A Homecoming

Award-winning journalist and Detroit native David Maraniss had nearly given up on his hometown, until a car commercial cast things in a new light.


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Washington Post journalists David Maraniss and Bob Woodward at a house party.

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Journalist David Maraniss has won three Pulitzer Prizes during a career at The Washington Post spanning almost 40 years. He’s also written or co-authored nearly a dozen books, and his most recent, Once In A Great City: A Detroit Story, focuses on the year 1963, which Maraniss asserts was pivotal in the city’s history, marking both the end of its mercurial rise and the beginning of a stunning half-century decline.

“(People of Detroit) were blinded by their own self-confidence,” says Maraniss, “whether it applies to the car industry not seeing Japan and Germany on the horizon, or not seeing the importance of keeping the heart of their industry in Detroit, and how important the city was to everything else. It was a star burning bright, but it was burning out, and people couldn’t see that.”

The story is personal for Maraniss because he’s a native Detroiter, born in 1949 at Women’s Hospital (now Hutzel). 

“We lived in two or three different places in the city of Detroit,” he recalls. “The one that was most memorable to me was on the west side on Dexter, about a mile up from the Fisher YMCA at Grand River Avenue. We lived on the second floor of a flat. Those are my earliest childhood memories. I remember my older brother and sister, we’d sit out on the porch and they would quiz me on 1955 new automobiles as they drove down the street. I had to be able to name the Desotos, Buicks, Ramblers, and all the cars of that era.”

Other fond memories spill out as he reminisces: Hudson’s department store at Christmas, a love for Vernors ginger ale that lingers to this day, taking the Boblo Boat to the island amusement park, and his early years at Winterhalter Elementary School on Broadstreet Avenue.

“It was a very good school in a largely Jewish neighborhood that was transitioning then to African-American,” Maraniss says. “It was a very integrated school, terrific teachers. In first grade, we’d go from class to class in science, civics, reading, and different things. In first grade! My brother claims he went to school with one of the Supremes, and where we lived really wasn’t that far from where Motown started several years later, on West Grand Boulevard.”

By 1957, when Maraniss was 8 years old, his family left Detroit, ultimately settling in Madison, Wis., where his father continued his career in the newspaper business. “There were four children in our family and three of them were scholars,” he says. “I was kind of the dumb jock. I grew up like a lot of delusional young boys wanting to play shortstop for the Milwaukee Braves, and at a pretty early age I realized I wasn’t going anywhere in baseball. But I loved it.”

Once Maraniss accepted the fact that his future wasn’t going to be in professional sports, he began tagging along with his father to the office.

“I grew up in newspapers with my dad,” he says, “in the era of copy paper, glue, pneumatic tubes, cigarette stubs on the floor, the smell of ink, all that kind of stuff. I loved it. And this is not false modesty, but I’m terrible at everything else — so luckily, one thing I loved to do and I was good at was reporting and writing.”

MARANISS AT LAMBEAU FIELD IN GREEN BAY, WIS., IN 1996, WHILE RESEARCHING HIS BOOK, “WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED: A LIFE OF VINCE LOMBARDI (SIMON & SCHUSTER).”

A career path was forged once Maraniss enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the fall of 1967. At the time, the school was already gaining a reputation as one of the nation’s most radical campuses. Students marched to protest the Vietnam War, burned draft cards, and confronted Army recruiters on campus. Maraniss, who had just turned 18, eagerly covered it all for the school newspaper.

“In college you could tell what my interests were because I wrote about two things: high school sports and student protests,” he says. “It just evolved from there.”

Following graduation, Maraniss spent a few years in Madison as a local radio reporter, covering city hall and writing, producing, and anchoring a weekend broadcast. In 1975, he was hired by The Times in Trenton, N.J. “The paper had just been bought by The Washington Post and it was their farm club,” Maraniss says. “And so after two years in the minor leagues in Trenton, they called me up to The Post.” He was 26 years old.

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