E. Michael Pakenham, 85, former Inquirer editor and wine columnist

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Celebrating the 1978 Pulitizer Prize for Public Service (l to r) Inquirer Associate Editor E. Michael Pakenham, Executive Editor Eugene L Roberts Jr., and reporters William K. Marimow and Jonathan Neumann.

E. Michael Pakenham, 85, whose powerful editorials graced the pages of the Inquirer for nearly two decades, died Wednesday, May 9, of cardiac arrest at Homewood at Plum Creek in Hanover, Pa.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family
E. Michael Pakenham’s press card

He had lived in Wellsville, York County, for 17 years.

Mr. Pakenham was a major force on the paper’s Editorial Board and in the newsroom from 1966 until 1984, when he left to become editorial page editor of the New York Daily News.

While in Philadelphia, he was known not only for his strong editorial voice, but also for his wine column, which ran in the Sunday Inquirer.

His editorials on violence by Philadelphia police in 1977 were cited by the Pulitzer Prize board as an important part of the package  that won the newspaper a 1978 Pulitzer for public service.

“During the 12 years I worked with Michael at the Inquirer, he wrote some of the most powerful and persuasive editorials I’ve ever read,” said William K. Marimow,  former Inquirer editor and now vice president of strategic development for Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes  the newspaper.

“He was an expert on a wide array of subjects, ranging from Philadelphia city politics and criminal violence by Philadelphia police to Irish history, American literature, fly fishing in the West, and vintage wines,” Marimow said.

An urbane presence in the newsroom, the bespectacled Mr. Pakenham was “bigger than life,” Marimow said. “The key point was the passion and ardor with which he wrote his editorials. It was unbelievable.”

In an April 24, 1977, editorial, he lashed out at corruption in the homicide division of the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

“It is a system which is setting murderers free and putting innocent people in jail and leaving criminals unprosecuted because of violations of constitutionally guaranteed liberties, and because of failures to follow effective police practices,” he wrote.

Mr. Pakenham called for a federal investigation. Later, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission authorized hearings into police misconduct starting in Philadelphia in 1978.

Maxwell E.P. King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, recalled working with Mr. Pakenham in the mid-1970s when King was the Inquirer’s city editor.

“Michael would be down to the city desk almost every day to find out what was going on,” King said in an email. “Although he was on the Editorial Board, he always wanted to be on top of everything. We would have great debates about what was in the news, how we were handling it, and what Michael might do with it.

“What he added to the newsroom, in addition to his fabulous inquiring mind, was great wit and humor and a deep sense of the irony of life,” King wrote. “He loved the vast, roiling waters of news itself, and always gave us great benefit of his thinking, in addition to crafting savvy, cutting editorials.”

In 1975, Mr. Pakenham received a public-service award from the Philadelphia chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, a journalists’ association, for 23 editorials on corruption in city government and the Philadelphia Police Department. The articles resulted in the appointment of Special Prosecutor Walter M. Phillips Jr., who brought 59 corruption cases in two years.

But Mr. Pakenham did more than write thunderously for the editorial page. His wine column, which he crafted in a breezy style, called on his wide knowledge of history and agriculture.

In November 1976, he wrote: “Holidays are coming, the celebratory kind we drench with bubbly wine and goodwill. You must pick your own brand of goodwill. I can offer some help with the wine.” He recommended a California wine “with a full, fruity aroma and a very pleasant yeasty overtone.”

Born in New York, Mr. Pakenham graduated from Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J. He studied economics for two years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1957, and he did further study in liberal arts at Columbia University, without earning a degree.

He earned his chops in the late 1950s as a reporter at the City News Bureau in Chicago and as an assistant city editor in the early 1960s at the Chicago Tribune. He spent two years as Washington correspondent for the Tribune, ending in 1965. From there, he moved to a job as assistant foreign editor at the New York Herald Tribune.

At the Inquirer, he was assistant managing editor and then associate editor, as well as columnist.

In 1984, he became the editorial page editor at the New York Daily News. He spent two years in the early 1990s as executive editor for the fledgling Sunday Correspondent in London before becoming executive editor of Spin Magazine.

From 1994 to 2004, he was books editor and literary columnist at the Baltimore Sun. Since 2004, he had partnered with his wife, Rosalie Muller Wright Pakenham, in a home editing business. He retired in 2012.

“His greatest joy was in finding and encouraging talented writers,” his wife said.

Terry Teachout, who was recruited by Mr. Pakenham in 1987 to write editorials for the Daily News, said he ended up staying six years.

“He believed devoutly that newspaper editorials make a difference, instructing everyone who worked for him to try to write pieces that housewives from Queens would clip out of the paper and post on the doors of their refrigerators,” Teachout wrote online.

Mr. Pakenham was married to Mary Connelly Graff, then Jane Ashley Pakenham, and, finally, Rosalie Pakenham. He had a daughter, Catherine Dempsey Pakenham, known as Katie. All survive.

Plans for a memorial celebration are pending.