Madeleine Blais ’86

Blais has written three books, including “In These Girls Hope Is a Muscle,” about a basketball team in Amherst where she now teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts. She won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing when she was a reporter at The Miami Herald

For several years, as curator, Howard Simons presided over a kind of salon, summoning such eminences as actress Kelly McGillis, painter David Hockney, playwright Arthur Kopit, and novelist William Kennedy to speak to our class. With his lean build, pointy features, and quick definitive gestures, Howard gave the impression of chopsticks in a hurry.

He was best known for his direct manner and his wit, even after he became ill with cancer. When someone asked if his life changed in any major way after he learned he had only two months to live, he said, pausing as if caught in a deep Talmudic reverie, “Yes, I’ve decided to give up flossing.” During our Nieman year, his former boss, Katharine Graham, visited Cambridge, and Howard invited me and Athelia Knight (also Class of ’86) to join her for lunch at the Harvest.

On the day of the service for Howard at the Post, Mrs. Graham and I lamented the loss of our mutual friend and established yet another connection. For several years in the mid-1970s I worked at the Trenton Times in New Jersey, which The Washington Post had purchased in its first act of post-Watergate colonialism, hoping to encroach on The New York Times in what was perceived as its own backyard. What for the Post proved to be a bad business decision, to be unloaded as quickly as time would allow, was for me an amazing education. (The executive editor, sent up from D.C., was another Nieman Fellow, Richard Harwood, NF ’56.) To work at a paper even remotely connected to the mighty Washington Post was the equivalent of a papal blessing, sergeant’s stripes, and an Equity card, permission to feel that I was on the right track.

Mrs. Graham ascertained that I usually spent a week or two during the summer on Martha's Vineyard, where my in-laws had a house and where she lived on a 200-acre oceanfront estate called Mohu. I was taken aback by Mrs. Graham's request (“You must call when you get to the island and we will find a time to get together”) but felt an obligation to honor it. None of us ever feels as if we know all the rules to a good life, but surely one is that if someone you admire on the scale that I admired Mrs. Graham says you must call, you do. What ensued was a once a year commitment to summertime socializing, from 1989 to her death in 2001, encounters which I always believed were being hosted by Howard, with his kind heart and high standards, in absentia.