. Ford.

As the chief adviser on the nation's racial issues to the U.S. attorney general and the president, Mr. Holman dealt with the desegregation of public accommodations and schools; busing; police and community relations; and immigration, among other issues.

In his roles at the Justice Department and the University of Maryland, Mr. Holman was a peacemaker who "liked to walk around and do business on his feet," said Reese Cleghorn, a professor and former dean of the journalism school.

Survivors include his sister, Lillie Mae Holman of Bloomfield.


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