Peter Husted Binzen, 94, formerly of Wayne, an astute and thoughtful observer of the news and the personalities he chronicled during a half-century as an acclaimed Philadelphia journalist, died Wednesday, Nov. 16, of complications from a stroke at Beaumont at Bryn Mawr.
Mr. Binzen was among a handful of distinguished journalists who did superlative editing, great reporting, and fluid writing from 1950 through the change of the millenniums, said Inquirer editor William K. Marimow.
"He was incredibly incisive in his reporting and analysis. He had real gentility and gentleness about him, even though his work pricked the sensitive skins of public officials," Marimow said.
Reporter, columnist, editor, author - Mr. Binzen did all with finesse. His defining moments, however, came during his 31-year career at the Bulletin, when he dominated education reporting in Philadelphia.
"It was a time of change at the school board, with reformers replacing hidebound conservatives. There were great stories to be written, and I had virtually no competition," Mr. Binzen said in an undated speech posted online.
The Bulletin, in turn, looked to writers such as Mr. Binzen to cement its reputation as a paper that - once it fell with a thud onto readers' steps at late afternoon - illuminated their neighborhood and world.
"People like Peter gave a certain respectability to the newspaper," said Bulletin colleague and friend Don Harrison. "There was never any doubt that his stories were well-meant and well-researched."
Dogged but genial, with a high-pitched voice, Mr. Binzen had a knack for finagling the news out of sources without earning their animus.
"He was a great journalist, but he didn't have a hard edge," said Philadelphia filmmaker Sam Katz, who knew Mr. Binzen from the time Katz was 19. "He was very reasonable, but you could talk to him. He wasn't out to get you, but he was out to get the story."
Joseph R. Daughen, a former Bulletin reporter who collaborated with Mr. Binzen on two books, said he thought of his comrade as "Lincolnesque" - honest and humble.
"He had a great sense of humor and never took himself too seriously, but he took his work seriously," Daughen said. "He was a very modest man. To the best of my knowledge, he was never a Quaker, but had the same self-effacing attributes."
"He was such a decent person that his decency cut through everything he did," said Harrison. "We'll miss him."
Mr. Binzen was born in Montclair, N.J., to Lucy Husted and Frederick William Binzen, a vice president of J.C. Penney Co. He graduated from Montclair High School in 1940 and spent a postgraduate year at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.
In 1947, he graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in political science, having taken off two years from college to fight with the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II.
In the late 1940s, he thought about becoming a lawyer, but opted instead for journalism. He worked for the Associated Press in New York. In 1950 and 1951, he freelanced, living in Paris and writing for newspapers in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.
It had never occurred to Mr. Binzen to move to Philadelphia until a friend who worked at the Bulletin asked Mr. Binzen to join him. He was hired by the paper in 1951, and spent the rest of the decade as a general assignment reporter and rewrite man.
"The Bulletin at that time was the largest standard-sized evening newspaper in North America, with a circulation of over 700,000," Mr. Binzen recalled in a videotaped 2012 interview, part of Lens Through Time, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.
"The word was, if there was a holdup downtown at noon, the people in Northeast Philadelphia could read about it when the paper was delivered in late afternoon. We covered the region like a blanket."
Although he had learned in the Army "never to volunteer for anything," Mr. Binzen said he asked for the schools beat after the previous writer quit. He got it.
"I loved it," he told PhillyVoice in March. "I had a scoop three or four days a week, Page One."
Later, he would say that his years as an education reporter were among his most meaningful, for lessons learned and opportunities generated.
One benefit was a Nieman Fellowship for a year of study at Harvard in 1961-62. He recalled that period as "a truly marvelous experience."
Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a friend from his Nieman days and later the Inquirer's executive editor, said Mr. Binzen was one of the oldest and most seasoned journalists in the class, and took the year at Harvard very seriously.
"He was very interested in education and urban affairs at the time and wanted to do more with that," Roberts said.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Binzen became the Bulletin's urban affairs editor, and then its metro editor. From the mid-1970s onward, he wrote a weekly or twice-weekly column, "The Human Side of Business."
"I was just so fortunate to be in the newspaper business when people just couldn't wait to get their hands on the Evening Bulletin," Binzen told PhillyVoice.
