Remembering Penn Kimball

Penn Kimball — a longtime journalist, author, mentor to generations of reporters as a professor for 27 years at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and a very active Westport civic volunteer — died Friday at a Chevy Chase, Maryland, nursing home. He was 98.

A defiantly proud “yellow dog Democrat,” Kimball sued the federal government for $10 million after he discovered that he and his late wife, Janet, had been declared national security risks in the 1950s. (He eventually won an apology of sorts from the government, but no money.) He told the story in his book The File, which became a BBC and “Frontline” documentary.

“I refused to believe that you can’t fight the government and bring them to account,” he said after officials admitted they had no evidence he or his wife had ever been disloyal.

Penn Kimball

Penn Kimball

A lifelong liberal, he was a political consultant to Democratic governors Chester Bowles of Connecticut and Averell Harriman of New York. He also aided Connecticut Senator William Benton, in his denunciation of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Penn Townsend Kimball II was born in New Britain, Connecticut, on Oct. 12, 1915. An Eagle Scout, he was educated at Lawrenceville and Princeton, where he was editor in chief of The Princetonian. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1937, he earned a master’s degree in politics and economics.

Two years later he returned home on the last passenger ship to sail before the outbreak of World War II. Kimball began his career as a writer and editor at what was then called U.S. News in Washington, DC, and then for PM, a leftist newspaper in New York.

He joined the Marines after Pearl Harbor and served for 4 years in the Pacific, retiring as a captain.

Working as a writer for Time magazine, he met and married Janet Fraser, a researcher there, in 1947. They moved to Westport, where their daughter Lisa joined the first class at Coleytown Elementary School.

Kimball was very active in local and state politics, and served many terms on the RTM. Janet Kimball, a realtor, died in 1982.

(Penn Kimball’s daughter Laura made this video about his life.)

Kimball also worked as a writer and editor for Collier’s Magazine, The New York Times and The New Republic. He was an election consultant for CBS and a producer/writer on the live TV program Omnibus. It was his idea to have Leonard Bernstein explain music to children on the show, which led to the conductor’s acclaimed series of televised children’s concerts.

Kimball was the author of  The Disconnected; Bobby Kennedy and the New Politics;  “Keep Hope Alive”: Super Tuesday and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Campaign for the Presidency, and Downsizing the News: Network Cutbacks in the Nation’s Capital. 

He joined the Columbia Journalism School faculty in 1958. He sent students to the far corners of New York City to practice shoe-leather reporting. “There’s no such thing as a boring subject,” he was fond of saying. “Only boring reporters.”

He married Julie Ellis, a journalist, in 1985. After retiring from teaching he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia in political science, was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, wrote 2 more books, and traveled to China to adopt an 8-year-old daughter.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, December 9, at the National Press Club in Washington. There will also be a service next summer on Martha’s Vineyard.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the ACLU.

5 responses to “Remembering Penn Kimball

  1. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Is there anyone out there ready, willing and able to fill Mr. Kimball’s shoes? We have never needed his like more than we do now. I hope his passing will serve as a wake-up call.

  2. Peter Gambaccini

    Penn Kimball gave me useful and fateful advice when I was 18 years old that actually did much to shape the course of my life. I could never thank him enough. He was truly a great man.

  3. I was sad to read of Penn Kimball’s passing. Penn and Janet were good friends of my parents, and we saw them often back in the day. My father Dr. Daniel Adler was one of the few people whose intellect and knowledge of current events made him a match for Penn in political discussions. Both liked to “stir the pot” as Janet said. They had terrific dinner-time arguments, all supported by facts and with respect and humor – not the kind of political arguing we see today on the national stage. Even though they were both “liberals” I seem to recall that Penn supported the U.S. stance on Vietnam longer than my father did. At any rate, they had terrific and (to an observer) illuminating discussions. Later, Penn was supportive of my then-nascent journalism career. Like Dan Woog, he could speak equally comfortably with someone powerful in society or a student. Thinking fondly of Penn and sending warm thoughts to the Kimball family.

  4. Sally Campbell Palmer

    Are there people like him around any more? We sure could use them!

  5. Nicholas T. & Joanne S. Zeoli

    We lived across the street from Penn and Janet, in Westport, and, after Janet died, Penn told us about his experiences and his writing of his book The File. He has been on my mind lately because of a book I am reading entitled Subversives which delves into the machinations of the FBI. We are sorry to hear of his dying. I remember his daughter Lisa also. I wonder if she remembers us: Please accept our regrets. Nick and Jody Zeoli