The letter Penny Ward read, penned by a journalist in New York, would change everything.

Life magazine reporter Donald Moser needed a recreational vehicle for a planned research trip in the Snake River wilderness in Idaho, and his request for a loaner stood out to Ward, a Winnebago employee in Iowa.

She traveled to New York and was impressed. When the meeting ended, she was sure of one thing: "I'm going to marry that man," she recalled telling herself in the elevator of the Time-Life Building.

It would take several more years, some missed connections, but they did marry, spending nearly 40 years together on Long Island.

Moser, longtime editor of Smithsonian magazine, died Dec. 8 at the couple's Sag Harbor home after battling Parkinson's disease. He was 81.

Moser, who ran the magazine from 1981 until 2001, was remembered as a passionate outdoorsman, a skilled writer and an editor who fostered vivid storytelling techniques.

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"He used terms like, 'get the camera rolling,' 'get into the details' to let the reader see what there is to see in this piece," said Jim Doherty, 76, a former senior editor for the magazine who now lives outside Spring Green, Wis.

For one memorable story about a school for butlers, Doherty recalled, Moser encouraged a reporter to attend the school himself. The second version of the piece, Doherty said, "came alive."

Moser was born in Cleveland in 1932. For two years he attended Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, but left to work in the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho and Wyoming, Penny Moser said.

He was drafted into the Army, but with the Korean War over, Moser spent two years at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana and Fort Benning in Georgia, later describing the experience as "pushing pencils, peeling potatoes and driving trucks."

He graduated from Ohio University in 1957 and later was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia.

The positions he held at Life ran the gamut, from military affairs reporter to assistant sports and adventure editor, and later Asia bureau chief, his wife said.

An assistant managing editor when he left Life, he joined Smithsonian magazine in 1977, becoming the top editor four years later. He retired in late 2001.

Moser is survived by brothers Gilbert of Sharonville, Ohio, and Dennis of Chesterfield, Mo. His remains were cremated and his ashes will be scattered into the Gulf Stream.