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John Van Doorn, war correspondent, dies

A file photo of Newsday correspondent John Van

A file photo of Newsday correspondent John Van Doorn. Credit: Newsday file

John Van Doorn's dispatches from the Vietnam War were not only gripping in their own right -- they were also a milestone for Newsday because it was the first time the newspaper had sent a staff member overseas.

His work won him the prestigious Ernie Pyle Memorial Award in 1965. Two years later, he reported from another combat zone, covering the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War.

Van Doorn, who would leave the Long Island paper to complete a six-decade career in journalism as a reporter, editor and columnist, was working as a freelance columnist for the North County Times in the San Diego area when he suffered a stroke and died Dec. 14, friends and colleagues said. He was 78.

His last column appeared two days before his death with the headline "When the light went out" -- a tribute to a 33-year-old man who died of a drug overdose.

Van Doorn had a blunt, unadorned style, starting a Dec. 1 column with, "A funny thing about drunks: There is nothing funny about drunks."

He could be funny, too, starting another piece with, "Unbeknownst to her, on Wednesday morning I watched a lady take a bath. She was some dish, and I almost passed out at the sight of her." You'd have to read down to the fifth paragraph to learn that he was gazing at a hummingbird.

Relatives could not be reached for comment, but colleagues said in interviews and in the North County Times obituary that Van Doorn was a graceful writer and impeccable dresser with a no-nonsense persona.

His prickly exterior masked a softer side, they said.

"John was an exceptional talent," said Tony Insolia, former longtime editor of Newsday. "He fit in well in a newsroom full of gifted reporters and editors who wanted nothing more than to be good newspaper people . . . He wanted to be seen as this rough, tough guy, but his heart and kindness shone through."

Insolia said Van Doorn was highly recommended by another Newsday staffer, Bob Rhodes, who knew Van Doorn from their time together at the Columbus Dispatch in his home state of Ohio. Newsday hired Van Doorn in the mid-1950s.

He later had stints at several other publications, serving as an editor at The New York Times, executive editor of New York magazine and managing editor of the New York Post. He was also editor-in-chief of the Toledo Blade.

He joined the North County Times in 1997.

Van Doorn is survived by his wife, Sylvia, of San Marcos, Calif.; sons, John and Paul of Columbus, Ohio; a daughter, Anna Robertson of Lynbrook; and five grandchildren.

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