Journalist, author and educator Warren Watson, a former managing editor at the Portland Press Herald who helped oversee a major redesign of the newspaper, died Sunday of pneumonia and complications related to diabetes, according to his former wife. He was 67.

Watson died at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, where he had been hospitalized on and off since mid-December.

Watson was a veteran journalist and educator who worked for a variety of news organizations, journalism associations and higher learning institutions across the U.S., in addition to working at the Press Herald in the late 1980s to the mid-’90s.

As managing editor, Watson oversaw production aspects of the Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, and was among a group that led a major redesign of the paper, said Lou Ureneck, the paper’s former executive editor who hired Watson.

“It was a very successful design, it was well received by the readers, and it won an award for being one of the best designed newspapers in the world,” Ureneck said Monday.

Watson’s hiring was an unintended reunion, Ureneck said. The two had worked together on the college newspaper at the University of New Hampshire, where they shared journalism classes and professors.

“Warren was an enthusiast. He was an energetic person, a people person and a very positive individual,” Ureneck said.

Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, who was sports editor during Watson’s tenure as managing editor, called him a consummate journalist.

“He was serious about his work, but he was one of the friendliest editors you’d ever work with,” Nemitz said, adding that they remained close friends after Watson left the paper. “Even when he found himself getting older in an industry that was in decline, he was so determined to stay engaged in journalism. He kept reinventing himself.”

One of Watson’s first editing jobs was at the Peabody Times in Massachusetts in the early 1980s. He then became graphics editor and art director at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, widely regarded in the industry as one of the country’s top newspapers. He took over as managing editor of the Press Herald in 1988 and held that position for seven years until taking over the top editing position at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville until 1998.

Watson was 44 in September 1995 when he was named executive editor of the two newspapers.

“I want to make sure we devote as much as we can to gathering local news. That’s how we are judged by readers, on the quality of our news coverage,” he said at the time.

Longtime Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow said Watson was the editor who hired him full time after years of working as a correspondent.

“He liked my work, Sentinel editor Joan Smith told me for weeks before he announced my hiring. Gave me a desk, a computer and a telephone at the old building in the Concourse in Waterville,” Harlow said. “He was a good man. I am sad to hear of his passing.”

Doug Vanderweide worked at the Kennebec Journal when Watson started, and wrote the story announcing he had been hired.

“For a guy who was not native to central Maine, he got a feel for the issues that were important to Somerset, Franklin and northern Kennebec counties,” Vanderweide said.

Watson left Maine to become vice president of the American Press Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit that assists newspaper publishers with audience engagement and revenue growth. From there, he took a teaching position at Ball State University in Indiana, where he also directed J-Ideas, a nonprofit focused on developing and encouraging excellence in high school journalism. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from Ball State as well.

He went on to serve as executive editor of the nonprofit Society of American Business Editors and Writers – or SABEW – in Phoenix from 2009 to 2014, and he also taught journalism classes at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

During his time with the SABEW, Watson was responsible for moving the nonprofit from the University of Missouri to Arizona, and helped shore up the group’s finances during a difficult time in the industry, according to Chris Roush, a professor of business journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in a blog post announcing his death.

Watson even returned to newspapers for an eight-month stint in 2015 as executive editor of the Alton Telegraph in Illinios.

His ex-wife, Terri Watson, said she met Warren at the University of New Hampshire. Their first date was to a state fair, and after the group they were with broke up for the night, she and Warren drove to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to get late-night hot dogs at Gilley’s food cart, she said. It typified her relationship with him, she said.

“That was life with Warren,” she said. “He was always on the go, wanting to go someplace or do something. Whether it was the opera in Cleveland or a pro football game in Philadelphia where someone was puking next to me, Warren was always curious about the world.”

She said she always respected Watson’s work ethic, with a schedule that began early each morning and sometimes meant falling fast asleep by 8 p.m., even if he was in a movie theater or a concert. He was especially passionate about First Amendment issues and incorporated advocacy for press freedom into his work, she said.

In addition to his lifelong career in journalism, Watson authored two nonfiction books: “Claire & Charlie: An Unlikely Wartime Love Story,” published in fall 2017 about Watson’s late parents, and “Surviving Journalism: Fireproofing a Career in the Fourth Estate,” which is scheduled to be released in September.

Nemitz appeared with Watson last November at an event in Lewiston promoting the family memoir.

“I think part of that book was him learning about his own history. It’s a wonderful gift he’s left for his family,” Nemitz said.

Besides his ex-wife, Watson is survived by his two sons; James Watson, 34, of Brooklyn, New York, and Sam Watson, 29, of Augusta; and his twin brother, Wayne Watson of North Conway, New Hampshire.

His ex-wife said he was enormously proud of his sons and never missed an opportunity to fly back to Maine to visit them, or attend a concert or play when they were in school. A few years ago, he bought a cabin in Winthrop, Terri Watson said, so he’d always have a place to visit with his sons.

A memorial service is expected to take place in Dover, New Hampshire, the second weekend in June.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Jessica Lowell contributed to this report.

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