Longtime Inquirer editor Acel Moore dies at 75

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Longtime Philadelphia Inquirer editor Acel Moore, seen outside the Inquirer building on June 2, 2005, has died.

Acel Moore, 75, an Inquirer reporter, editor, and columnist who changed the way the newspaper and others cover the black community while encouraging young people from minority backgrounds to enter and succeed in the profession he loved, died unexpectedly at his Wyncote home Friday evening.

Mr. Moore suffered from "a number of different ailments," his wife, Linda Wright Moore, said. Shortly before midnight "he was having serious difficulty breathing and his heart stopped."

A tall man with a neat goatee and a manner at once open and reserved, Mr. Moore was associate editor emeritus of The Inquirer, rising up from the ranks of news clerks and copy boys over a career at the paper spanning 43 years.

During that time he won some of journalism's most glittering honors, including a Pulitzer Prize and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his steadfast effort to make the newsroom more representative of the city and to ensure that the lives of its various people were captured with fidelity.

William K. Marimow, now editor of The Inquirer, who worked closely with Mr. Moore beginning in 1972, called his reporting colleague "a trailblazer."

"Acel was an extraordinary person, not only in the history of Philadelphia journalism but in the history of the city," Marimow said Saturday. "His knowledge of the city was second to none."

"Acel was an icon to black journalists, he was an icon to journalists of color, he was an icon to all journalists," said Sarah J. Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization cofounded by Mr. Moore in 1975. "He had passion for developing the next generation of young journalists. He had passion for telling rich stories. He had passion for insuring that all communities had a voice."

Said Sandra M. Clark, a managing editor of The Inquirer: "We all need a guiding light and Acel has lit my path through my entire career. He recruited me, schooled me, encouraged me, and never let me lose sight of my purpose - to make my voice count in the fight for inclusion and truth, and, most important, to pay it forward. His legacy lives in thousands of us every day."

Despite the woes currently besetting the news business, Linda Wright Moore said her husband surveyed the journalistic landscape and the newspaper he helped to build with optimism.

"Not with any rosey colored glasses," she said. "But with an outlook on life [that considers] what's doable and exciting."

"More than any other individual he helped form the ethos that black journalists move in and practice from," said Daily News columnist Elmer Smith. "The way we see ourselves is largely an Acel image."

A native of South Philadelphia, Mr. Moore knew and loved the city and its people, especially its African American citizens. "His knowledge of Philadelphia and its people not only enriched his own reporting but also informed the news judgments we made in the reporting of others on the staff," said former Inquirer managing editor Gene Foreman.

Marimow recalled, for example, working for a year covering the MOVE bombing on Osage Avenue and its aftermath in 1985.

"Acel was far and away my best source," he said. "He had sources in the fire department, sources in the police department, sources in the MOVE neighborhood, sources in the mayor's office, sources in the district attorney's office, sources on the MOVE commission."

Those sources, said Marimow, allowed The Inquirer to extend to readers "a depth and breadth of information that no one else could provide."

Harold Jackson, the paper's current editorial page editor, met Mr. Moore in the late 1970s, when Mr. Moore journeyed to Birmingham, Ala., to meet with a fledgling professional organization of black journalists.

"We invited him down to speak to our group and give us some encouragement," recalled Jackson, then a reporter with the Birmingham Post-Herald. "He was very inspirational, especially for us. He was a nationally known black columnist, and there weren't many of them in those days. I was impressed that he came to Birmingham to help our little chapter get started."

While Mr. Moore assisted many informally, his devotion to improving racial justice and fostering the prospects of black journalists was embodied in the organizations he helped start and nurture: the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Art Peters Memorial Fellowship Program (a summer internship for copy editors), and the Acel Moore Career Development Workshop.

The workshop, launched in 1984, gave more than 2,000 high school students a five-week primer in the basics of reporting and writing under the guidance of media professionals, and about 200 alumni are pursuing journalism-related careers.

"It was just a matter of my feeling that this was the best way to reach back and help people," Mr. Moore said in a 2009 interview with the workshop's publication, First Take. That sense of the value of people also drove Mr. Moore's reporting career.

"I do not know of any reporter, then or now, who was as connected to the people in those [rowhouse] neighborhoods as Acel," said Arlene Notoro Morgan, a former Inquirer reporter and editor who grew up near Mr. Moore in South Philadelphia. "He could get anyone to talk to him, because he believed in shoe-leather reporting that made him someone people trusted, from Mayor Frank Rizzo to the corner grocer."

