With the future of the Boston Herald at stake in 1988, political reporter Wayne Woodlief spent days stalking Senator Edward M. Kennedy, posing the same question wherever he went: “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?”
Mr. Woodlief, a mild-mannered Virginia native who spent more than 30 years at the Boston Herald as a reporter and columnist, was part of a reporting team that revealed Kennedy’s behind-the-scenes legislative moves against the scrappy conservative tabloid and its owner, Rupert Murdoch.
“Kennedy’s Vendetta,” the paper’s headlines declared amid revelations that the senator had quietly maneuvered legislation into a catch-all spending bill that would prevent regulators from reconsidering rules preventing Murdoch from owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.
Mr. Woodlief’s dogged, yet gentlemanly, pursuit of the senator epitomized his devotion to freedom of the press and his character, friends said. “He wasn’t rude about it. He was passionately sincere,” said his former Herald colleague Ed Cafasso.
“To him, it was more than just a classic story about the use of political power for retribution. It was an attack on journalism and freedom of expression, a shady deal designed to rig the game,” Cafasso said.
Mr. Woodlief, who covered every US presidential election from 1968 to 2004, was remembered as a lifelong student of politics, a gifted wordsmith, and mentor to many journalists. He died on Aug. 12 at Springhouse Senior Living in Jamaica Plain after a period of declining health and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82.
“He was the real deal and a class act, always fair, always kind,” said Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley.
O’Malley was a 15-year-old grocery store clerk in West Roxbury when he first met Mr. Woodlief, who was in line. “He always paid by check. We would often joke that Roche Brothers was a master class in getting ready for politics,” O’Malley said.
When O’Malley went off to college in the late ’90s, Mr. Woodlief would mail him packets of his columns. It was a letter O’Malley said he always looked forward to receiving.
Mr. Woodlief’s newsroom colleagues recognized his calming influence on an often chaotic newsroom by creating a quirky award dubbed “The Freddies.” The Freddies honored a staff member who most embodied the qualities of the TV father played by actor Fred MacMurray on “My Three Sons.”
Like MacMurray’s character, Mr. Woodlief smoked a pipe and wore house slippers. But Mr. Woodlief wore his in the office.
His columns were usually heavy on history, political context, and a deep devotion to the underdog. His views were often at odds with his colleague and felllow Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald, but they maintained an office friendship.
“We ribbed and teased each other so mercilessly that our friendship began to resemble a comedy routine,” Fitzgerald wrote in the Herald. “In retirement, he’d occasionally drop a note or leave a voice-mail message, offering a jabbing review of something written here just to show he hadn’t lost his fastball, but always concluding with a warm suggestion we meet for a cup of coffee.”
Over the years, Mr. Woodlief smoothed over his relationship with Kennedy, according to Herald editorial page editor Rachelle Cohen.
“Wayne Woodlief had a kind word for everyone he met,” Cohen said. “He brought civility and even grace to a highly competitive profession and to the often uncivil world of politics that he covered.”
Murdoch was eventually forced to sell the paper so his corporation could legally own WFXT Channel 25.
Born in Henderson, N.C., in 1935, Mr. Woodlief was the oldest of seven children, son of Milton and Maggie Florene (Ellington). His father was a laborer in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
He graduated from Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., and was later inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. In 1957, he earned a degree in political science from Duke University.
Mr. Woodlief got his start in journalism as a sportswriter covering games for free for his local paper. “He wanted to get to the games and he came from a poor family,” said his daughter Rawn Woodlief Ugwuoke.
In the rare columns in which Mr. Woodlief included details about his own life, he said he grew up painfully shy. He idolized baseball great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, and he wrote several columns honoring Robinson.
“Even if I never did acquire the skills to play ball, I learned a lot about life from Jackie Robinson. He had worked hard to keep his temper in check. So maybe I could overcome shyness if I worked at it. It was nothing like what he was going through. But he was my model.
“His example so inspired me that by the time I became a reporter in Norfolk during the ’60s, I had developed a keen sense for fair play and a lifelong loathing of injustice,” Mr. Woodlief wrote.
Amid the social turmoil of the 1960s, Mr. Woodlief switched from sportswriting to covering the civil rights movement in the South for the Norfolk Ledger-Star. He later worked in The Virginian-Pilot/Ledger-Star’s Washington bureau.
In 1966, Mr. Woodlief was named a Nieman Fellow in journalism at Harvard, partly in recognition of his civil rights reporting. He joined the Herald’s Washington bureau in 1974.
“Wayne was one of the gentlest souls and most giving veteran journalists I’ve met. He was as cool as the John Wayne characters he so admired . . . I can’t say I’ve met a nicer guy,” said another former Herald colleague, Gary Witherspoon.
Mr. Woodlief had two children with his first wife, Vern Andrews. They divorced after 18 years of marriage.
His son, Mark, recalled attending several national political conventions with his father as a boy. He remembered standing in the lobby of a hotel during one convention when a voice called out his father’s name. “It was Jesse Jackson,” Mark said. “We rode the elevator with Jesse Jackson and his son.”
Mr. Woodlief and his son also attended several NCAA Final Four basketball games together, rooting for their alma mater, Duke. “He really enjoyed those games. He wasn’t just a homer. He loved quality sports and athletics and appreciated the competition,” Mark said.
In 1990, Mr. Woodlief married child psychologist and author Norine Johnson. They edited each other’s work and enjoyed long walks in Arnold Arboretum. She died in 2011 at age 75 after a recurrence of breast cancer.
In addition to his son, Mark, of Portland, Ore., and his daughter, Rawn, of Orlando, Fla., Mr. Woodlief leaves a sister, Patricia Willey of Goose Creek, S.C.; three brothers, Richard of Berwyn, Pa., Michael of Chesapeake, Va., and Gerry, of Long Beach, N.J.; three stepdaughters, Kathryn Johnson Wedge of Westford, Cammarie Johnson Burlile of Westborough, and Margaret Johnson Fraidin of Bethesda, Md.; and 10 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 23 in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Former Herald political reporter David Guarino, who started at the paper in 2000, said Mr. Woodlief was a cherished mentor to many.
“At a time when journalism was turning on its head, Wayne kept true faith with its roots. He never gave up on people, he never gave up on the hard work that made good politics and good journalism work. And he never stopped listening — ever.
“Wayne was one of those special people who always seemed to have time — no matter your place, station or lot in life. He taught and reminded me that everyone has a story to tell, if you have time to listen,” Guarino said.
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.