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Newsday columnist,Lauren Terrazzano loses battle with cancer

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Newsday columnist loses battle with cancer

Lauren Terrazzano, longtime Newsday reporter and 'Life, With Cancer' columnist dies. She was 39.



May 16, 2007

Lauren Terrazzano, a tenacious Newsday reporter whose wide-ranging work documented lapses in society's treatment of the elderly and foster children and finally explored her own battle with lung cancer, died late Tuesday night at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. She was 39.

News of Terrazzano's death shortly after 11:30 p.m. rocked the newsroom staff of Newsday, where she had worked since 1996. In a memo to the staff put out Wednesday morning, Newsday editor John Mancini described Terrazzano as a reporter "whose grit and diligence routinely shed light on the stories of those who may not have the means to illuminate readers on their own."

Only last month, Terrazzano was honored for her column, Life, With Cancer, by the Society of the Silurians, an organization in New York of veteran journalists. Eve Berliner, chairwoman of the group's awards committee, called the columns "moving and honest, personal, strong and funny."

Readers agreed. Dozens responded to her April 10 column where she announced that she had two to three months to live. She denied neither anger nor regrets, but she also pledged to live as normally as possible. She would get up in the morning, go for a walk and try to write. "What matters most is the present moment," she wrote. "Not two to three months. Or two to three years. Or two to three hours. Just now."

Since being diagnosed in August, 2004, Terrazzano underwent several surgeries and was her own best health advocate. She battled back from the disease, only to learn that it had returned in March of last year -- just days after returning from her honeymoon with husband Al Baker, a former Newsday reporter who now works for the New York Times.

A few months later, she started writing about her illness. "She brought to the column her reporting zeal and an unflinching determination to describe her situation accurately. This doggedness was no news to her doctors," Mancini said.

Current and former colleagues, many of whom had attended her wedding last spring in Manhattan, expressed deep sadness. For many of them, Terrazzano was "a big-hearted softie and a hard-boiled detective at the same time," in the words of former Newsday reporter Brian Donovan. Day to day, she was a blunt defender of her copy, a specialist in the journalistic art of wedging one's foot in almost-closed doors, a skilled reporter who used her investigative talent to highlight injustices against the most vulnerable, in particular children.

"Lauren was a wonderful reporter and a wonderful person," said Anthony Marro, who was Newsday editor when Terrazzano was hired. "We all knew from the minute she walked into the newsroom just how much passion and tenacity she had. Some of us didn't know until her fight with cancer just how much courage she had."

Her final Life, With Cancer column, about a fund-raiser for lung-cancer research, appeared online Tuesday. From the start, the column, like its author, was never to be pigeon-holed. In one column, she took people to task for insensitive comments toward those with cancer; in another, she emoted about a Cheez-Doodle gorge-out after a treatment setback; in still another, she shared her New Year's resolution: "To live."

Friends recalled a life-loving woman who did not miss opportunities to travel -- to Cuba, to Spain with her husband, to Central America, where in 2005, during a vacation, she reported on deadly mudslides in Guatemala and took photographs later exhibited at a gallery in Huntington. Closer to home, she relished walks in Central Park, often with the cap of her beloved Boston Red Sox pulled low on her head and her little white dog Bartufalo on the leash. For weeks, readers debated the mutt's lineage (its face suggested a bichon, many wrote, and also possibly, a Wheaten).

Her highly personal column represented a departure from her previous work. Her Newsday career had first been marked by her resourceful reporting in the newspaper's Pulitzer-winning coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996 off the South Shore of Long Island. For 24 hours, she and Baker were the only reporters inside the Coast Guard rescue center at East Moriches.

Soon, she became one of the go-to general assignment writers at the newspaper.

"She could get anyone to talk to her, whether it was families of victims, learning disabled children, or social services bureaucrats," recalled Miriam Pawel, who hired Terrazzano when she was an assistant managing editor at Newsday. "I think that talent stemmed from two things. She had a fierce, single-minded devotion to writing the best possible story at all times, and she radiated a natural empathy with people that made them trust her to tell their stories. And she never betrayed that trust."

Ben Weller, Newsday business editor, noted that Terrazzano frequently was asked "to interview people who've experienced a great loss and many of those people stayed in touch with her over the years. That's a testament to the way she treated them: with concern, respect and dignity."

In the newsroom, Terrazzano was the picture of intensity. She spoke in low tones into the telephone receiver glued to her ear, smile flashing with the demands of the assignment, her expressive eyes framed by a swept-over mane of long brown hair that appeared buoyed by its own private gust. All the while she sat cross-legged in her office chair, her feet off the floor.

Like many in the trade, she papered an unkempt workstation with world-weary quotes and rude cartoons. One belied her feistiness: "Some Days, It's Hard to Know Who to Hate." Another, more prominently displayed, captured her spirit of high ambition and higher idealism: "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."

Not infrequently, her stories forced local governments to acknowledge missteps, or prompted readers to offer help to the subjects of her articles. In 2004, not long before her diagnosis, she worked with Newsday reporters Amanda Harris, Dawn MacKeen and Eden Laikin on an investigative series that revealed widespread problems at Long Island's assisted living centers. The series won first place in the "Depth Reporting" category from the New York State Associated Press Association. Legislation to toughen inspections was introduced a month after the series appeared and later that year, then-Gov. George Pataki signed into law the Assisted Living Reform Act.

Motivated by what former Newsday Editor Howard Schneider called "a highly calibrated sense of outrage," Terrazzano took few pains to hide her joy when her stories hit their mark. At about time the assisted-living home series' impact became clear, she sought out Schneider. As he recalls the moment, she had a glint in her eye: "A half smile crossed her face. 'We did it,' she said."

By the time of the assisted-living series, she had spent years laying the foundation for a beat covering social issues on Long Island. Overloaded county caseworkers, homeless people, kids stuck with abusive parents: These were her subjects. Over time, individuals' tales of trouble knit together in an authoritative portrait of Long Island's have-nots and the often overwhelmed agencies that serve them.

"She didn't spend her life writing about celebrities in rehab or rich guys buying oceanfront estates or who won 'American Idol,'" said Alex Martin, a former assistant managing editor at Newsday who now works at the Wall Street Journal. "Instead, Lauren would spend her time in homeless shelters and rooming houses and juvenile detention centers -- all the places where the people who society would rather forget can be found."

Terrazzano grew up in Massachusetts, graduating from the high school in Tewksbury. She was the only child of Frank and Virginia Terrazzano, of Hull, Mass., and they survive her.

In 1990, Terrazzano earned a bachelor's degree in communications, with a concentration in Italian and art history, from Boston University. She earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1994.

She took her first reporting job with the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass. From there, she went to Trader's Magazine in New York; then the Daily News in New York for a one-year reporting internship; then to the Record in Hackensack, N.J.; and, in March 1996, to Newsday.

Terrazzano and Baker were married March 11, 2006, at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Manhattan. A reception followed at Columbia University, where Terrazzano worked as an adjunct professor.

In March, she and her husband marked their first anniversary with a hike up Bear Mountain, in the state park 50 miles north of New York. Eighteen months earlier, Terrazzano had led 40 of her colleagues and friends up the mountain in a charity walk for cancer research. It was a sunny day of triumph. When she made the hike this year, the weather had cooled and her prognosis had darkened. The steps came slowly.

"In a sweep of melodrama," she wrote in her column of March 20, "I sat on a dry log and told them to go on without me. Perhaps the illness had simply taken its toll. But more than two hours later, we did, in fact, make it to the top. The icy, cold top. Victory."

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

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