Mr. Moore was educated from kindergarten to sixth grade in a segregated public school. The entire faculty and staff were black. "White children in my neighborhood went either to another public school nearby, maintained as an all-white enclave, or an all-white Catholic school," Mr. Moore recalled in a column.

Like many Philly kids in those days, he played sandlot baseball and church-league basketball. At Barrett Junior High School, he ran the half-mile and was a member of the relay team that won the city championship.

Mr. Moore also had an artistic dimension. As a youth, he loved to draw and paint. He took lessons at the Settlement Music School and played the French horn and trumpet, both classical and jazz. He was proficient enough to be invited to join the all-city orchestra, for which he performed through high school.

After graduating from Overbrook High School in 1958, he played trumpet in a jazz combo at various clubs in Philadelphia. In 1959, he joined the Army and was trained as a medic at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Posted to Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska, he worked in the dental clinic and dispensary and learned how to cross-country ski. In 1962, Mr. Moore was discharged from the Army and began looking for work.

"I realized that journalism was what I wanted to do, and that telling stories was a way to make a difference," Mr. Moore said in a 2004 interview.

At the time, The Inquirer had only one black reporter, and there were so few African Americans in the newsroom that a group of ministers was threatening a boycott. Mr. Moore was hired as a copy boy.

Generally reserved, Mr. Moore did not shy away from condemning insulting behavior.

"It was the custom in those days to call editorial assistants 'boy,' " relates Smith of the Daily News. "Acel stopped that practice cold one day by telling one of the rewrite men, 'Don't ever call me "boy" again unless you want to meet after work on the loading dock.' Acel's pride wouldn't allow him to answer to 'boy.' And as a result, that custom, at least at The Inquirer, fell away."

In 1968 Mr. Moore became the paper's fourth black reporter. He was assigned to cover police news in North Philadelphia.

"At first, some of the detectives weren't too happy about a black reporter coming in," former Inquirer police reporter Bo Terry once said. "But . . . Acel knew what questions to ask and got right to the point. If you told him something was off the record, it stayed off the record.

"Eventually, a lot of detectives who didn't care for him in the beginning switched over and started to like and respect him."

Mr. Moore's first front-page story was an interview with Dick Allen, the Phillies slugger who until that time had refused to talk to reporters.

Besides the police, Mr. Moore covered the courts, politics, and urban unrest.

"I was able to observe close up how the media misinterpreted many of those events," Mr. Moore wrote in a column. "I saw how racism and the exclusion of blacks from both employment and news coverage by The Inquirer and other news agencies impacted on the events daily."

It became Mr. Moore's mission to ensure that the black community was covered more fully and accurately and to encourage The Inquirer to do so by hiring and promoting more minority reporters.

In the early 1970s, as the renascent Inquirer began attracting talented, ambitious reporters and editors from across the land, Mr. Moore "not only mentored young reporters but old editors as well," said former editor Gene Roberts.

"He was very much dedicated to making sure the truth is told about the African American community," Jackson said.

That meant, at times, challenging his bosses and calling on them and the paper they managed to do better - about hiring and promoting, about listening to grievances, about the way black people were portrayed vs. white people, about which obituaries were featured and which ignored.

Mr. Moore readily joined other prominent African American journalists in founding the local and national associations of black journalists.

At the time, in the mid-'70s, some viewed such groups as separatist, subversive, an agitating challenge to the established white hierarchy of the newsroom. It required courage to join, let alone be an instigator.

"There was a feeling among some people that signing their name on the list was a risk, that there would be a retaliation for doing that," Mr. Moore said in a 2000 interview.

Some of the risk revolved around the name.

"A lot of people felt they didn't want to be affiliated with the term black because it wouldn't go over well with their bosses," said Claude Lewis, another cofounder of the National Association of Black Journalists and a former columnist at both The Inquirer and the now-defunct Evening Bulletin.

"That term was not popular at the time. People preferred the term Negro. We thought that was outdated, and so we chose to say National Association of Black Journalists. Some people thought that was kind of a militant stance, but we decided it spoke the truth about us."

Since then, the organization has grown from the 44 men and women who gathered for the founding assembly in Washington to about 3,000 members. It has improved opportunities for minority journalists and coverage of the African American community. It seeks to ensure fairness in the media and recognize distinguished work.

"If I had said in 1975 that I thought NABJ would have the impact and import it has today, I'd be lying," Mr. Moore said in a 2000 interview. "The formation of the black journalists' organization was clearly needed. In 1975, we knew this was not a sprint. This was a marathon."

At the NABJ convention in Philadelphia in 2011, Mr. Moore's seminal contributions were recognized with a lifetime achievement award, the organization's highest honor. Partly paralyzed by degenerative disc disease and complications from spinal surgery, he accepted the award in a wheelchair, as the audience paid homage with a standing ovation.

