Gone Fishing

For 20 years, Don Moser hooked readers with great stories. Now that he’s retiring, trout beware

Smithsonian magazine has had only two editors in its 31 years, and now the second is leaving. Don Moser is putting down his pencil and picking up a fly rod. After taking over from the founding editor, Edward K. Thompson, in 1980, Don ran the magazine in the independent tradition of H. L. Mencken at the American Mercury and Harold Ross at the New Yorker: 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.

Before coming to Smithsonian, Don acquired the kind of wide-ranging experience a good magazine editor needs. He attended Heidelberg College for two years and then had to drop out for financial reasons. While waiting to be drafted, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout in northern Idaho. He describes his military career as two years of "pushing a pencil at Fort Benning." He then attended Ohio University on the G.I. Bill. On summer vacations he worked as a seasonal ranger in Olympic and Grand Teton National Parks. "My greatest achievement during those ranger days was saving a drowning moose," he says.

Even greater achievements were soon to come. After graduating from Ohio University, Don got a fellowship to study writing at Stanford with novelist Wallace Stegner. He showed Stegner his senior honors project from Ohio, a book about Olympic National Park that he’d written and used his own photographs to illustrate. The Sierra Club had just published a big Ansel Adams book and was looking for a new project. Stegner told David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director, "I’ve got this student named Don Moser who has something you should publish." The Peninsula came out in 1962.

A Fulbright Scholarship took Don to the University of Sydney in Australia. Home again, he was hired by the old Life magazine as a military affairs reporter. At that magazine, he saw the extremes life has to offer. He became West Coast bureau chief in Los Angeles, covering Hollywood, the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska and the Watts riot. He then went on to Hong Kong as Far East bureau chief, spending much of his time in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Some of his writing from the war zone appears in Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969, published by the Library of America. In one of those pieces, he describes spending time with eight village leaders, marked for death by the Vietcong. All but one (who thought it safer to move from place to place) spent their nights huddled in the railroad station, the only concrete building in the village. Not long after Don was there, most of the men were indeed killed.

During a recent interview, Don’s wife, Penny, said: "And don’t forget he was almost killed twice." Don responded with a dismissive wave of his hand: "Oh, I was scared stiff a few times, but so was everyone else."

When Life folded, he turned to freelance writing. His assignments for this magazine included pieces on the Army Corps of Engineers and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He wrote four of his five books during those years, including Central American Jungles; China, Burma, India and Snake River Country. He came in out of the cold in 1977 to become an executive editor at Smithsonian. Within a few years, Ed Thompson retired and Don became the new editor.

The man has passionate interests. He is an expert birder. He uses an eight-inch telescope to search for what are known as "deep-sky" objects—galaxies, nebulas and star clusters. He fishes for trout in Idaho and bonefish in Belize, releasing every one he catches. For years, he and Penny took in dogs that were seriously ill or seriously injured. Right now they live with three yappy terriers. One of them, Harvey, is so disabled that Don pulls him around the neighborhood in a red wagon.

As editor, Don Moser pushed for higher-quality writing, better storytelling, writers who know how to "let the camera run." In choosing what ideas to commission, the aim always was to surprise the readers: present them with a story they had seen nowhere else and were unlikely to see in the future. His take on the quality of the material published in Smithsonian occupied a spectrum that ran from "terrific" down to "this won’t embarrass us."

Don loved his job. "At Smithsonian, you get to cover everything from Motown to Mars," he said. "You have terrific writers and photographers to work with. And you have wonderful readers, who tend to think of themselves as part of the family, which indeed they are. They encourage us, they correct us when we’re wrong and they never fail to give us advice. Of the thousands of letters to the editor that I’ve read over the years—and I’ve read them all—one stands out for its pithiness. It reads, in its entirety, ‘Dear Editor: Support the law of gravity.’"

He was unflappable. Late in the process of closing an issue, you could walk into his office and tell him that the full-page picture opening an article could not be used for some reason just discovered. There’d be no histrionics, no calling for someone’s head. Instead, he’d say calmly, in a conversational tone, "OK, let’s see what we can use instead."

All was not sweetness and light, of course. The staff dreaded what we called the "fish eye" (or what one former copy chief dubbed the "hairy eyeball"). An editor would be in Don’s office explaining an idea for what he or she considered a terrific story. Don would simply stare at the editor, expressionless, until he or she would start stumbling over words and finally say, "No, huh?" There was another Moser response I dreaded even more, perhaps because I experienced it so often. Don would silently look over a writer’s story proposal and then say: "This is really interesting. And this is all I want to know about it."

Sometimes, though, even the fish eye would soften into approval. Years ago I was invited to accompany a group of scientists on an expedition to study a total solar eclipse. We would be in a jet, racing with the moon’s shadow over the Indian Ocean. Don wanted to know if any discoveries were likely. I said no. Was this eclipse any different from any other? No. Still more questions, and more negative answers. It was clear I was not going anywhere. I turned to leave the room, and only then did Don say: "You better go."

Now he’s going. The new editor, Carey Winfrey, is off and running. The Don Moser era is over. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work for this rare and gentle man. We’ll miss him more than words can say.

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