Peggy Higgins, 77, reporter, writer, copy editor for four newspapers

Posted: January 07, 2014

WHEN JULIE Liedman arrived at the Philadelphia Bulletin as a fresh-faced kid out of Penn State in 1967, she needed to learn how to be a reporter and writer for a big-city daily.

Lucky for her, there was a friendly, lighthearted and supremely talented editor to help her learn the trade. Peggy Higgins was suburban editor for the Bulletin and she took Julie under her wing.

A sharp contrast to some of the gruff and crusty men who ran the news operation for the newspaper that nearly everybody read, Peggy was kind and understanding. Just what a young reporter needed.

"She edited all my copy and she always made it better," Julie said. "She was very hands-on and gentle. She often saved me from the brink of overwriting.

"She taught me how to write a good news story and a good feature story. She taught me how to write like a man because that's what we had to do in those days. And the old guys scared me."

Julie Liedman, who remained at the Bulletin for 13 years and later became a freelance writer, was not the only person who was helped to become a better reporter, writer, editor - or human being - by knowing and working with Peggy Higgins.

Peggy, who capped her career as a writer and copy editor for the Daily News, died Friday in Paoli Hospital after suffering a number of illnesses over several years that kept her pretty much confined to her home in Malvern. She was 77.

"It's a rare person in our business who is a talented journalist and a genuinely kind and generous human being," said Joseph P. Owens, onetime Bulletin writer and now publisher and executive editor of the South Jersey Times.

"I was a 15-year-old copy boy when I met her, and from Day 1 she treated me with kindness and respect. She didn't have to do that, but she did.

"This is a business with a lot of blowhards and jerks. Peggy was the opposite."

Peggy - her real name was Margaret but nobody ever called her that - worked as editor, reporter and writer in news, features and business departments for four area newspapers beginning shortly after she graduated from Tredyffrin/Easttown High School in 1954.

There was the Daily Local of West Chester, the Main Line Times in Ardmore, the Bulletin and finally the Daily News.

She started at the Daily News shortly after the Bulletin closed in January 1982. There is a legend that she scored the highest mark in history on the copy-editing test the Daily News gave prospective employees.

She worked for a time as a reporter and writer. Some of the various stories she covered included gypsy-moth and angry-bee epidemics, the cyanide-laced Tylenol tragedies in 1982, a raft race on a river in Willingboro, N.J., the arrest of Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, the beating death and rape of a female soldier, crime and court cases and many others.

She later joined the copy desk as a sharp-eyed editor, and then the business section under Michael Days, now editor of the Daily News.

"When I was assigned to run our business department it became apparent quickly that Peggy was a key utility player who did everything well," Days said. "She was smart, witty and always up for a discussion that would better hone an idea or story."

Retired Daily News copy-desk chief Vincent Kasper said Peggy was "one of the sweetest, if not the very sweetest, individuals we ever worked with."

"She was warm and gentle, considerate and solicitous. As for her journalistic skills, she was smart and insightful, had an innate sense of the kind of stories readers wanted to read, and was a hell of an editor."

Robin Palley worked with Peggy at both the Bulletin and Daily News. At the Daily News, she worked with her in the business section.

"I can warmly remember Peggy sitting at her desk, slightly reclined, with a smile on her face as she tossed off a challenging question to this reporter," Robin said. "Peggy was great at tuning up a story, pruning the fat, finding just the right way to cut those four column inches, making sure the clarity and the word choices were just so."

Janet Novack, Washington bureau chief of Forbes Media, worked with Peggy in the business department at the Bulletin.

"It seemed to me - from my 21-year-old perspective - that there were a lot of characters at the Bulletin cut from the old gruff newsman mold," Janet said. "In that setting, Peggy immediately stood out for her kindness, compassion and humor. She cared deeply about people and how they were treated."

Even after Peggy retired from the Daily News in the mid-1990s, the old newspaper spirit still burned in her heart.

When her daughter, Donna, as a reporter for the former Suburban and Wayne Times, was rousted out of bed in the middle of a cold December night to cover a gas explosion in King of Prussia, her mother, standing at the top of the stairs as she left, said, "Have a wonderful time, dear."

"Having been a reporter herself, she understood the excitement of covering a big breaking story," Donna said.

Jim Nicholson, retired Daily News writer, said Peggy "was the ultimate professional and a woman of great compassion."

"When Peggy handled your copy, you could walk away without looking back, knowing Peg would always save you from yourself, and whatever edits she made would be enhancements."

Her daughter, executive editor for Westlaw Journals, a line of legal newsletters, said her mother was happy she had followed her into journalism, even though she never pushed her into anything.

"Whatever career I ended up in, she wanted it to be something I enjoyed doing," Donna said.

Peggy, a woman who enjoyed people of all ages and ranks, was popular with Donna's friends as she was growing up.

After her mother died, she asked a college friend why he liked her mother so much.

"For a lot of reasons," he said, "but a couple stand out: First, she was an intelligent lady with lots of great stories. Second, she always made me feel welcome. She was honest in her feelings and the way we interacted. I never felt I had to be 'on,' or someone I wasn't when I visited your mom."

After she retired, Peggy was devoted to keeping up with what was going on in the world, and often called her daughter at her office to tell her what was on her mind.

"She would start off saying, 'Don't get me started,' and she would launch into her latest outrage," Donna said.

Peggy insisted on voting in every election and when she could no longer leave the house, made sure she got her absentee ballot.

Peggy Higgins was born to Michael E. Rosato and the former Dorothy de Luca and grew up in the Devon area.

She married Jay Rutherford Higgins in July 1964. The marriage ended in divorce in November 1966. He died in 2009.

After a brief employment at the old Bell Telephone Co., Peggy went to work at the Daily Local in West Chester, launching her long newspaper career.

When F. Gilman Spencer, later editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News, became editor of the Main Line Times in the mid-1950s, he hired Peggy as his assistant.

Gil, a former reporter for the old Chester Times, now the Delaware County Daily Times, was new to running a newspaper. He relied on Peggy to help him, and she did.

He once said Peggy saved his butt. Spencer died in 2011.

Peggy was past president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, in 1971, and president of the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association from 1978 to 1980.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by a sister, Ann Daniels, and a brother, Patrick Rosato.

Services: Are being arranged.

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