Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

News Service writer Mary Ann Seawell dies at 53

STANFORD -- Mary Ann Seawell, a writer and editor at Stanford News Service since 1986, and a former columnist for the Peninsula Times-Tribune, died Saturday, March 4, of cancer at her parents' home in Walnut Creek, Calif. She was 53.

A pioneering writer on women's issues, Seawell was remembered by colleagues for the grace and wit of her writing, the accuracy of her editing and the breadth of her knowledge.

“Her sentences rose and fell like waves at the shore, pulling the reader eagerly into the next thought,” said longtime Times-Tribune reporter Mary Madison

At Stanford, Seawell primarily covered the humanities and arts. Though she occcasionally wrote breaking news, such as stories on the university's challenge of NCAA drug-testing rules for athletes, her forte was features, especially on writing, writers and art.

She wrote about Diane Middlebrook's controversial biography of poet Anne Sexton; Bliss Carnochan's history of curriculum battles; Herbert Lindenberger's article on the history and politics of Western culture courses; Gregory Freidin's popular Russian translation of The Federalist Papers; and Steven Zipperstein's discovery of materials on the Russian Jewish intelligentsia in the newly opened Russian archives.

She reported on increased interest in Slavic studies attributed to glasnost, and on Horace Porter's ideas about African and Afro-American studies.

Her last published story, in December, was about religious studies Professor Timothy Jackson's new book on the primacy of love among the virtues.

Former longtime Stanford News Service Director Bob Beyers called Seawell's humanities beat the “toughest vineyard of academe. No place has a higher concentration of eager critics; nowhere are sources more inclined to view those associated with the news media with greater skepticism.

“With patience and persistence, Mary Ann created a steady flow of stories from literary leaders, Nobel peace laureates and classroom teachers,” Beyers said. She also showed enormous grace in confronting serious illness, he said.

In a compilation of her writings presented to her in January, News Service colleague Kathy O'Toole noted that Seawell had an “encyclopedic knowledge of all sorts of facts that kept others from getting errors into campus publications.” It was no accident that Seawell won a trip to Mexico when she appeared on TV's Jeopardy, O'Toole said. An avid reader, traveler and movie-goer, Seawell usually was on the winning side in office games of Jeopardy.

In addition to her reporting, Seawell was associate editor of the Campus Report, editing copy, helping community members get announcements into the paper, and writing countless headlines and captions.

Stanford graduate

A resident of Menlo Park, Seawell was born and reared in San Francisco. At Mercy High School, she served as editor of the newspaper, then she attended Stanford, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1963 in communication. She studied at the university's Florence campus.

Seawell joined the Washington Post in 1964, writing news and feature stories for the women's news department and the suburban news desk.

She returned to the Bay Area in 1969 to work at the Palo Alto Times as a reporter, assistant features editor, copy editor and columnist. She wrote in-depth stories on such subjects as anorexia, autism, infertility, adoption and coming to terms with death. She did feature interviews with authors, actors and politicians, and she reviewed books, movies and restaurants.

Her weekly column focused on women's issues - everything from battered wives to the discomforts of dining out alone. She was one of the first Peninsula journalists to interview pioneers of the women's movement, including Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett.

She worked for the Times and its successor paper, the Peninsula Times-Tribune, until 1985. While there, she won a California Newspaper Publishers Association community service award for a five-part series on child abuse.

Madison, her colleague at the Palo Alto paper, recalled that Seawell was a role model for how women should do their jobs. In the early 1970s, Seawell shocked several conservative management figures at the Times by wearing a pantsuit to cover an assignment at the zoo. She persevered in wearing appropriate clothes for her job, and soon other women were copying her, Madison said.

Skilled with words

Seawell was legendary for her ability to remain calm in the face of many storms in the newsroom, but it was as a writer that she made her mark.

Her former supervisor at the Times, Carolyn Snyder, now special sections editor at the San Jose Mercury News, said that Seawell had the ability to present to the reader a clear mental picture of her subject.

“She used words economically, she didn't overwrite. She let the words speak for themselves,” Snyder said.

In 1979, Seawell began a story about a new book by the feminist Germaine Greer:

Germaine Greer, an Australian with a doctorate from Cambridge, a wicked wit, an unabashed interest in the male sex and a keen sense of self-promotion, burst onto the American scene nine years ago with her book, The Female Eunuch. She sparred with television interviewers, debated Norman Mailer and was featured on the cover of Life magazine.

Now she is back with a new book. . . .

In 1990, Seawell wrote about a woman earning a doctorate from Stanford:

Like a hesitant swimmer who tests the water one toe at a time, Midori Arima approached higher education very slowly and carefully.

She was a middle-aged housewife with no particular goal in mind when she enrolled at a community college, starting with a few classes in music and physical education. After a while, she decided she might as well focus her energy and earn an associate of arts degree.

One degree led to another, and on June 17, Arima, at age 66, received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford.

Seawell's stories generated compliments, most of which she hid away.

"Your article is the most informative and most faithful story anyone has ever done on a talk of mine," one Stanford professor wrote about a piece she produced on a panel discussion during the Stanford Centennial celebration.

President Gerhard Casper wrote to Seawell after she covered a speech he gave in 1993: “I wish all reporters would so intelligently grasp what I try to say when I meander my way through a topic." In an unusual concession to ego, she posted Casper's note on her office wall. Colleagues on Monday sadly removed the cherished compliment.

Seawell is survived by her parents, George and Beatrice Seawell of Walnut Creek; and a brother, Donald, and sister-in-law, Sandra Rehling, of El Sobrante.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday, March 17, in Stanford Memorial Church.

The family prefers contributions to The Stanford Fund, Office of Development, 301 Encina Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-6076.



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.