When Isaac Imaka was working at the Miami Herald as an Alfred Friendly Fellow in 2015, and when he returned to Uganda to work for the Daily Monitor, he often turned to Ellen Soeteber for advice, even after she left the Alfred Friendly board of directors for health reasons.
Isaac thought it was uncharacteristic of Ellen, his retired, unofficial mentor, when she didn’t return text messages he sent from his home in Africa. Then he found out why.
Ellen died on June 21 at age 66 after a brief illness at a hospital near her home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., newspapers reported a few days later.
Her husband and novelist Richard Martins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Ellen was hospitalized for for an infection that proved to be untreatable.
“Woke up to the heartbreaking news,” Isaac wrote on Facebook. “I will always remember the raids we had around downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale after the many dinners. And that last, very long, talk we had at The Pelican about my future in the media will always be cherished.”
Similar fond memories of Ellen’s generosity and kind spirit poured forth on social media.
“So sad,” wrote Luli Baldomir, a 2008 Alfred Friendly Fellow from Uruguay assigned to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel when Ellen was the editor there, part of her 33-year newspaper career. “I remember she was so interest in being in touch during my fellowship, to discuss journalism and women leadership in newsrooms. Great journalist. Better woman.”
Randy Smith, president of the Alfred Friendly Foundation, wrote that board members “will forever remember Ellen Soeteber as a friend, leader and mentor to journalists around the world.”
“Her life journey took her to senior leadership positions in newsrooms and to prestigious jobs in education. We were fortunate to have her as a board member — not only for her wisdom but for the inspiration and friendship that she offered to our fellows each year. We offer our sympathies to her husband, Dick, and family.”
Sri Ramakrishnan, an Alfred Friendly board member and a former Alfred Friendly Fellow, added, “I couldn’t agree more with Randy’s quote: ‘She cared deeply for the fellows, both as people and as journalists.’ Such a wonderful and warm-hearted person she was.”
Advisory Board member Craig Matsuda called her “a fine editor, terrific colleague, excellent leader, and a memorable head of this organization’s advisory board. It was a pleasure to have served with her and the group’s work, clearly, was near and dear to her. She will be hugely missed.”
Ellen grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, and was a 1972 graduate of Northwestern University. After a brief time at Chicago Today, a now defunct afternoon newspaper, she spent 20 years at the Chicago Tribune, including the position of associate managing editor.
The Tribune’s obituary said that Ellen displayed a paraphrased quote from cultural critic Paul Fussell in her office that read, “What people don’t want you to publish is journalism. All else is publicity.”
It was the distillation of the direct-speaking journalist’s responsibility to readers of the Tribune, where as assistant managing editor for metro news in 1987-88, Soeteber coordinated a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of waste and influence-peddling in Chicago’s City Council, the newspaper said.
Ellen went on to become editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 2001 to 2005. She had a fervent interest in political news, an insatiable curiosity about the world and a passion for the St. Louis Cardinals, friends told the newspaper.
After working as managing editor of the Sun Sentinel for nearly four years, Ellen joined the Alfred Friendly Foundation as chair of advisory board. She also served on the board of advisers of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and was a visiting professor of journalism ethics and diversity at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism.
She took up golf, wrote book reviews and stepped up the world traveling she and Martins had undertaken through much of their 42-year marriage. While home, Soeteber enjoyed tending to her orchids and completing The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in about a half-hour while standing in her pool, Martins told the Post-Dispatch.
In addition to Martins, Soeteber is survived by two sisters, Patricia Snyder, of Princeton, N. J., and Carol Rosenkranz, of New Baden, Ill.