Meg Greenfield 1930-1999
by Daniel P. Harmon
Professor of Classics
Mary Ellen (Meg) Greenfield was born in Seattle on December 27, 1930, the daughter of Lewis James and Lorraine Nathan Greenfield. Meg was the younger sister of James Greenfield -- known to everyone as Jim. Meg attended the Bush School in Seattle and was graduated summa cum laude in 1952 from Smith College. She spent the year 1952-53 at Newnham College, Cambridge University, as a Fulbright scholar studying the poetry of William Blake. She next lived in Rome for a while, studying and writing. In the last decade of her life, Meg returned to her Seattle roots and planned to retire here, but her distinguished career kept her mostly on the East Coast. She wrote for The Reporter magazine from 1957 until 1968. In that tumultuous year she joined The Washington Post editorial department, where she became deputy editor (1970) and then editor (1979) of the editorial page, a position she held until the time of her death. She also wrote a bi-weekly column for Newsweek from1974 to 1999.
This bare outline of her life's achievements, however, does not begin to convey how unique she was.
When Meg died in her Georgetown, Washington, home on May 13, 1999, she left a void in the lives of many people. As the editorial page editor of The Washington Post for twenty years, she was at the top of her profession, one of the most accomplished and influential journalists of our age. She had won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1978. She held honorary doctorates from Smith College (1978), Georgetown University (1979) , Wesleyan University (1982), Williams College (1987) and Princeton University (1990). Her dinner parties and social events in both Washingtons had become almost legendary. The Fourth of July celebrations at her Bainbridge Island home near Seattle brought some of the nation's and the region's most famous citizens together with some of us more ordinary folk.
Meg's connection to the Classics Department originated in her friendship with the then-UW president William P. Gerberding. In 1989, she began making annual gifts for a scholarship in Classics named for her beloved late brother, Jim. Meg's friends and associates were aware of her love of English literature and her genius for knowing exactly the right turn of phrase to express a thought. Fewer people however, knew that reading Latin was a form of relaxation for Meg. She was interested in Augustine and classical authors concerned with ethics, which is not surprising since in her own writing Meg was concerned with the decline of ethics and civility in public life. But it was mostly the comic writer Plautus, especially his portrayal of life's ironies and absurdities, that captured her imagination. Meg delighted in the timeless quality of Plautus' humor and in his talent for word play, especially when it came at the expense of the pompous and self-important. Editorials have chronicled her own 'guff-free prose,' her wry, droll and sometimes mischievous wit, her sense of the ironies of life, and her contempt for phoniness.
The Classics Department felt great pride when Meg delivered the University of Washington Commencement Address in 1997. It was always a special day when Meg contacted us. Like all of her friends, we deeply miss her. But her influence and inspiration will continue to grow in our Department because of her unique generosity and her great affection for her brother Jim. Obiit heu citius!