A.M. "Abe" Rosenthal, 84, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who became chief editor of the New York Times and played a key role in modernizing the Gray Lady of American journalism for the new century, died May 10 at Mount Sinai medical center in Manhattan. He had a major stroke two weeks ago.

Mr. Rosenthal's career at the Times spanned 55 years, from 1944, when he began as a cub reporter, to 1999, when he retired as the writer of "On My Mind," a column on the op-ed page. When he left the Times, he took his column to the New York Daily News and continued there until 2004.

In 2002, President Bush conferred on him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, along with Katharine Graham, the late chairwoman of The Washington Post Co.

A passionate, driven man, Mr. Rosenthal was ruthless in his pursuit of perfection as he saw it and was never entirely satisfied with his own work or that of others. He was a brilliant and visceral judge of the news. He had boundless curiosity about the world. He often viewed it with a sense of outrage -- at tyranny, at all forms of injustice and exploitation, at stupidity, incompetence and "unfairness."

His first big break came in 1946, when he got a two-week assignment to cover the United Nations. He stayed on the beat for eight years. His first foreign assignment was India, where he was posted in 1954. He later worked in Poland and Japan, but India retained a special fascination for him. He once traveled 1,500 rugged miles to have a dateline that read "At the Khyber Pass."

In 1958, he moved to Poland and the next year was expelled by the government for delving too deeply into its affairs. In 1960, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his dispatches from Poland. A story he wrote after visiting the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland has become a classic of journalism.

"The most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka (the Polish name for Birkenau) the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon and on the grass near the gates children played," he wrote.

"And so there is no news to report from Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died there."

In 1963, Mr. Rosenthal was summoned to New York from Tokyo to become metropolitan editor. By 1969, he had become managing editor, and in 1977 he was named executive editor. For 17 years, until 1987, when he became an op-ed columnist, he was responsible for the news operation at the Times.

(The editorial page at the Times and at some other papers, including The Washington Post, is run by an entirely separate hierarchy that reports directly to the publisher. It is a distinction that remains extremely important to papers where the division is maintained.)

As a manager, Mr. Rosenthal was said to be abrasive and self-centered. A diminutive, bespectacled figure, he had a volcanic temper. Many found him intimidating. He advanced the careers of many journalists and derailed the careers of others. He was a constant source of friction and controversy in the Times newsroom. Admirers and critics spoke of him with equal fervor.

Arthur Gelb, a friend of Mr. Rosenthal's who also was the Times's managing editor, once offered this explanation of the Rosenthal character: "In every field, in every art, if you talk to an artist who has a very keen mind, you will find they are very restless. Anyone who is truly creative has a restlessness and natural impatience with others."

There was never any question about Mr. Rosenthal's impact on the Times. He insisted on good writing and sent his reporters on stories that often were ignored by other publications -- and might have been missed by the Times except for his guidance.

He expanded coverage in every direction. The religion page, for example, became a venue for discussion of broad theological and philosophical questions rather than a summary of sermons.

Reader-friendly stories and features were added and given prominent display. New emphasis was placed on covering sports and the city itself. The daily paper went from two sections to four. The business report became a separate section. SportsMonday, Weekend and Science Times sections were published on different days of the week. Coverage of topics such as food and the arts was expanded.

At a time when many newspapers in New York and elsewhere in the country were losing readers, the Times's circulation increased and its financial health improved dramatically, due to its expanding national and regional editions.

Notable stories that Mr. Rosenthal assigned included the case of Kitty Genovese, who was fatally stabbed in her quiet Queens neighborhood. What had started as a brief crime report became a lengthy examination of why 38 people heard her screams for help without helping her or even calling police.

Mr. Rosenthal wrote a book about the incident, "Thirty-Eight Witnesses," in which he raised this question: "What was the apathy of the people of Austin Street compared, let's say, with the apathy of non-Nazi Germans toward Jews?"

