This story has been corrected from the original version.
James M. Naughton, a retired Inquirer editor who embraced life with uncommon delight - his unforgettable pranks included wearing a chicken costume at a presidential news conference and springing all manner of livestock on unsuspecting colleagues - died Saturday at home in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was two days shy of his 74th birthday.
He had battled prostate cancer for more than a decade, succumbing after the disease spread to his bones. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Mr. Naughton stepped down as the Inquirer's executive editor in 1996 after 19 years at the newspaper. He became president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, where he lived with his wife of nearly 48 years, Diana, his childhood sweetheart from Ohio. He retired from Poynter in 2003.
"I'll never be able to say enough good things about my husband," she said Saturday night. "Jim was a good man, and everyone who knew him knows that. He leaves a lot of good memories with many, many people."
An impish man with a disarming smile, Mr. Naughton was irrepressibly mischievous. As chief of newsgathering operations when The Inquirer won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, he injected the newsroom with a puckish spirit that he believed stimulated creativity and cohesion.
"He was an extraordinarily important player at The Inquirer," said Eugene L. Roberts Jr., the editor who recruited Mr. Naughton from the New York Times in 1977 and whose corner office was occupied once by a camel and another time by 46 frogs, thanks to Mr. Naughton. "I thought he would be good for newsroom morale, and he exceeded my expectations."
For all the frivolity, Mr. Naughton was a serious journalist, admired as a fierce interviewer, an engaging writer, and a speedy editor.
In his early 30s, Mr. Naughton covered the White House for the Times during the tumultuous Watergate years. In The Boys on the Bus, a book about the 1972 presidential campaign, author Timothy Crouse portrayed Mr. Naughton as one of the more endearing journalists in the pack. He described Mr. Naughton as badly dressed and "meticulously polite" whose "greatest ambition was to someday take over Russell Baker's humor column in the Times."
In Washington, Mr. Naughton covered Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, the White House under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, the 1972 presidential campaigns of Edmund Muskie and George McGovern, Ford's 1976 candidacy, the Senate Watergate Committee, and the inquiry into Nixon's impeachment.
"Was effectively the New York Times' expert on losers," Mr. Naughton deadpanned in a recent online curriculum vitae, in which he cited his current employment as "retiree in chief."
Mr. Naughton was born in 1938 in Pittsburgh and raised in Painesville, Ohio. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1960 and served two years as an officer in the Marine Corps.
Mr. Naughton was the first writer in his family. His father was a dispatcher for a Great Lakes shipping company, whom Mr. Naughton later described as "a low-key prankster." Mr. Naughton worked part-time and summers during high school and college as a reporter for the Painesville Telegraph.
When he landed at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1962, he was a seasoned and confident 24-year-old.
"His copy was impeccable," Don Bean, the Plain Dealer's former police reporter, said in a 2009 interview. Bean became a reliable coconspirator upon whom Mr. Naughton would call in to obtain farm animals to plant in reporters' hotel rooms when the campaign passed through Cleveland.
"He was personable and he was different," said Bean, who died in 2010. "Other young men drove Volkswagen Bugs. Naughton drove a Karmann Ghia."
As political editor at the Plain Dealer, Mr. Naughton's electoral predictions showed such prescience that he was invited to speak at the City Club of Cleveland. He showed up wearing a turban and cape and toting a crystal ball, Bean said. Though the newspaper's brass was displeased with Mr. Naughton's irreverence, the young reporter had discovered his "swami" persona, which became a recurring role for the rest of his life.
Roberts, who then was a national writer for the New York Times, met Mr. Naughton during the 1967 Cleveland election, when Carl Stokes became America's first big-city black mayor. Roberts arranged for the Times to employ Mr. Naughton to write a freelance magazine article on Stokes, which led to Mr. Naughton's hiring in 1969 for the Times' prestigious Washington bureau.
During President Ford's 1976 campaign, Mr. Naughton pulled off one of his most memorable stunts, as recounted by broadcaster Tom Brokaw in his eulogy at Ford's 2007 memorial service.
During a rally in San Diego, Ford's attention was attracted to a large mock chicken, and afterward, Mr. Naughton arranged to buy the mask for $100. "And then," Brokaw recalled, "giddy from 20-hour days and an endless repetition of the same campaign speech, Naughton decided to wear that chicken head to a Ford news conference in Oregon with the enthusiastic encouragement of the president and his chief of staff, Dick Cheney."
"In the next news cycle, the chicken head was a bigger story than the president," Brokaw said. Mr. Naughton later donated the prop to the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., where it is on display.
In 1977, Mr. Naughton was recruited by Roberts to join his management team in Philadelphia. Mr. Naughton arrived as national/foreign editor, but within a few years, Roberts put him in charge of the entire news reporting operation and entrusted him with hiring reporters.
Roberts knew Mr. Naughton would relax the newsroom. "We felt strongly that you could have a good newspaper that was fun to work in," said Roberts.
William K. Marimow, then a City Hall reporter who is now The Inquirer's executive editor, recalls that Mr. Naughton sent whimsical greeting cards to reporters while they were working on big stories.
"Not only did he have great journalistic judgment, but he balanced it with a total commitment to having fun," Marimow said.
Mr. Naughton wore goofy slippers on deadline and accumulated a collection of ridiculous hats. As his gags became more elaborate, so did the responses. In an attempt to give Mr. Naughton a taste of his own medicine, Roberts arranged for a circus elephant to visit Mr. Naughton's Chestnut Hill house.
And staff members once spirited away a vintage car from Mr. Naughton's driveway. He at first suspected a prank, but with the police commissioner's complicity, and the passage of months, he eventually accepted that the car had been stolen. Then it showed up in a parade at his house during a birthday celebration.
At the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, Mr. Naughton found a natural home for his instinct to mentor. Under his watch, the institute's building nearly doubled and Poynter expanded its online outreach.
In an essay, "Swan Song for Swami," Mr. Naughton's successor at Poynter, Karen B. Dunlap, credited him for shepherding a caring culture at the institute.
"I love being in the company of people who care about the written word, the oral word," Mr. Naughton told Dunlap. "I love the dark humor and a mix of skepticism and a self-effacing understanding of the role."
Mr. Naughton, in a 2002 speech at Poynter, lamented the grim atmosphere of newsrooms as the industry contracted.
"Fun matters," he said. "Fun makes up for modest pay. It takes the sting out of disappointment. It facilitates collaboration. It serves the interests of retention. Journalists want to work in news organizations that understand the creative spirit."
When he retired in 2003, Mr. Naughton arranged to have the famed marching mallards from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis transported to Poynter for the occasion.
"After he made his farewell speech," recalled Roberts, "he walked out of the lobby of Poynter with the ducks to make a grand exit.
"He certainly put his stamp on The Inquirer," Roberts said. "He was in the middle of almost everything. It would have been a different place without him."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Naughton is survived by four children.