Brian Donovan, a tenacious Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsday reporter whose work exposed widespread government corruption and police abuses in the disability pension system, died Wednesday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77.
An accomplished investigative reporter and published author, Donovan earned a reputation for confirming information that powerful figures worked to keep hidden, from secret land deals to child abuse in state day care programs.
During his four-decade career in journalism, he won more than 40 awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, the Polk Award and the National Headliners Award. But friends and colleagues remembered Donovan as a deeply modest and polite reporter who never chased the spotlight.
“Brian was a reporter’s reporter,” said Howard Schneider, former editor of Newsday and founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. “By temperament and talent he was one of the best reporters of his generation.”
Born and raised in Syracuse, Donovan was the oldest of two children of William Donovan, a commercial insurance agent, and Marion Donovan, a homemaker.
Brian Donovan received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University and worked for three years at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, a daily paper in upstate New York.
In 1967, Donovan was hired by Newsday, where he broke exclusive stories on racial injustice, organized crime and abuses by the oil industry.
He was also a key member of a Newsday investigative team that spent 32 months investigating secret land deals in Nassau County and in Islip, Brookhaven and Babylon towns. The series, which won a Pulitzer in 1970, showed how lawmakers and political party leaders made millions by trading their influence for inside information and resulted in 14 indictments.
Also in 1970, Donovan met Ellen Kanner, then a Newsday summer intern. Kanner said she was enthralled by his soft-spoken voice and the two began dating the following year. The couple, who lived in Huntington, married in 1973 and had two children: Gregg Donovan, 41, an engineer from Port Washington and Rebecca Margolis, 35, of Los Angeles.
“I can count on one hand the number of fights we ever had,” said Kanner, a clinical psychologist in Huntington. “He had a quiet dignity that I just loved so much.”
In 1995, Donovan and Newsday colleague Stephanie Saul published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series showing how weak oversight and regulation allowed police officers to fake on-duty injuries and game the system to collect lucrative tax-free disability benefits for life.
Saul, now with The New York Times, said Donovan was a meticulous reporter and talented writer who could weave together complicated stories in an easy-to-understand fashion.
“He was the complete package as a reporter and as a writer,” Saul said.
Donovan would win more accolades for a series that uncovered unsafe conditions in area day care centers, including owners with no training in child care and criminals caring for kids.
“He could take months if not years of reporting, spread it around the floor by his desk, and somehow organize and write an investigative project,” said former Newsday editor Steve Wick, now an executive editor at the Suffolk Times-Review. “It was amazing to behold.”
Donovan retired from Newsday in 2002 to focus on his book, “Hard Driving,” which chronicled the life and struggles of Wendell Scott, one of the first African-Americans on the NASCAR circuit. The book has since been optioned for a possible feature film, Kanner said.
Donovan was no stranger to auto racing, tinkering with engines before he was old enough to get behind the wheel and becoming a regular at the former Bridgehampton Race Circuit and at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway, Kanner said.
Earlier this month, Donovan was inducted into the Press Club of Long Island’s Hall of Fame.
“Brian Donovan was a towering figure of Long Island journalism,” Press Club president Scott Brinton said. “He will long serve as a role model for today’s generation and future generations of journalists, both here and beyond.”
Donovan is survived by his wife, two children, a sister, Susan Donovan, 73; daughter-in-law Haylee Donovan, 39; son-in-law Ben Margolis, 36, and two grandchildren, Sophie, 6, and Max, 2.
The family has started a GoFundMe account that it plans to use to create a foundation that supports investigative journalism. The initial goal is to raise $10,000.
The family is planning a public memorial service on Aug. 5 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington.