Mary Lou Forbes, 83, a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 at the Washington Star for her coverage of school desegregation in Virginia and became founding editor of the Washington Times’ Commentary opinion page, died June 27 of breast cancer at Inova Alexandria (Va.) Hospital.
Forbes began her career at the Star as a 17-year-old copy messenger. Rapidly promoted to reporter, she made her greatest impact during the 1950s reporting on “massive resistance” in Virginia to desegregation in public schools. The resistance, pushed by the political machine of then-U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., aimed to shut down public schools rather than integrate.
Mary Lou Werner was born June 21, 1926, in Alexandria and raised by her widowed mother. After graduating from high school in 1942, she began studying math at the University of Maryland, but her family’s finances led her to quit school and seek employment.
She initially applied for a job in the Star’s accounting department, but the job was taken and she was directed to the newsroom. She said she thrived there, as long as editors did not think she was married or planning to have children.
In the late 1950s, she became one of the paper’s first female editors. When she was hired, she recalled, the newsroom’s top executive asked her, “Do you think that men will take orders from you?”
The Star, an afternoon paper, folded in 1981, and three years later Forbes joined the fledgling Washington Times. She started the Commentary section, which features opinion writing distinct from the op-ed page.