Robert Fresco, a reporter who worked on many of Newsday’s investigations, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning story about Baby Jane Doe, died on his 78th birthday of complications of COVID-19, his daughter Sarah Fresco said Monday.
A longtime resident of Huntington, he had been in declining health since a 2008 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and since 2015 lived at the Maryville Enhanced Assisted Living in Huntington. He died Sunday at Hospice Inn in Melville after a brief hospitalization last week.
Fresco was remembered as a committed journalist whose talent for gathering and analyzing data helped inform projects ranging from disparities in property tax assessments to traffic fatalities on Long Island, and stories on race, education and the environment.
"He loved his work and attacked every reporting assignment with an unabashed earnestness,” said Howard Schneider, executive director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University and former editor-in-chief at Newsday. “He participated in many of the paper's groundbreaking local reporting projects in the 1980s and 1990s and was a member of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for the paper's coverage of the Baby Jane Doe controversy."
In that story, a Newsday team followed a local battle over court-ordered intervention into the care of a disabled infant that reached the Supreme Court, raising ethical, legal and public policy issues.
“Bob was an early adopter of data-driven reporting techniques — he was quick to grasp how complex systems worked and had encyclopedic knowledge of the Island’s counties, towns, cities and villages,” recalled Richard Galant, now managing editor at CNN Opinions, previously a longtime Newsday editor. “So it was natural for editors to draft him to work on projects. He was a strong team player.”
Joye Brown, now a columnist at Newsday who worked with Fresco in those years, said he was “able to build databases that were incredibly complex and incredibly accurate all before the internet … We used his research for a project we did 30 years ago; and when the census came out years later, his predictive analysis was dead on.”
“He was above all smart and intellectual,” she added. “You could talk to him about everything — he knew literature, he knew music, but he loved to talk about his daughters. He was so proud of his daughters.”
His daughter Sarah, 50, of Boston, helps run an elder program in a health center there, while Nancy Fresco, 47, of Fairbanks, Alaska, is an associate research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in biology and ecology, doing research on climate change.
Fresco was the son of immigrants. His mother, Elizabeth, was born in Crimea in Russia and his father, Albert, arrived from Turkey in the 1920s. He was born in New York City in 1942, moving to Port Washington at 8, where he attended public schools.
In 1963, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts in history before attaining two masters degrees from Columbia University in international relations and in journalism. After joining the U.S. Foreign Service, he was posted to Turkey, where he met his wife, Janet, then a secretary at the British Foreign Service. They married in 1968. Janet, who turns 81 on Thursday, lives in an assisted living facility in Andover, Massachusetts, Sarah Fresco said.
In 1970, he began his career in journalism at the Cincinnati Enquirer before arriving at Newsday in 1973. He covered local towns, including Huntington, and state government in Albany and worked on the paper’s investigative team.
Sarah recalled a family car stocked with reporter steno pads and the No. 3 eraserless pencils that he also used to finish the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning before work.
After taking a buyout from Newsday around 2004, he enjoyed his role as grandfather of four, season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and concerts at the Tilles Center, college reunions and playing cello with the Senior Pops Orchestra, now the Symphonic Pops of Long Island.
But plans he and his wife, Janet, had to travel more widely were cut short by declining health, Sarah Fresco said.
Besides his wife and daughters, he is survived by his sister Louise Fresco Leibert, 73, of Hastings-on-Hudson, and four granddaughters.
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