Mary Lou Forbes, 83

Mary Lou Forbes, 83; Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

Mary Lou Forbes first sought an accounting job at the Washington Star, but thrived in the newsroom.
Mary Lou Forbes first sought an accounting job at the Washington Star, but thrived in the newsroom. (1984 Photo By The Washington Times)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mary Lou Forbes, a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 at the Washington Star for her coverage of Virginia school desegregation and became founding editor of the Washington Times's Commentary opinion page, died June 27 at Inova Alexandria Hospital of breast cancer. She was 83.

Mrs. Forbes began her career at the Star as a 17-year-old copy girl. Rapidly promoted to reporter, she made her greatest impact during the 1950s reporting on "massive resistance" in Virginia to race-mixing in public schools, an effort pushed by the political machine of then-U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. and which worked to shut down public schools rather than integrate.

The Star, which folded in 1981, was an afternoon paper, and Mrs. Forbes faced intense early deadline pressures on a major beat. She mostly dictated her stories to the main office, and she said it was crucial to get the wording precise on the first try.

Her dispatches won a Pulitzer for local reporting, and the citation praised "her comprehensive year-long coverage of the integration crisis in Virginia which demonstrated admirable qualities of accuracy, speed and the ability to interpret the news under deadline pressure in the course of a difficult and taxing assignment."

Mary Lou Werner was born June 21, 1926, in Alexandria and raised by her widowed mother. After graduating in 1942 from George Washington High School, she began studying math at the University of Maryland, but her family's finances led her to quit school and seek employment.

She initially applied for a job at the Star's accounting department, but the job was taken and she was directed to the newsroom. There she said she thrived, as long as editors did not think she was married or planning to have children.

In the late 1950s, she became one of the paper's first female editors. When she was hired, she recalled, the newsroom's top executive asked her, "Do you think that men will take orders from you?"

After her Pulitzer victory, she rose through the Star's editing ranks and also worked for the opinion page. When the paper closed, she shared a byline for its obituary.

In 1965, she married James D. Forbes, a dairy executive. He died in 2002. Survivors include a son, James W. Forbes of Alexandria.

Mrs. Forbes joined the fledgling Washington Times in 1984 and started the Commentary section, which features opinion writing distinct from the op-ed page. Where the op-ed page of the Times featured guest columnists, the Commentary section features professional columnists such as Cal Thomas and Michael Barone.

"Our mission," she once wrote, "is to question what passes as conventional wisdom, turning to those with the credentials to write with authority on issues that others accept with temerity."

In 1992, the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists inducted her into its hall of fame.

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