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Rudy Abramson, 1937 - 2008

Former national reporter for the L.A. Times

February 15, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Rudy Abramson, a former longtime Washington reporter for The Times who wrote a highly praised biography of American statesman W. Averell Harriman, has died. He was 70.

Abramson sustained massive head injuries in a fall Tuesday at his home in Reston, Va. He died late Wednesday at a hospital in Fairfax, Va., according to a friend, John Bennett.

A staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau from 1966 to 1993, Abramson was hired to cover science and became one of the first national reporters assigned to the space program. He covered the development of the Apollo 11 mission and the historic moon landing in 1969.

He wrote two books, "Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986" (1992) and "Hallowed Ground: Preserving America's Heritage" (1996), about the Piedmont region of northern Virginia, where some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place. He also co-edited, with Jean Haskell, the "Encyclopedia of Appalachia" (2006), the first comprehensive reference work on the region that covers 13 states from Mississippi to New York.

While working on "Hallowed Ground," Abramson helped organize opposition to a plan by the Walt Disney Co. to build a history theme park near a key Civil War site, the Manassas Battlefield at the eastern end of the Piedmont. As executive director of the ad-hoc group Protect Historic America, he helped recruit prominent writers and historians, including William Styron, Shelby Foote and C. Vann Woodward, to defeat the proposal, which they believed would desecrate a region known for its natural beauty and historical importance. The effort made national headlines, and Disney withdrew the plan in 1994.

Abramson was a native Appalachian, born in Florence, Ala., on Aug. 31, 1937. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1958, he became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean.

After several years as the Tennessean's Washington correspondent, he was hired by The Times, where he "had a part in just about every major story for 30 years," said longtime colleague Richard T. Cooper.

In addition to covering Vietnam War policy debates, the bombing of Cambodia and the Nixon impeachment hearings, Abramson showed a flair for feature writing, finding interesting tales in improbable places, such as his front-page profile of a 90-year-old pilot in Spearfish, S.D., who had been barnstorming for 60 years.

Among the most interesting characters he ever met was Harriman, the tycoon and politician who ran for president twice and lost both times. Harriman had turned down other biographers but agreed to cooperate with Abramson, granting him exclusive access to millions of documents from his personal files and family archives.

The 779-page biography earned admiring reviews from mainstream and academic critics. Michael Beschloss, writing in the Washington Post, called it "graceful, well-researched and unsentimental," while Howard Jablon, in the journal Historian, found it "engrossing . . . sympathetic but balanced."

Abramson later turned his attention to Appalachia, joining forces with Haskell, an Appalachian scholar, in a 10-year effort to produce the 1,832-page encyclopedia that covered subjects including geology, agriculture, literature and humor. With a foreword by scholar and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., it attempts to show the diversity and richness of a part of the country often depicted as backward and poor.

"One of the images of Appalachia that has always existed and has always been wrong is that it's just a static, unchanging kind of place . . . a lot of white people whose families got stranded there in another century," Abramson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. "That's always been a misconception. It's always been a terribly dynamic place."

Before his death, Abramson was completing a biography of Harry Caudill, a Kentucky lawyer and environmentalist whose 1963 book "Night Comes to the Cumberlands" focused national attention on the underdevelopment of Appalachia. Caudill killed himself with a gunshot to the head in 1990 when he was 68 and facing an advancing case of Parkinson's disease.

Abramson is survived by his wife, Joyce; daughters Kristin and Karin; and three grandchildren.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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