As a reporter, Mr. Moore covered the police and courts and all manner of major news events, but his focus was the city and his specialty was urban affairs. He won several local journalism awards for his reporting on police brutality, juvenile justice, and gang violence.

In January 1976, a news item was placed on Mr. Moore's typewriter. The Wayne County coroner had won permission to exhume the body of Robert "Stonewall" Jackson, a former patient at Farview State Hospital, a maximum-security facility for insane criminals in Waymart, Pa. Jackson had died at the hospital 10 years earlier at age 36, supposedly of a heart attack. But witnesses who were patients at the time said he had been smothered with a pillow in the infirmary, naked and bound to a bed hand and foot, while recovering from a beating.

Mr. Moore recognized the dead patient's name and interviewed his mother, Alma, at her home in Southwest Philadelphia.

"I knew all along that my son was murdered," she told Mr. Moore. "We tried to tell authorities 10 years ago that my son didn't die of natural causes. But nobody would listen to us."

Mr. Moore wrote a short daily story about the matter. That story caught the attention of a former Farview patient who remembered Jackson.

"Acel knew that this was a small piece of something much larger," John Carroll, then the paper's metropolitan editor, said.

"Acel had the original source," recalled Wendell Rawls, his reporting partner on the story. "At first, he had trouble convincing the editors that [the source] wasn't crazy. Acel persuaded the source to talk not only to him but also to them."

The former inmate tearfully told the pair about the horrible abuses he had seen - including beatings and covered-up murders. He said he had already informed the state police, the FBI, the state attorney general's office, and other agencies, but that no one had taken him seriously enough to correct the situation.

The reporters, skeptical at first, began checking his account. Their investigation stretched over three months, and they traveled as far as Denver and Los Angeles to interview witnesses. Most of their reporting, however, was done in nearby prisons, mental hospitals, and poor neighborhoods.

"Acel's strength was that he could find people and get them to talk to him," Rawls said. "He knew Philadelphia like it was his backyard. Some of these guys were extraordinarily suspicious, but Acel could get them to open up and could really communicate with their families."

The series, "The Farview Findings," published in June 1976, prompted several state agencies to begin investigations. A special committee of the State Senate confirmed The Inquirer's findings in public hearings, a special grand jury began looking into several murders and other crimes, and the governor appointed a commission to recommend improvements at the institution.

"Acel and his family were threatened," Rawls recalled. "People were calling his wife and tried to scare him off the story. But Acel was not deterred. He was a man of great courage and integrity."

His resolute effort to expose the truth was rewarded when the Farview series won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for special local reporting. When the award was announced, an exultant Mr. Moore, then 36, said that when he began his career, he had two dreams: to work as an Inquirer reporter and to win a Pulitzer.

Mr. Moore returned to reporting and in 1979 spent a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow.

A year later, Mr. Moore joined The Inquirer editorial board, where he helped shape the paper's response to public issues and also began writing a column about urban affairs.

"While the Farview story won a Pulitzer, it was not an exceptional part of Acel's journalism," Roberts said. "He did many other good things before and after, and when he moved to the editorial page, he was a highly valuable member and gave insights into parts of Philadelphia that the board might not have had otherwise."

Former Inquirer editor Maxwell King remembered Mr. Moore for his friendship when both worked on the newspaper's editorial board.

"I would step over from my small office to his small office to get guidance on the art of editorial writing," said King. "He gave me the most thoughtful guidance on how to be convincing: to our peers on the board, to the editors who went over our copy, and to the public. He made it an art, and a pleasure."

In 2005, when Mr. Moore retired, he was feted at the Moore College of Art, where the testimonials lasted well into the evening. Elijah Anderson, then a professor of social science at the University of Pennsylvania, hailed Mr. Moore as "the indispensable voice of the African American community."

"He has taken a traditionally invisible community and made it more visible," Anderson said.

"Acel Moore was one of a kind," U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) said in a statement Saturday.

Even in retirement, Mr. Moore continued to fight for fairness in the newsroom. After a round of Inquirer layoffs in early 2007 that disproportionately affected minority staffers, Mr. Moore added his voice and prestige to the protest, noting that newsroom diversity was crucial to the paper's ability to cover the region's diverse population.

"This is not an issue of civil rights," Mr. Moore said. "It's an issue of good journalism."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Moore is survived by his son, Acel Jr., and his daughter, Mariah.

Funeral services, still in the planning stages, will be held Monday, Feb. 22, at Grace Baptist Church of Germantown.

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594 @SPSalisbury