About Dick Margolis

Richard J. "Dick" Margolis was a masterful writer with a gift for winnowing complex issues to their core and giving them a human, heartfelt voice. He brought personal stories to the forefront, showing how abstract political and policy issues affect real people — and helping us get to know them. Using a combination of humor, eloquence, wit and logic, he attempted in his writing to move individuals and politicians to respond to the needs of those who are typically forgotten or overlooked.

 

Dick's narratives were lyrical in tone, with a distinct rhythm and style. His depth of knowledge — about history, literature, the arts, the sciences — was astounding. Turning phrases in unexpected ways, he shed light on nuance, gave voice to the powerless and skewered the mighty — always, it seemed, with a twinkle in his eye.

His career spanned many roles, subjects and forms. Dick was a freelance journalist, a poet and children’s author, an educator, an editor and a political activist — often all at the same time. He also was a loving and devoted husband and father, and a cherished mentor to many.  

As a freelance journalist, Dick wrote about education, racial disparity, urban and rural poverty, Native Americans, migrant farmworkers, the elderly and other topics. His articles appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The New Republic, Smithsonian, Working Papers, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Change, Harper's, Life, Redbook and Next. From 1968-1991, he was a regular columnist for The New Leader, an internationally renowned platform for the nation's most respected, progressive writers and artists.

Dick also was a frequent op-ed contributor to, and the author of numerous book reviews for, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other leading publications.

 

Dick wrote meticulously researched reports, booklets and monographs for government agencies, private foundations and nonprofit organizations. These included Basin Electric Cooperatives, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Carnegie Corporation, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the former Community Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Edna McDowell Clark Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the U.S.Department of Housing & Urban Development, the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, Phelps-Stokes, the Postal Rate Commission, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and the United Housing Foundation.

Dick's books include Risking Old Age In America (Westview Press, 1990), focusing on the challenges faced by elderly, low-income Americans, as well as six children’s books and three books of poetry, one of which — Secrets of a Small Brother (Macmillan, 1984) — won the Christopher Award in the “Books for Young People” category.

Dick’s work as an editor began as a journalism student at the University of Minnesota. Shortly after earning his master's degree, Dick and his wife, Diane Rothbard Margolis, moved to New York and, in 1956, purchased the Brooklyn Heights Press. Dick served as editor and publisher for the next four years, winning the George Polk Memorial Award for Community Journalism in 1959. He also served as literary editor of Change magazine (1973-80), contributing editor of Foundation News (1983-1988), an editorial board member of Human Services in the Rural Environment (1979-1991), a contributing editor to Rural Electrification, editor-in-chief of the monthly publication ruralamerica, (1977-79), editor-in-chief of The Cooperator (1972-73) and senior editor of Working Papers  (1981).

Dick shared his expertise and talents as an educator, teaching writing courses at the State University of New York at Purchase from 1974 to 1977 and at the University of Connecticut in 1970; teaching the course “Power and Conflict in Rural America” at Harvard University in 1981; and completing a fellowship at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University from 1980 to 1981.

In addition to the activism reflected in his writings, Dick was politically involved on a number of fronts. He chaired the Rural Housing Alliance from 1969 to 1975 and co-founded the former nonprofit advocacy organization Rural America Inc. in the mid-1970s. His work with Rural America included serving as chair (assuming that role in 1976) and turning the organization's monthly tabloid, ruralamerica, into a nationally recognized publication. With his encyclopedic knowledge and sharp-witted observations, he was in demand as a speaker at numerous national and regional gatherings.

In 1990, Dick was stricken with kidney disease, and he began the arduous process of daily dialysis while waiting for a transplant. He used the opportunity to craft several columns relating his experience to the politics of America’s health-care system — as he put it, “pondering the connection between my body and the body politic.” After 15 months on the wait list, he received a new kidney and was on the road to recovery. But just two months later, in April 1991, his heart failed without warning, and he left us. He was just 61 years old.

The following year, Dick's family and friends created the Richard J. Margolis Award to celebrate his life and continue his legacy, challenging America's urban bias and speaking out on behalf of marginalized people.

Read selected writings by Dick Margolis.
 

Read Dick's obituary in The New York Times.

 

Photos, from top: Dick Margolis, circa 1990; with Senator Ted (Edward) Kennedy; with Senator George McGovern; during his college years

Richard J. Margolis Award

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