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Bill Sexton, longtime editor, correspondent at Newsday, dies at 91

Bill Sexton.

Bill Sexton. Credit: Newsday

During a journalism career spanning decades, Bill Sexton covered wars, presidents and international relations. While at Newsday, he opened up bureaus in Beijing and Tokyo, and he accompanied the paper’s publisher and editor to Russia, providing context and research as they sought to better understand foreign affairs.

"It was a time in journalism when you either seemed to be an old-school diplomatic type, or a young, aggressive journalist. He was in the middle," said his wife, Bonnie Sexton, who met Bill while working at Newsday as a researcher. "It always amazed me how even-minded he was. He was a gentleman."

William "Bill" Sexton, who served as an editorial page editor and foreign correspondent at Newsday before becoming a leading voice in amateur radio, died last Sunday in Sarasota, Florida. He was 91.

Sexton had ongoing health issues and had suffered a stroke a week before, his son Paul Sexton of Sarasota said.

A Baltimore native, Sexton dropped out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to join the staff of United Press International, where he worked out of the Raleigh, London and New York bureaus for nearly 15 years, minus a two-year absence to serve in the Korean War. He also served as associate director of the American Press Institute at Columbia University from 1963 to 1966.

He took over Newsday’s editorial page in 1970, a pivotal time in the paper’s history. The Long Island daily had just been purchased by the Times Mirror Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and the direction of the opinion section was unclear.

"It wasn’t immediately clear which party would come out on top, but Bill was a Democrat through and through," said Jim Lynn, who served as Sexton’s deputy editor. "With a new publisher and new top editor, his editorial page left no doubt about it."

As associate editor from 1972 to 1979, Sexton shaped the editorial page’s coverage of the Vietnam War, through the Watergate scandal and into President Jimmy Carter's administration. He was an "ideas man," said Lynn, full of enthusiasm and a clear sense of direction.

If a reporter handed in an assignment he didn’t like, Sexton wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure. But he was equally quick to smooth over disputes with a lunch or dinner out, at company expense.

After retiring from Newsday in 1991, Sexton launched a new career with the Army Military Auxiliary Radio System, or MARS, a Defense Department component of ham radio operators that volunteers for backup communications during major disasters.

He served as the organization’s public affairs officer for 13 years, writing "Army MARS at 90: Helping Protect the Homeland" in 2016, a 100-page book on the agency’s role in national security. He assisted with communication efforts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, and his volunteer efforts earned him the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

When he wasn’t sitting at the radio that he housed in a shack in his backyard, Sexton could be found volunteering with Bonnie at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, or at Tanglewood, a music venue frequented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

And though he had long ago hung up his press badge, he still loved to be where the action was, following police cars and fire trucks and talking to officers at the scene of accidents.

"He was always engaging people in the world around him," his son Paul said. "He talked to everybody, always asking questions. He loved to grab the world and learn about it."

A small service is being planned for Sexton in Florida.

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