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Jon Franklin, Pioneering Apostle of Literary Journalism, Dies at 82

Jon Franklin, an apostle of narrative short-story style journalism whose own work won the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded for feature writing and explanatory journalism, died on Sunday in Annapolis, Md. He was 82.

His death, at a hospice, came less than two weeks after falling at his home, his wife, Lynn Franklin, said. He had also been treated for esophageal cancer for two years.

An author, teacher, reporter and editor, Mr. Franklin championed the nonfiction style that was celebrated as New Journalism but that was actually vintage narrative storytelling, an approach that he insisted still adhere to the old-journalism standards of accuracy and objectivity.

He imparted his thinking about the subject in “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction” (1986), which became a go-to how-to guide for literary-minded journalists.

In 1979, Mr. Franklin won the first Pulitzer ever given for feature writing for his two-part series in The Baltimore Evening Sun titled “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.”

His vivid eyewitness account transported readers into an operating room where a surgeon’s agonizing struggle to save the life of a woman whose brain was being squeezed by a rogue tangle of blood vessels illuminated the marvels and margins of modern medicine.

He won his second Pulitzer, this time under the new category of explanatory journalism, in 1985, for his seven-part series “The Mind Fixers,” also in The Evening Sun. Delving into the molecular chemistry of the brain and how neurons communicate, he profiled a scientist whose experiments with receptors in the brain could herald treatment with drugs and other alternatives to psychoanalysis.

Inspired by Mr. Franklin’s own sessions with a psychologist, the series was adapted into a book, “Molecules of The Mind: The Brave New Science of Molecular Psychology” (1987), one of seven he wrote.

Barry L. Jacobs, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the author had approached his theme — that using drugs to treat mental illness might make the world a saner place — “in a snappy journalistic style, as well as with a touch of humor and an often entertaining bit of cynicism.” “Molecules” was among The Times’s Notable Books of the Year.

Mr. Franklin’s “Writing for Story” was not so much a sermonic bible for budding journalists who fancied themselves future John Steinbecks, Tom Wolfes and even Jon Franklins, as it was a demanding lesson plan about storytelling that, he wrote, took him three decades to master.

“The reason we read stories is because we have evolved a wish to understand the world around us,” he said in an interview for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard in 2004. “The way we do that best is through our own experiences, but if we read a good story it’s like living another person’s life without taking the risk or the time.”

Critics expressed concern that emphasizing style could mean sacrificing substance. Mr. Franklin demurred.

Literary journalism, he insisted, “is no threat to the fundamental values of honesty, accuracy and objectivity.” He cautioned, however, that done properly, literary journalism requires time and talent. “Not every story merits it, nor can every reporter be trusted with it,” he wrote in the American Journalism Review in 1996.

“Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” was published in December 1978. That year the Pulitzer Board had established a new prize category to recognize “a distinguished example of feature writing giving prime consideration to high literary quality and originality.” The board created the prize for explanatory journalism in 1984. Mr. Franklin was the first to win each.

Jon Daniel Franklin was born on Jan. 13, 1942, in Enid, Okla., to Benjamin and Wilma (Winburn) Franklin. His father was an electrician whose work at construction sites in the Southwest frequently uprooted the family.

John aspired to be a scientist, but because of the family’s transience he was educated mostly in what he called the “universal school for writers” — the novels of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the short stories in The Saturday Evening Post.

Bullied in gang fights as a minority white boy in mostly Hispanic Sante Fe, he was given a battered Underwood typewriter by his father, who urged him to vent his hostility with his fingers instead of his fists.

In 1959, John dropped out of high school to join the Navy. He served for eight years as a naval journalist aboard aircraft carriers and later in an apprenticeship at All Hands magazine, a Pentagon publication where, he said, a demanding editor honed his talent.

He attended the University of Maryland under the G.I. Bill, graduating with a degree in journalism in 1970. He worked as a reporter and editor for The Prince Georges Post in Maryland before The Baltimore Evening Sun hired him to be a rewrite man in 1970. He won his Pulitzers covering science.

“I am a science writer, but I don’t write about science,” he said in the Nieman interview. “I write about people. The science is just the scenery.”

He left The Evening Sun in 1985 and returned to the University of Maryland, this time as a professor and chairman of the journalism department. He went on to direct the creative writing program at the University of Oregon for a time and to take a writing job at The News & Observer in Raleigh.

Again returning to the University of Maryland, he was named to the first Merrill Chair in Journalism there in 2001. Gene Roberts, a faculty colleague who had been executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times, hailed Mr. Franklin as “one of the greatest practitioners and teachers of feature writing in all of journalism.” He retired as a professor in 2010.

Mr. Franklin’s marriage to Nancy Creevan ended in divorce. He married Lynn Scheidhauer in 1988. In addition to his wife, his survivors include two daughters, Catherine Franklin Abzug and Teresa June Franklin, from his first marriage.

Among his other books is “The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs” (2000), in which he describes how the Franklins’ pet poodle, Sam, woke the family when their house caught fire.

For a writer whose own surgical experience only went so far as having his thumb reattached after it was severed in a fall on the sidewalk, Mr. Franklin’s story on “the monster” aneurysm pressing on Edna Kelly’s brain was rich with detail and accessible imagery. The growing pressure on the arterial wall, he wrote, was like “a tire about to blow out, a balloon ready to burst, a time-bomb the size of a pea.”

Mrs. Kelly was willing to die rather than live with the monster. Her story was not about a miracle. But it begins and ends by invoking sustenance, without which life, and miracles, cannot exist:

Waffles for breakfast made by the wife of Dr. Thomas Barbee Ducker, chief brain surgeon at the University of Maryland Hospital. No coffee. It makes his hands shake, Mr. Franklin wrote. When the surgery is over, what awaits Dr. Ducker are more medical challenges and a peanut butter sandwich his wife had packed in a brown bag with Fig Newtons and a banana.

“Mrs. Kelly is dying,” Mr. Franklin wrote.

“The clock on the wall, near where Dr. Ducker sits, says 1:43, and it’s over.

“‘It’s hard to tell what to do. We’ve been thinking about it for six weeks. But, you know, there are certain things … that’s just as far as you can go. I just don’t know.’

“He lays the sandwich, the banana and the Fig Newtons on the table before him, neatly, the way the scrub nurse laid out the instruments.

“‘It was triple jeopardy,’ he says finally, staring at his peanut butter sandwich the same way he stared at the X-rays. ‘It was triple jeopardy.’

“It is 1:43, and it’s over.

“Dr. Ducker bites, grimly, into the sandwich. He must go on. The monster won.”


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