Another memorable story Mr. Rosenthal ordered was about Daniel Burros, 28, the blond and blue-eyed leader of the Ku Klux Klan in New York and the No. 2 man in the American Nazi Party, headed by George Lincoln Rockwell.

After the Times wrote about Burros, Mr. Rosenthal got a tip from a friend that Burros was Jewish and had celebrated his bar mitzvah. When a reporter confronted Burros about his past, he said he would kill himself if it was publicized. The next day, the Times carried the story on the front page, and the next night, Burros committed suicide.

The Times was widely criticized, but Mr. Rosenthal expressed no regrets.

"He was who he was, he did what he did, and I no more would feel guilty of saying that a certain person robbed a bank," Mr. Rosenthal told an interviewer. "Was I happy that he killed himself? Of course not. I did not feel that we had done anything but the appropriate thing. It was he who was misappropriating his life, both in what he was doing and how he chose to end it. There were other ways he could have ended it -- he could have quit!"

In 1971, Mr. Rosenthal played an important role in the Times's publication of the Pentagon Papers, a landmark event in the history of journalism. The papers detailed 25 years of U.S. involvement and deception in Vietnam. The archive of several thousand pages was classified as secret, and the management of the Times expected the government to object to the project.

Mr. Rosenthal, by then the managing editor, put his credibility and career on the line by marshaling the arguments to go ahead anyway. He was supported by the publisher, the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.

On the second day of a planned multipart series, the Justice Department went to court to block publication. There followed two weeks of frantic litigation in courts in New York and Washington and an expedited appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the Times was joined by The Washington Post. In the end, a divided court affirmed the First Amendment right of the newspapers to bring the information to their readers.

Mr. Rosenthal regarded his greatest contribution to the Times as his effort to keep the news report "straight." By that he meant free of bias and editorializing on the part of reporters.

"I used to tell new reporters: The Times is far more flexible in writing styles than you might think, so don't button up your vest and go all stiff on us," he wrote in his farewell column for the Times. "But when it comes to the foundation -- fairness -- don't fool around with it, or we will come down on you."

Mr. Rosenthal gave up the executive editorship of the Times at the end of 1986 and was succeeded by Max Frankel. His first column on the op-ed page appeared Jan. 6, 1987. His last column for the paper was published Nov. 5, 1999.

As a columnist, Mr. Rosenthal's subjects ranged from the evils of the drug trade -- "helping make criminals and destroying young minds" -- to all forms of political, ethnic and religious repression, from China and Tibet to Africa, Europe and the Americas. He had a special interest in the security of Israel and made regular visits to the country.

Abraham Michael Rosenthal was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the fifth child and only son of Harry and Sara Rosenthal. His father was born Harry Shipiatski in Byelorussia (today's Belarus) but took the name Rosenthal from an uncle in London on his way to Canada in 1903.

He was a trapper and fur trader before moving the family to New York in the early 1930s and settling in the Bronx, where he became a house painter. He died of injuries suffered in a fall from a scaffold when his son was 12.

As a teenager, Mr. Rosenthal lost his four sisters to various illnesses. He contracted osteomyelitis, a bone disease, and used a cane or crutches. He regained his mobility after being taken in by the Mayo Clinic as a charity patient.

He attended what was then called City College of New York. Although tuition was free, he used to say, it was more than he could afford. He worked on the school newspaper and was a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune. When the Times stringer at the college was drafted for World War II service in 1943, he took his job. He became a full-time reporter in 1944.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1951. He kept a plaque marking the occasion on his office wall.

His marriage to Ann Marie Burke Rosenthal ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, the writer Shirley Lord Rosenthal, who lives in Manhattan; three sons from his first marriage, Jonathan Rosenthal of Clifton, Daniel Rosenthal of Milford, N.J., and Andrew Rosenthal, a New York Times deputy editorial page editor who lives in Montclair, N.J; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Staff writer Joe Holley contributed to this obituary, which was written by J.Y. Smith, former obituary editor of The Washington Post. Smith died in January.