Lee Winfrey, 70, former TV critic

Posted: April 02, 2003

Lee Winfrey, 70, former television critic for The Inquirer and a veteran reporter who covered Castro in Cuba, Washington politics, and West Virginia coal-mine disasters during his 44-year career in journalism, died of arteriosclerosis and diabetes Monday at his apartment in Center City.

In February 1974, Mr. Winfrey wrote his first television column for The Inquirer. For the next 27 years, he reviewed programs and gave readers an understanding of what he considered the art of television.

"He took television seriously. He was one of the preeminent experts," said Inquirer television critic Jonathan Storm. "He wouldn't make cheap jokes about it. He felt people who did that didn't understand its importance."

Mr. Winfrey, who retired in 2001, understood television's importance. In 1980, when he wrote his "millionth word" on the subject in his "On Television" column, he recalled childhood warnings against misspending his youth.

"As a TV critic," he wrote, "I have often wondered if I am misspending my adulthood." But, he continued, "more families own a TV set than own a bathtub or a shower. If Americans care more about watching TV than keeping clean, surely that is a fixation too Brobdingnagian to be ignored."

In 1978, he became the president of the new Television Critics Association. Before the association was established, television networks paid reporters' expenses to view screenings of new shows and interview stars in Los Angeles. The practice called reporters' ethics into question, Storm said, and made it appear they would be beholden to the networks.

"Association members stood up and said 'We're not going to do it that way anymore,' " Storm said. Now "everyone pays their own way."

Marion Lee Winfrey grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and never lost his Southern drawl or manners.

After serving in the Army from 1954 to 1956, he returned to the University of Tennessee to finish his bachelor's degree. With degree in hand, he got his first reporting job at the Nashville Tennessean the following year. He enjoyed the fact that he began his career as a reporter on April Fool's Day 1957.

He bounced around a bit before joining the Miami Herald in 1962. While covering Central America for the Herald, he traveled to Cuba and later was the paper's Washington correspondent. He was Washington bureau correspondent for Knight Newspapers from 1963 to 1966.

He then took a break from journalism and in 1968 earned a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa.

Afterward, Mr. Winfrey joined the Detroit Free Press, where he reported on subjects as diverse as the mob and the environment.

"Everybody wanted Lee to be on their projects, he was so good," said Tom Wark, a former editor in Detroit and a retired Inquirer associate managing editor.

Wark recalled the story Mr. Winfrey filed from the scene of a mine disaster in West Virginia. "We rushed him to the site at 4 p.m., and he had to file by 6:30 or 7 p.m.," he said.

He made his deadline with a story that led with the line: "Once again in West Virginia there is frost on the mountain and blood on the coal."

"The whole piece went on in that remarkable poetic rhythm," Wark said. "It read like he had worked on it for days."

There had been fatalities and injuries, Wark said. "The facts were all woven in - the names of the victims and their widows."

Mr. Winfrey played the guitar and often composed country songs. He loved New Orleans jazz, and before joining The Inquirer as a general-assignment reporter in 1972, he studied Shakespeare on a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University.

He is survived by a son, David Dylan; a brother; and a former wife, Mary Anne Hight, whom he married in 1958. The couple divorced in 1977. He is also survived by another former wife, Kiki Olson, whom he married in 1978 and divorced in 1982.

Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Rose Mortuary Mann Heritage Chapel in Knoxville, Tenn. Burial will follow in Pleasant Forest Cemetery in nearby Concord.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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