By J. Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Elsie M. Carper, 87, a retired reporter, editor and administrator at The Washington Post whose career ranged from covering the civil rights movement to editing the newspaper's Style section and promoting opportunities in journalism for women and minorities, died May 16 of complications from a series of strokes at her home in Huntingtown.
Ms. Carper was the first woman named an assistant managing editor at The Post, in 1972. When she retired in 1989, Katharine Graham, a former chairman of the company, described her as "one of the most remarkable people ever to walk through the doors of The Washington Post. In a career that has spanned a half-century, [she] has left an indelible mark on The Post as an institution and on the lives of hundreds of people in the journalistic community."
A lifelong resident of Washington and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University, Ms. Carper joined the paper as a part-time file clerk in the library in 1939. She became a full-time library employee two years later. During World War II, when many of the men working in the newsroom were called to military service, she got her chance at reporting. In subsequent decades, she alternated between writing and editing assignments.
When she began, the media world was overwhelmingly male and, like other institutions in national life at the time, segregated by race. "White" papers largely ignored the black community, and "black" papers reciprocated in kind. Front-page "news" generally meant politics, crime or sports. Education and family issues were relegated to the "society" pages or covered not at all. "Life styles" was a term that had not yet entered the language, much less become the focus of serious inquiry by journalists.
Although not widely known to the public, Ms. Carper was both an instigator and a beneficiary of the changes that have taken place in the profession over the years, particularly in respect to how news is defined, who covers it and who makes the decisions.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said in a memo to the newspaper staff yesterday that Ms. Carper was a "legendary" journalist who was "talented, tough and slyly funny."
In the late 1940s, having become the first Post reporter assigned to education on a full-time basis, she was the first writer on a newspaper of general circulation to cover black schools in the then-segregated D.C. public school system. In 1949, she was the first woman elected president of the Washington Newspaper Guild. In the early 1950s, as personnel manager of The Post, she led the paper in hiring the first African Americans to work in the advertising, accounting and other commercial departments.
Assigned to cover civil rights in the late 1950s, she traveled widely in the South. A newspaper in Birmingham, Ala., denounced her work in an editorial entitled "Hold On Miss Elsie." In Montgomery, Ala., she once helped a network cameraman smuggle his equipment through a line of demonstrating Ku Klux Klansmen into a church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy were conferring.
She was furious when she was pulled off the beat because it was dangerous and The Post felt it should not put a woman in harm's way. This happened after the Associated Press distributed a picture from Jackson, Miss., of a group of Freedom Riders who had been attacked by segregationists. She was among them, conducting interviews.
Back in Washington, she covered D.C. affairs on Capitol Hill and various government agencies. She went to New York to interview members of a youth gang. She helped cover the riots, burning and looting that broke out in the District in the wake of King's assassination in 1968.
The Style section of The Post made its debut in 1969, and subsequently she led it. Its predecessor, the For and About Women section, had been known for its stories about Embassy Row parties and Washington society. Style gave notice that it was following a different path with its first edition: The lead story, edited by Ms. Carper, told about the first woman to make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
During the great Woodstock rock concert in 1969, she published a rear-end picture of a nude male. It was an unusual thing for a "rather square, rather puritanical type person" to have done, she later remarked, but she noted that the photograph exactly captured the spirit of the event.
The late Henry Mitchell, a Style columnist, wrote at the time of Ms. Carper's retirement that she was "the only person I ever met who 'knew' what Style was." He added: "She was a Puritan and I am not going to define that further except to point out that she did not comprehend laziness in sub-editors and she loathed corner-cutting in reporters."
She ran the section with a firm hand. When a reporter refused to tell her the source of a certain item, she said, "What do you mean you won't tell me? You don't trust me, I don't trust you, the story won't run."
The cause of fair treatment for women was never far from Ms. Carper's mind. She was a leader in efforts to end the men-only policies of the Gridiron Club and the National Press Club. The NPC was a particular target because it was (and is) the site of many speeches and news conferences of visiting dignitaries. Until women were admitted as members in 1971, they had to cover these events from a balcony that did not even have telephones.
But back in 1963, when Ms. Carper became president of the Women's National Press Club, President John F. Kennedy praised her efforts to get the all-male club to change its practices. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the speaker at the luncheon at which she took office, spoke in a similar vein. He also remarked that her "reputation as a journalist is well known to all. She covers both the United States Congress and pollution of the Potomac and never gets them confused."
In 1969, Ms. Carper took Graham to task for an interview in which she said any man could do a better job running the paper than she could. If she really meant that, Ms. Carper said, she would resign.
"Needless to say, I changed my views," Graham said in telling the story at Ms. Carper's retirement. "Elsie helped me understand that setting your sights too low erodes your ability to perform."
In 1972, Ms. Carper, by then covering the environment for the national staff, was asked by a number of female employees to lead them in filing suit on the grounds that The Post was discriminating against them in hiring, assignments and promotions. She suggested that they instead write a petition and send it to Graham and Benjamin C. Bradlee, the executive editor.
The result was that Bradlee made her assistant managing editor in charge of news personnel and with a responsibility to address the issues raised in the petition she had written. She held that job until 1979 and was responsible for hiring a number of men and women, black and white, who went on to notable careers at the paper.
From 1979 until her retirement in 1989, Ms. Carper was assistant managing editor for news administration. She then continued as a consultant to the paper until 1992.
Elsie Mae Carper was born in Washington on Nov. 15, 1919. She graduated from Eastern High School. At GWU, which she attended on a scholarship, she was a member of the debating team. She was Woman Graduate of the Year in 1941.
In 1950, she received the Education Writers Association Award for a series of articles on teaching reading and other basic subjects, and in 1951, she was cited by Delta Kappa Gamma, a national honor society for female educators, for "outstanding reporting on education" and "distinguished service to education." In 1961, she was honored by the Washington Newspaper Guild for a series of articles on school desegregation problems in Prince Edward County, Va.
In 1985, Ms. Carper received the Eugene Meyer Award, which is named after Graham's father and is the highest honor conferred on employees of The Post. In 1990, she was given the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award of George Washington University. In 1993, she was inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame.
In private life, Ms. Carper's interests included music, theater and travel. She was a member of the National Press Club, the Cosmos Club and the Society of Mayflower Descendants. For the past six years, one of her nieces, Amy Plummer, cared for her in her home by the Chesapeake Bay.
Survivors include her sister, Barbara Plummer of Chevy Chase.
Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report. J.Y. Smith, former obituary editor of The Post, wrote this article before his death Jan. 17, 2006.