After the Bulletin folded on Jan. 29, 1982, due to declining circulation, changing reader habits, and difficulties delivering the paper through rush-hour traffic, Mr. Binzen took a brief hiatus. Then, prompted by Roberts, he joined the Inquirer's business department in 1983.
What isn't widely known is that Roberts had attempted to hire Mr. Binzen away from the Bulletin a year before it closed.
"At one point, he accepted the offer," Roberts said. "Thinking it over, he didn't want to appear to be deserting the ship when it was sinking, so he backed out, but said if the Bulletin closed, he would like to be first in line.
"He was one of very best reporters in Philadelphia and, I would say, the nation. He was always high [on], right at the top of the list of Bulletin people we wanted on the Inquirer because he was a real student of Philadelphia, and he really cared about the city and the Philadelphia area, for that matter."
At the Inquirer, he wrote a weekly column, "Peter Binzen on Business." Hank Klibanoff, who as business editor was Mr. Binzen's boss, described him as "a great and decent man, and a superb newsman.
"There was nothing he could learn from me, but what a great fortune for me that I got to see him every workday, know him and learn from him," Klibanoff said.
In the late 1980s through the early 1990s, Mr. Binzen also wrote regular op-ed pieces. He continued to write for the Inquirer's op-ed page after retiring in 2003.
He also wrote books. His first, Whitetown, USA, published in 1970 by Random House, grew from research on problems in American education that he began as a Nieman project. Further research and writing of the book were financed by a grant from the Carnegie Corp. The book, edited by Jason Epstein, examined the lives and educational experience of white, working-class Kensington residents.
His second, The Wreck of the Penn Central, written with Bulletin colleague Daughen, was published in 1971 by Little, Brown. The editor was Harry Sions. The book, which examined the disastrous merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads, appeared on the New York Times's best-seller list.
He teamed up again with Daughen to write The Cop Who Would Be King, a muckraking biography of Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. It was published in 1977, also by Little, Brown, and edited by Sions.
"I was metro editor when the book came out, and on publication day, a cop walked into the newsroom representing Rizzo," Binzen told PhillyVoice in 2015. "He handed me something and said, 'If there are any errors in that book, we are going to sue your ass.' I never heard a word from Rizzo after that."
Binzen edited Nearly Everybody Read It, a collection of essays by former colleagues at the Bulletin. It was published in 1998 by Camino Books.
His last book, written with his son, Jonathan P., was Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats. Published in 2014 by Camino, when Mr. Binzen was 91, it chronicled the life and times of the progressive and charismatic mayor, district attorney, and school board president. It was based on extensive interviews Mr. Binzen had conducted with Dilworth in 1972.
"It took him so long because he brought to it the same sense of professionalism he brought to everything," Daughen said.
Mr. Binzen was a voracious reader of newspapers, books, and magazines. He was always absorbed in several books at once, mostly about history or politics, or fiction.
He wrote a ceaseless stream of letters and notes to family and friends.
The tall, wiry Mr. Binzen was an excellent tennis player, and he kept at it well into his 80s.
"On the tennis court, he was both a gentleman and a competitor; fun to play with and hard to beat," his son said.
Mr. Binzen was a fervent lifelong sports fan. Even when he lived in North Jersey as a youth, his favorite team was the Philadelphia A's and his idol the great A's slugger Jimmie Foxx.
After moving to Philadelphia, he became a devoted fan of the Phillies, 76ers, Flyers, and Eagles. His allegiance never wavered, despite many losing seasons.
He rejoiced at baseball championships and while battling the effects of a stroke, "was very pleased to see that the Eagles beat the Falcons last Sunday," his son said.
Mr. Binzen met Virginia Flower, a native of Brisbane, Australia, on the Austrian ski slopes in 1950. They married a year later. She became a painter, needlework artist, housewife, and mother of the couple's four children. The Binzens lived in Wayne before downsizing to a townhouse in Chesterbrook.
When his wife died in 2007, Mr. Binzen was heartbroken and never got over the loss, his friends said. He retired five years ago to Beaumont at Bryn Mawr, which he liked to call the "old folks' home," his son said.
Besides his son, Mr. Binzen is survived by daughters Lucy Elisabeth Binzen Wildrick, Jennifer Brooke Binzen Cardoso, and Katherine Lorna Binzen, and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at St. David's Episcopal Church, 763 S. Valley Forge Rd., Wayne. Interment will be private.