Joel Havemann, longtime Times editor in Washington, dies at 76

Joel Havemann, who served more than 20 years in the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau as an economics reporter and a senior editor, has died after a 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Havemann, who died April 25, was 76.

In addition to his work in the Washington bureau, Havemann served a tour as Brussels bureau chief. His appointment came a year after his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Despite his advancing illness and the need for extensive travel in the overseas assignment, he provided comprehensive coverage of the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and the development of the Common Market.

Havemann was also the author of two books. The first, in 1978, provided a detailed analysis of the new federal budget process instituted as a reform after the Watergate scandal that ended Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.

The second, a more personal book, was published in 2002 after he returned to Washington from Europe. It was a candid account of his painful struggle against the ravages of Parkinson’s, as well as a detailed description of the disease and its causes.

At the time, many experts believed the disease, which today afflicts an estimated 1 million Americans, would be cured within five years, a goal that remains elusive.

As an editor, he was remembered by colleagues as having a rare ability to strengthen their stories while retaining their own voices and their confidence in their own abilities.

Doyle McManus, a former Times Washington bureau chief and now a columnist for the paper, said, “Joel was not only an accomplished reporter and editor; he was universally loved and admired by his colleagues — loved for his kindness and wry humor, and admired for his refusal to let Parkinson’s disease get in his way.”

It was that determination to live his life as fully as possible despite increasing physical impairment that struck many of his colleagues.

Janet Hook, who worked closely with Havemann as the bureau’s longtime chief congressional correspondent, said, “What a life well-lived. Joel was such an inspiration, as a thinker and journalist, as man with a big brain and even bigger heart.”

In addition to his career at The Times, Havemann served for many years as personal editor for Robert Samuelson, who writes an economics column for the Washington Post.

In a recent column, Samuelson said, “Joel was an exceptional editor. Three qualities, I believe, define the best editors. First is a respect for and command of the language; second is some grasp of the substance of the written piece; and finally, there’s the ability to persuade writers to make changes without destroying their self-confidence.”

Havemann’s facility with numbers — he graduated magna cum laude in mathematics at Harvard — struck Samuelson and many colleagues, perhaps because it seemed rare among journalists.

“He once courted [his wife] Judy by showing her how to prove that the square root of two is an irrational number [that is, it can’t be written as a fraction],” Samuelson said.

Washington reporter Johanna Neuman recalled that “throughout my 10 years at the Los Angeles Times, Joel was always bemused at my seeming inability to calculate percentages. I think of him now, whenever I use the app that someone mercifully invented for that.”

Perhaps less rare in a journalist was Havemann’s long-standing interest in gambling. His father, Ernest C. Havemann, also a journalist and author, owned a number of race horses.

And his son was a regular bettor on horses — or whatever alternative he could find.

Early in his career he was a reporter for the Portland Oregonian. At the time, Portland was a quiet, isolated lumber town.

“Nothing but trees for miles around,” as he remembered it.

But Portland did have dog racing. And Havemann said that for him, going to the dog track was the saving grace of his years there.

He was also an avid poker player and a regular in a monthly game in Washington until Parkinson’s destroyed his ability to participate.

Robert C. Toth, a member of the poker group and a colleague in the Washington bureau, described Havemann as “very intelligent but modest and gracious, especially when winning at poker.”

Joel Havemann was born July 16, 1943, the son of Ernest and Ruth Bohle Havemann.

His father, in addition to racing horses, was also a journalist and author. At the time of his son’s birth during World War II, he was in the South Pacific serving in the Army Air Corps.

Ernest Havemann, a native of St. Louis, worked on newspapers there, became a writer for Time and Life magazines and concluded his career as a freelance magazine writer and co-author of a textbook on psychology, later additions of which Joel edited.

Joel Havemann grew up and went to school in Glen Rock, N.J. In high school, he played tennis and belonged to a prize-winning math team.

After graduating from Harvard in 1965, where he wrote for and edited the daily Crimson, he became night police reporter at the Oregonian.

His first assignment, he told friends, was a story about a woman who had grown a lily with 18 petals.

Reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 to 1973, Havemann won a Chicago Newspaper Guild prize for his coverage of the riots that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

In 1972, he married another Sun-Times reporter, Judy McIntosh Nicol.

The following year, they moved to Washington. Havemann served as deputy editor at the National Journal before joining The Times’ D.C. bureau in 1983. Judy Havemann had a long career as a reporter and editor for the Washington Post.

Havemann retired from The Times in 2007.

He is survived by his wife; daughters Anne and Margaret; son William; stepdaughter Theresa; and three grandchildren, Evelyn, Audrey, and Emilia.

Cooper is a former Times staff writer.