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Judith Bender, award-winning reporter, editor at Newsday, dies at 87

Judith Bender in an undated photo. Retired Newsday

Judith Bender in an undated photo. Retired Newsday editor Anthony Marro said she was "one of the very best reporters covering state government." Credit: Ken Sackman

Judith Bender, a longtime award-winning reporter at Newsday who tackled political campaigns, wrote investigative stories on power brokers in Washington and devoted her life to journalism, has died. She was 87.

Bender died May 8 of natural causes in her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, said Ken Sackman of Los Angeles, one of her nephews.

Born on Dec. 15, 1933, in Queens, Bender, a graduate of the University of Michigan and later of Columbia University, worked in advertising before she made the switch to journalism, according to family members.

She worked at the Knickerbocker News in Albany and the Albany Times Union before arriving at Newsday in May 1969. At Newsday, she worked as a reporter for both the state and Washington bureaus during the 1970s and '80s, and later served as an editor until she retired on July 7, 2000.

Retired Newsday editor Anthony Marro said Bender was "one of the very best reporters covering state government."

Marro also credited Bender for being responsible for the first major story that Newsday broke on the Watergate scandal. Bender knew a source who had a sister who was a bookkeeper at the Committee to Reelect the President who said that G. Gordon Liddy, a loyalist to President Richard Nixon, had been involved in the Watergate burglary.

"[Bender] called me and told me about it and I tracked down Liddy, who was listed in the phone book. He was very calm and polite and said, ‘Please don't take this personally, but I have no intention of talking about this ever.’ So we did more reporting and then wrote a story saying that he had been fired and was a target of the investigation," Marro said.

Earl Lane, a retired Newsday science reporter and former deputy chief of Newsday’s Washington bureau, worked with Bender in Washington for several years. The two worked together on the team that produced an award-winning series for Newsday, "The Permanent Government," which took a look at the key nonelected insiders in Washington who helped to drive policy and government operations during the 1980s.

Lane said Bender was "a warm, engaging personality, but also a very sharp, focused reporter" who tackled Capitol Hill. Bender covered the battles over taxes between President Ronald Reagan and Democratic lawmakers in the 1980s, while having obtained a deep understanding of the budget process and of competing political interests, Lane said.

"I found her stories were always on point and on deadline. She was just a terrific reporter," Lane said.

Rita Ciolli, Newsday’s Editorial and Opinion pages editor, who worked with Bender in Washington, said her former colleague was ahead of her time during the 1970s and '80s, frequently assigned to major stories that required research, data and interviews because of the thorough and detailed quality of her work before it became more commonplace for teams of journalists to take on such assignments.

"She was someone who was widely respected in the newsroom. She was one of the few early women who had very important reporting jobs, and just somebody with a wonderful smile," Ciolli said.

Jim Klurfeld, retired chief of Newsday's Albany and Washington bureaus, worked with Bender for years, describing her as a "very serious person and very good reporter" who always had an eye for detail, whether reporting or editing.

"She drove everybody crazy because she asked a lot of questions. But she’s the person you wanted there as the last person to see the copy before it went to print," Klurfeld said.

When she wasn’t chasing stories, Bender’s loved ones say, she loved watching classic movies, traveling to Europe, and spending as much time with her sister, mother, nieces, grandnieces and nephews as she could.

"Her door was always open to family who loved visiting with her," Sackman said. "The family is pretty close, but everybody wanted to see Judy."

Bender battled various ailments including heart illness, cancer, and knee and hip replacements in her later years, Sackman said, but she was still driven to work in news to keep her mind off of her illnesses.

Sackman called Bender "a pioneer for women in journalism."

"She’s not Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, but she was a very big fish in a small pond," Sackman said. "She was really special."

Another nephew and a niece are among those who survive her.

Services had not yet been scheduled. Bender's remains were cremated and will be buried next to her sister, Phyllis Sackman, in upstate Ithaca.

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