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White House Journalist Hugh Sidey Dies at 78

Sidey, a Potomac Falls resident for 43 years, covered 10 presidents but never lost his rural Iowa roots

Less than a month before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Time Magazine journalist Hugh Sidey wrote a column recalling the construction of the Berlin Wall, 40 years earlier.

“When it happened we were all caught off guard,” he wrote, recalling his interview with a frustrated John F. Kennedy soon after the discovery. “It is no longer so easy to grasp the wall's meaning. … But in my time, it was far more than just a barricade, far more than a mere symbol, it was a very real threat to freedom for all the years it endured.”

A month later, Sidey was among the few journalists who were able to write about the terrorist attacks not only with grace and compassion, but with the deep sense of history of a man who had witnessed the Berlin Wall and Vietnam and Desert Storm through the eyes of presidents, who had kept company with Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev, with Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush.

In more than four decades at Time, Sidey covered 10 presidents, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower. He treated his subjects as people and not infallible leaders and he treated his contemporaries the same way.

“He wasn’t the typical investigative reporter style, at least the type that you see in the movies,” said Sidey’s brother, Edwin Sidey, 80. “He had respect I think for all of those people that he covered, whether they were high and mighty or low, ordinary people. He appreciated the good qualities in people, and even in presidents.”

Friends described a warm and humble man who never lost hold of his Midwestern roots, growing up in Greenfield, Iowa (population 2,129).

Hugh Sidey, who lived on Stanmore Drive in Potomac Falls for 43 years, died of an apparent heart attack Nov. 21 while eating dinner in Paris. He was 78.

He is survived by his wife Anne Sidey, three daughters, a son and seven grandchildren.

Hugh Sidey’s great-grandfather was a cobbler who emigrated from Canada to Iowa. When he arrived, Greenfield had two newspapers, but both had a Republican lilt and he wanted to start a Democratic paper.

That weekly newspaper, the Greenfield Adair County Free Press, remains in the family. Edwin Sidey is now the publisher and younger family members are part of the fifth generation of Sideys to publish it.

“Hugh and I both worked at the paper when we were kids and grew up in and just naturally followed the line,” Edwin Sidey said.

Both brothers served in World War II, Edwin Sidey in Europe and Hugh Sidey stateside at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., testing artillery and unmanned aircraft. They returned and roomed together while both attending Iowa State University and both working for the University’s daily newspaper.

Hugh Sidey went on to reporting jobs in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb., where he met his wife, Anne Trowbridge.

While working at the Omaha World Herald, he began sending freelance contributions to Time and Life magazines and Life hired him in 1955. He began covering the presidency in 1957 and later moved to Time, where he was a White House correspondent, Washington bureau chief and contributing editor.

He wrote more than 1,000 articles and columns, most famously "The Presidency," which he started in Life in 1966.

“He didn’t practice ‘gotcha’ journalism,” said Knight Kiplinger, editor in chief of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, who looked up to Sidey as a young journalist in the 1970s. “He could offer constructive criticism of a president’s performance without it ever sinking to the level of snideness or sarcasm.”

Kiplinger also worked with Sidey on the Board of Trustees at the Landon School in Bethesda.

“We all saw the same Hugh Sidey. He didn’t have a different public side and personal side,” he said. “He was a straight-talking person. You always knew where he stood but he always expressed his views with courtesy and respect for the other person.”

Sidey was also a member of the board at the White House Historical Association, and frequently visited the Association’s Washington, D.C., offices to contribute to projects or just check in.

Sidey was an almost legendary figure there, but invariably treated even the most junior staff members as equals, said Neil Horstman, the Association’s president.

“He is just one of those very, very special people that takes everything to heart and will do anything for you,” Horstman said. “At the start of [meetings] the most difficult thing to do would be to get down to business because everybody wanted him to tell stories.”

Sidey moved to Potomac Falls in the 1960s, before the development had truly taken shape. At the time, his lot was nothing but a stand of trees infested with copperheads and the house he built was a modest rambler.

Sidey’s father took weekly hikes in the woods near Greenfield and wrote wildlife columns in the family paper. Hugh Sidey often joined him on those walks and Edwin Sidey suggested that those memories might explain why he came to Potomac.

“I have a hunch that there was a bit of nostalgia when he started looking for a timbered lot in the Washington area,” Edwin Sidey said.

Whatever the reason, Sidey became a quiet but admired neighbor, who was involved in the Potomac Falls Homeowners Association and led community projects.

“He was just such a great neighbor,” said Jerilyn Shelley, who lives on Cripplegate Road. “They lived here and lived a very unpretentious life”

Shelley pointed to the private lake on Belmart Road that Potomac Falls residents pay a small annual fee to upkeep. For years, Sidey took on the maintenance duties and in winter sent a letter to residents reminding them of the community ice skating spot.

“He really for years and years made that possible for the community,” Shelley said.

Edwin Sidey recalled that Hugh Sidey also organized an annual Halloween party for his grandchildren and children in Potomac Falls, carrying the children on a wagon behind his lawn tractor.

“All those little kids from the neighborhood and the grandchildren too would climb upon the wagon and Hugh would fire up the tractor and they’d go around the neighborhood,” Edwin Sidey said. “Usually they’d end up at Hugh’s house for kind of a bonfire and toasting of marshmallows.”

That wholesome nature — ice skating and tractor rides — reflected Sidey’s attachment to an Iowa upbringing marked by jaunts to the rock quarry to find fossils and to the local reservoir to catch sunfish.

Sidey returned to Greenfield several times a year and engaged his children — and later his grandchildren — in the same activities.

He often reflected on Greenfield in his columns.

“The village is rich in nothing so much as its black soil and enduring common sense. It is a cross section of very little except deep human feeling. Slow to anger, slow to forgive, profoundly humble from living on the unrelenting prairie, the people of Greenfield are disturbed by Richard Nixon's presidency,” he wrote in the wake of Watergate in 1973. Sidey’s argument that the real harm wasn’t in the deed but the cover-up rings of cliché now, but was prescient then, decades before Iran Contra and Monica Lewinsky and Iraqi WMD.

Sidey concluded the column with the people of Greenfield, preparing for the arduous growing season ahead.

“There will not be much time for anything else for a few weeks. But memories are not erased by gimmickry,” he wrote. “Living on the land gives people a special sense of participation. ‘Who does Nixon think he is doing this to?’ asked one man. ‘Who does he think this Government is? It's us.’”

Sidey’s death last week prompted heartfelt remembrances from the likes of Gerald Ford.

“Over the years he became something of a Washington institution himself, seemingly as much a part of the presidency as Air Force One or Camp David,” Ford wrote in a letter to The Washington Post. “Yet he never behaved like an institution, and I suspect he never stopped pinching himself over his extraordinary good fortune. … For his friends, and they are legion, the good fortune was to know and learn from and simply enjoy Hugh's company.”

But beneath the admiration of former presidents and his almost patriarchal status in the Washington press corps, Sidey was still the man who caught sunfish in Greenfield, Iowa, and drove the annual Halloween wagon in Potomac Falls, who learned press-feeding and typesetting by hand at his family’s newspaper, who Newsweek Paris Bureau Chief Christopher Dickey called the last of a dying breed — "the gentleman journalist."