Pioneering LA Times writer Dorothy Townsend dies

March 20, 2012 - 11:55 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dorothy Townsend, the first female staff writer for the Los Angeles Times' city section and the lone woman on a team of dozens of reporters, photographers and editors that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Watts riot, has died, the newspaper said Tuesday.

Townsend died of cancer March 5 at her home in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, her cousin Louise Hagan told the Times. She was 88.

Townsend worked for the newspaper from 1954 to 1986. After spending 10 years writing features for the so-called women's pages, she insisted on being reassigned to local news, moving to a city room where women were previously thought too fragile for the tough stories and working conditions.

"I don't think any of us at that time realized what she had accomplished merely by making it to the newsroom," said Noel Greenwood, a former Times senior editor. "I always remembered Dorothy as a heroine."

Myrna Oliver, a reporter who joined the Times in 1972, said that even after Townsend switched to city news she "complained that her editors tried to keep her from going into the worst areas. She said, 'I can run faster than any of those men in the city room.' She was a tough, petite little lady — and an excellent reporter."

Born in Texas in 1924, Townsend decided as a young girl that she wanted to be a great reporter, Hagan said.

She got her first newspaper job at the Costa Mesa Globe Herald, and later after graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, she landed a job with the Times in 1960 as a "Women's staff reporter."

There, she took on topics like psychotic whales at Marineland and teenage mountaineers at Disneyland, but she also interviewed first lady Lady Bird Johnson before moving to the metro section.

She was still new to the city room when the deadly Watts riot broke out in 1965, and Townsend insisted she wanted in on the reporting that would lead to a 1966 Pulitzer for the paper.

"She was ever ambitious, at my desk all the time, saying, 'Send me, send me, send me,'" said Bill Thomas, who oversaw the coverage and later became editor of the paper.

"Everyone was getting clobbered," Thomas told the Times, "but she insisted that she was one of the gang, so I said, 'All right.'"

Townsend especially shone while covering the aftermath of the riot, interviewing religious leaders who felt guilty over ignoring the poverty in Watts and documenting what she called the "desperate" young men who took part in the rioting.

Townsend also met her husband Richard Vanderveld at the Times. He worked in the newspaper's business section. The two were married from 1968 to 2006 and had no children.

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com