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Farewell Deborah "Debbie" Howell

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This isn't the way it was supposed to end. If Debbie could have written her last chapter, she would have been standing in the middle of a crowded newsroom shouting out orders to a fleet of grumbling reporters.

Glasses half perched on her nose, Debbie would have looked down over an unruly band of scribes and sent us off to cover some fast-breaking story. "Don't come back until you've got it!" she would have insisted.

And so "Debbie" -- as I will always call her from my days in the Twin Cities -- we should have been there warning you not to step out into the highway in New Zealand. Stop, turn around ... don't go out there.

She just wanted to shoot a roadside photo to remember the surreal mountain landscape. Something to preserve the moment, something to share with her network of friends in the journalism community. Something to show the grandkids.

So the phone rang shortly before midnight on New Year's Day, long after we had celebrated how 2010 would ring in a peaceful decade. "I've got some bad news," a good friend at the Washington Post said. Debbie Howell was struck down mid-day on a quiet road, while her husband waited inside the car. They were vacationing at a place she had always dreamed of seeing.

There are tributes rolling in calling her a legendary journalist, a salty newsroom pro who overcame huge barriers to make it in a world once completely dominated by white men. I knew her as a protective editor who hired me twice at the Minneapolis Star and St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she watched over her brood of overworked reporters and editors. In those days, we called her "Debbie" as she rose from the Star's city editor to cross the river and run the St. Paul Pioneer Press as its managing editor and executive editor.

By the time she came to Washington in 1990, she was Deborah Howell, Washington bureau chief of the Newhouse newspaper chain for 15 years. Then from 2005 to 2008 she was the ombudsman of the Washington Post, where she earned a prickly reputation as a nit-picker extraordinaire in a thankless yet rewarding job.

After seeing Debbie in action in the Twin Cities -- once a thriving newspaper town with four newspapers competing against each other -- I never thought Washington appreciated her salty, sometimes foul-mouthed way of directing traffic. She had fought her way through the ranks, not networked her way on cable TV schmoozing with the power elite. She wasn't hobnobbing in Georgetown with wealthy pols or sucking up to vapid socialites. Not her style.

I understood, watching it play out as I worked as Washington correspondent for People Magazine. Geeze, I saw that crowd year after year parading around the White House Correspondent's Dinner at the Washington Hilton, a sea of not-real journalists mingling on the red carpet. They chased celeb parties, not real news.

At 68, Debbie is being remembered as one of the first women to take over a major American newspaper. Now, with the newspaper industry in shambles, it's worth remembering just how tough the battle was in those bygone days. She stormed into the managing editor's office at the Minneapolis Star more than 30 years ago, when she discovered her paycheck was lower than lower-ranking male editors. "I blew up!" she told an oral history project years later. That Texas grit always showed.

Debbie caught flak when she hired me as a reporter for the Star. "Is she going to change diapers on the desk?" one sexist editor asked her. Debbie laughed when she told me the story. I was the first young female reporter with a young child hired by the paper. And I felt like I had to work twice as hard and write twice as well to prove her right. She inspired that fierce brand of loyalty.

She was devastated when her first husband, Democratic majority leader Nicholas Coleman, died in 1981. She dove deeper and deeper into work. I followed her across the river to St. Paul, where she built a fine band of journalists who snagged two Pulitzers in the late l980s. By then, hard-charging Debbie was rebuilding her personal life. She married C. Peter Magrath, who had been president of the University of Minnesota.

Her grieving husband, Peter, talked to the Marlborough Express in New Zealand after the accident, saying his wife told him to always face reporters. "You don't have to answer questions, but I would dishonor her if I didn't talk to reporters," he said.

"I wish this was a nightmare because you can wake up from nightmares," he said.

So do we. Farewell.