Longtime magazine journalist and former Smithsonian magazine editor Don Moser died of cardiopulmonary arrest at his home in Sag Harbor on December 8. He had had Parkinson’s disease for many years.
Mr. Moser was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. He was a budding naturalist, falconer and lover of everything out-of-doors. He became a lifelong avid birder, amateur astronomer, fly fisherman and fly rod builder, spending much time with epoxies and varnishes in the basement of his Washington, D.C., home trying to avoid what he called “the cat hair problem.”
He studied at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, leaving after his sophomore year when his tuition money ran out. He then worked as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho and Wyoming while waiting to be drafted. When that happened in 1953, he had wanted to see combat. But the Korean War had ended, and instead Mr. Moser spent two years, he said, “pushing pencils, peeling potatoes and driving trucks” at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and Fort Benning, Georgia. In the mid 1950s, on the G.I. Bill, he studied at Ohio University and worked summers as a seasonal park ranger in Grand Teton and the Olympic National parks.
After graduating in 1957, Mr. Moser got a fellowship to study writing with novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner at Stanford University. In 1962, his first book, “The Peninsula,” photos and text about Olympic National Park, was published by the Sierra Club.
Mr. Moser later attended the University of Sydney in Australia as a Fulbright Scholar. There he worked part-time as an editor for Angus and Robertson Publishers. In 1961, he was hired as a military affairs reporter for Life magazine. He lived in New York City.
Mr. Moser took a six-month leave of absence from Life to work as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall. On his return he became assistant sports and adventure editor. He spent days traveling though the South covering a then-aspiring boxer, Cassius Clay.
In 1965, he became Los Angeles Bureau chief, covering the Watts riot, the Alaska earthquake and Hollywood. He left L.A. to become Life’s Asia Bureau chief in Hong Kong, devoting much of his time to covering the war in Vietnam. His work in Southeast Asia was later recognized, along with that of Stanley Karnow, David Halberstam, Richard Harwood and Norman Mailer, in a collected volume, “Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969,” published by the Library of America. When Life folded in 1972, Mr. Moser was an assistant managing editor.
Mr. Moser went on to write a Newbery Prize-nominated, semi-autobiographical novel, “A Heart to the Hawks,” and three Time Life Books, “The Snake River Country,” “Central American Jungles” and “The China Burma India Theater.” He wrote about the Philippine Islands, the Big Thicket of East Texas and Portugal’s Azore Islands for National Geographic Magazine.
In 1973, Mr. Moser met his future wife and bird-watching companion, Penny Lee Ward of Shabbona, Illinois. She was a farm girl and not afraid of ticks. They had their first date at Dick’s Country Inn in Hayfield, Iowa, where they drank beer, ate pork tenderloin sandwiches and listened to a jukebox playing Loudon Wainwright Jr.’s 1972 hit, “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” They married in East Hampton in 1975. They lived in both Washington, D.C., and Sag Harbor.
In 1977, Mr. Moser joined the staff of Smithsonian magazine as an executive editor. When founding editor Edward K. Thompson retired in 1981, Mr. Moser became editor. “Don ran the magazine in the independent tradition of H.L. Mencken at The American Mercury and Harold Ross at The New Yorker,” wrote the magazine’s science editor John P. Wiley Jr. “His subjective judgment, and his alone, determined what would run. No committees, no voting. Judging by the results—two million subscribers, a National Magazine Award and a stack of other prizes—it was a formula for success.”
After Mr. Moser’s death, longtime Smithsonian associate editor Lucinda Moore reminisced: “While Don was in charge, we not only benefited from his editorial genius, but from his fair-minded, even-keeled approach to management. I can’t recall a single display of egotism from Don, even when egos flared all around him. I will never forget his kindness, integrity and gentle leadership. He will live forever in my memory as an exceptional person whose balance, judgment and wisdom set the standard by which all managers are measured.” Current Museum Editor for Smithsonian magazine Beth Py-Lieberman called him “the gentlest of gentlemen.”
Mr. Moser retired in 2001 to fish and fool around on the East End of Long Island. He had once, as a park ranger, pulled a moose out of river ice in the Tetons. And so in later years his wife recruited him to become a rescue/transport volunteer for the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, a wildlife hospital in Hampton Bays. He was quite good with swans, Ms. Moser said, even when they bit him. Baby possums made him laugh. He’d had a pet rat as a child.
Mr. Moser was predeceased by his parents, Donald Lyman and Katherine McHugh Moser of Ohio, and a brother, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Moser of North Carolina. He is survived by his wife, Penny; brothers, Gilbert of Ohio and Dennis of Missouri; and many nieces and nephews. He was cremated and his ashes will eventually be scattered in the Gulf Stream, which he thought would be a good way to travel. A gathering of friends and family will be held in spring or summer in Washington, D.C. Memorial contributions may be made to the American Kestrel Project, The Peregrine Fund, 5668 West Flying Hawk Lane, Boise, ID 83709.