In Memoriam: Don Moser

Donald B. Moser

During his 20 years as the top editor of Smithsonian magazine, Don Moser brought millions of readers with him as he followed the whims of his own curiosity. He seldom had an overt presence in the pages of Smithsonian, but his interests, tastes and quiet guiding hand helped the monthly magazine become one of the country’s most popular publications.

Mr. Moser, who ran Smithsonian from 1981 to 2001, died Dec. 8, 2013 at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 81.

He had Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Penny Moser, said.

Smithsonian magazine was launched in 1970 as a coffee-table reflection of the intellectual aspirations of the Smithsonian Institution. Its first editor, Edward K. Thompson, had been one of Mr. Moser’s mentors at Life magazine.

Together, they brought some of the DNA of the fabled weekly picture magazine to Washington and threaded it into the pages of their new publication. Smithsonian soon became renowned for its exceptional photography, but Mr. Moser broadened its scope and made it a canvas for colorful storytelling in both pictures and words.

“At Smithsonian, you get to cover everything from Motown to Mars,” he said in a 2001 interview with the magazine. “You have terrific writers and photographers to work with. And you have wonderful readers, who tend to think of themselves as part of the family, which indeed they are.”

Don Moser, courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

Don Moser, courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

He sought out articles that aimed to explain the full reach of human — and often animal — experience. There was only one kind of journalism he would not tolerate: “He was adamantly opposed to celebrity coverage in any way, shape or form,” Kathleen Burke, a senior editor at the magazine.

“He didn’t settle for the expected,” added Jim Doherty, another longtime Smithsonian editor, “so that’s why we had stories on square dancing, stagehands, truck stops, innovative teachers or professors, wildlife and science.”

Mr. Moser’s eclectic vision found a warm reception among readers, and the magazine’s circulation rose to about 2.2 million under his tenure. (It is now 2.1 million.) He assigned stories on everything from solar eclipses to antique watches to impressionist painting, and he instituted a policy that every letter or e-mail should get a personal response.

Donald Bruce Moser was born Oct. 19, 1932, in Cleveland. His father was a draftsman with a metal manufacturing company.

After attending Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, for two years in the 1950s, he worked as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service and served in the Army. Mr. Moser graduated as an English major in 1957 from Ohio University, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He then studied fiction writing at Stanford University with novelist Wallace Stegner and attended the University of Sydney on a Fulbright fellowship. In 1962, he published a book of his photographs and writings about Olympic National Park in the state of Washington.

Mr. Moser joined Life magazine in 1961 as a military affairs writer, became Los Angeles bureau chief in 1964, then moved to Hong Kong, his base for covering the Vietnam War. Some of his reporting was reprinted in the Library of America anthology Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969.”

After Life folded in 1972, Mr. Moser wrote a novel for young readers, “A Heart to the Hawks,” articles for National Geographic magazine, and books on travel and nature for Time-Life. He joined Smithsonian as an editor in 1977, then took over the top job four years later.

Like the magazine he edited, Mr. Moser had many interests, including astronomy, archaeology, birding and rescuing abandoned animals. He traveled widely on fishing expeditions, always releasing whatever he caught.

In recent years, he and his wife of 37 years, Penny Ward Moser, lived mostly in Sag Harbor, but they maintained a home in Washington. Other survivors include two brothers.

(This is an edited version of the obituary written by Matt Schudel that was published by the Washington Post on Dec. 31, 2013)

Posted: 10 January 2014
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