A Life Remembered: Former area newsman made lasting mark

A Life Remembered: Former area newsman made lasting mark

In the late 1970s, the post-Watergate era, daily newspapers ruled the media landscape. Their staffs were robust, with talented reporters hungry to make a mark.

The best and brightest among them at the Gannett-owned Commercial-News in Danville was Dan Olmsted, who had graduated from Yale University in 1975 and had come back to his hometown to work at the newspaper.

He had written for it while a student at Danville High School, where he had been news editor of the Maroon & White student newspaper.

Mr. Olmsted, who died Jan. 23 at his home in Falls Church, Va., won an Illinois Associated Press award for public-service reporting while in Danville and went on to receive national recognition for his work elsewhere.

"Dan was truly a prodigy, an artist and a door-kicking newsman," former Commercial-News reporter/columnist Kevin Cullen said. "I always thought of him as a class act and a model for the rest of our ink-stained little subculture."

In 2002, while working for UPI in Washington, D.C., Mr. Olmsted was inducted into the Danville High School Wall of Fame. Bill Black, a former Republican state legislator who had taught Mr. Olmsted in junior high, spoke at the ceremony.

"He was one of the standouts; he's somebody you remember all your life," Black said this week. "He was so smart but not the smart kid that would put everybody off.

"I've never seen anyone with that kind of ability when he was 13 or 14 years old. He was just a super-super kid."

Black recalled an assignment he gave his students about what they wanted to do as a career. Mr. Olmsted turned in a well-researched paper about a landfill in southern Vermilion County.

"He talked to people. He documented everything," Black said. "He did research on how it happened and what would happen. It was obvious the kid was going to be a brilliant journalist or research technician."

Yet Mr. Olmsted, who would later achieve the rank of Eagle Scout, was polite and courteous.

"He would disarm you to find out things," Black said. "He was never pushy, in your face. He would just do his work and would talk with anybody who could shed light on what he was writing about or was interested in."

Making a mark

In 1978, Mr. Olmsted left his hometown to take a reporting position at Gannett's then-flagship newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle, in Rochester, N.Y. Later, he helped Gannett start up USA Today and USA Weekend, where as senior editor he led an investigation of the murder of a Vietnamese immigrant in Florida. The story won a first-place award from the Asian-American Journalists Association.

After leaving Gannett, Mr. Olmsted began working in 1999 as the UPI bureau chief in Washington, D.C., where he supervised, among others, legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

While with UPI, Olmsted co-wrote with reporter Mark Benjamin a series of investigative pieces about Lariam, an anti-malarial drug associated in a small set of users — many in the military and Peace Corps — with psychoses, paranoia, hallucinations and violence, including murders and murder-suicides.

"We saw a possible pattern where the health authorities in this country are focused on stopping disease, which is good," Mr. Olmsted told The News-Gazette in 2006. "In the case of malaria, it seems they might not have been careful about warning people about the side effects of Lariam."

The reporters' work exposed the Army cover-up about its use of the drug and led to a sharp decrease in the number of prescriptions written for Lariam.

For their stories, Benjamin and Mr. Olmsted won an award for best wire story from the National Mental Health Association.

The two also were turned into a composite character, Sherm Hempell, on a "Law and Order: SVU" episode about two Afghanistan war veterans who turned to violence and murder after taking an anti-malarial drug.

Autism detective

In early 2005, after Benjamin left UPI, Mr. Olmsted, who didn't have children of his own, turned his prodigious attention and talents to the possible link between autism and childhood vaccinations, writing for UPI the series "Age of Autism."

His reporting was cited by environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Columbia Journalism Review and author David Kirby in the paperback version of "Evidence of Harm" and others.

In 2006, Autism Spectrum, a magazine for parents of autistic children, included Mr. Olmsted and Benjamin in its list of the top 10 crusaders for the autism community.

The magazine labeled Mr. Olmsted the Dick Tracy of autism. He preferred being compared to the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

"I certainly look more like he does, and I dress the way Columbo does," Mr. Olmsted told Autism Spectrum. "I've got the old car, and my style is like that. I keep asking questions. There are just questions that should have reasonable answers, and if they are not answered, I keep asking them."

Later, Mr. Olmsted and Mark Blaxill, who has a vaccine-injured daughter, co-wrote the books "The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine and a Man-Made Epidemic" (2011, St. Martin's Press) and "Vaccines 2.0: The Careful Parent's Guide to Making Safe Vaccination Choices for Your Family," published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2015.

Their third book, to be published soon by Skyhorse, is about the denial of the epidemic of autism, now diagnosed in 1 of 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2007, Mr. Olmsted founded the online Age of Autism and was its editor until his death. He called it the "daily web newspaper of the autism epidemic." It will continue under a new leader.

Many tributes

In a tribute to Mr. Olmsted, Blaxill, an editor at large at Age of Autism, called his writing partner an original and creative investigator, brilliant and compassionate, uncompromising yet balanced.

Many other testimonials have poured into the Age of Autism site as well as Mr. Olmsted's Facebook page.

One of the most touching came from one of Mr. Olmsted's cousins, Trevett Allen, who wrote that Mr. Olmsted "took the time to invest in people — time, patience and attention — in a way most do not."

"Dan's greatest achievement was the man he made himself," Allen wrote. "Perhaps it was his ability to be present, to be vulnerable, to empathize, his seeming endless capacity to care and his willingness to act on behalf of others. ... Dan's compassion ran deeper than the usual definition of the word implies."

Disclosure: I remained friends with Dan since late 1976, when I started my career at The Commercial-News. Dan, who was 64 when he died, was a thoughtful, loyal and steadfast friend, one I cherished through the decades.

He loved returning to the Midwest to visit. As Bill Black alluded to earlier, Dan was never an elitist despite his smarts, education and his family pedigree — his bloodline includes Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park, and on his mother's side, Noah Webster of Merriam-Webster dictionary fame.

Visitation will be at 1 p.m. March 18 at Fairfax (Va.) Memorial Funeral Home, with a celebration of life to follow.

Survivors include his spouse, Mark Milett, and a sister, Rosamond McDonel Augspurger.

In lieu of other expressions of sympathy, donations may be made to Age of Autism, ageofautism.com.

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