Obituary: Sara Fritz / Pioneering female journalist worked for Pittsburgh Press

Dec. 16, 1944 - Oct. 16, 2013

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When Sara Fritz started out in journalism, there were spittoons for men to use around The Pittsburgh Press newsroom, while women had to smoke in the bathroom. When she finished, after a long career in Washington D.C., she'd won some of the field's most prestigious awards, interviewed every living U.S. president and served as president of the White House Correspondents' Association.

Ms. Fritz died Wednesday in Washington, D.C., from a lung infection following hip surgery. She was 68.

"The national press corps has seldom had anyone like Sara," said David M. Shribman, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's executive editor who covered several presidential elections with Ms. Fritz. "She knew the story, but more important, she knew where the story was going. But that's not all. She was smart, humane, fair, funny and fun."

Ms. Fritz grew up in Richland, graduating from Richland High School in 1962. She went to Denison University, interviewing the Supremes in 1966 after a performance in the school gym.

"The issue of marriage and careers was on my mind a lot," she told Denison Magazine in 2011, about the end of her college years. "I knew I wanted my independence, but I didn't know what I would do for a career or how I would do it."

She started that career at The Pittsburgh Press following graduation, making $115 per week and working on the copy desk at a time when news reporting jobs were reserved for men. She then moved to the Pittsburgh and Harrisburg bureaus of United Press International, where she covered events such as Hurricane Agnes.

"She was a tenacious reporter -- she was not someone who ran with the pack," said Dan Balz, a longtime political reporter for the Washington Post, who has known Ms. Fritz since they both worked in Harrisburg. "She had a sense of justice and injustice, and I think that always guided her as a reporter."

She moved to Washington, D.C., to cover the labor beat for UPI, meeting her husband, Jim Kidney, when she supervised the then-Supreme Court reporter during weekend shifts. "I married the boss," he said during an interview Friday.

She spent much of her career in Washington working in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, where she put together a major investigative project on how congressional campaigns spent their money that later became a book.

While at the Los Angeles Times, she won the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for the best reporting on Congress for a series of articles titled "What's Wrong With Congress?" She was once described by the American Journalism Review as "the doyenne of investigative reporting" at the Los Angeles Times.

"Professionally, Sara was a role model in an era when women emerged as serious, competitive journalists in Washington," said Mary Leonard, former deputy managing editor of the Post-Gazette and a longtime friend of Ms. Fritz. "She loved her family and friends as much as her career."

As a pioneer for women in journalism, she occasionally navigated tricky waters. She raised eyebrows when she knit while covering the Iran-contra hearings, said her husband. Decades later, she taught a knitting class to the staff while she headed the St. Petersburg Times' Washington bureau.

Her personal life intersected with her work in far more serious circumstances in 2003, when she wrote a lengthy article in the St. Petersburg Times three years after the suicide of her 12-year-old son, Daniel. Daniel's depression was misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder by multiple doctors, she wrote, and the ADHD drugs that he was prescribed may have contributed to his death.

"My husband, Jim Kidney, and I have chosen to share our story of Daniel's life and death as a cautionary tale for parents of all children, whether they appear to be troubled or not," she wrote. "Many child and teen suicides could be prevented, experts say, if parents and professionals were more attentive and better informed about what causes kids to take their lives."

In part because of the stress of dealing with her son's death, she eventually decided to retire from journalism, said her husband, when she was managing editor at Congressional Quarterly.

"She really couldn't stand retirement," he said, and she jumped into the nonprofit world. She served as executive director of Faith and Politics, editor of Youth Today and had initiated a reconciliation project in Prince Edward County, Va., where schools were closed for five years rather than face integration. She recently completed the manuscript for a book about the closure of the public schools there, said Mr. Kidney, and heard the day before her lung infection hit that an agent was interested.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Fritz is survived by a daughter, Mary of Chicago, and sisters Judy Farr Demitras of Scott, and Marjorie Henderson of Loveland, Ohio. Interment will be private, and a memorial service is being planned for mid-November.

Memorial gifts in Ms. Fritz's name should be sent to the Daniel M. Kidney Memorial Scholarship Fund at Denison University, where Ms. Fritz was a life trustee.

obituaries

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM


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