Randolph E. Schmidt, light-hearted AP science writer, dies

WASHINGTON — Randolph E. Schmidt, a retired Associated Press science writer who rarely missed a chance to add a whimsical twist to his authoritative stories, has died.

Schmidt, 78, died at a nursing home in Falls Church, Va., on Sunday, said Mike Bobal, whose deceased wife was Schmidt’s cousin. Staff at the nursing home said he had been watching TV and joking with staff the night before.

His AP colleagues remembered Schmidt — friends called him Randy — as a skilled reporter who could find an easy way to present complex subjects.

“A hallmark of Schmidt’s story is a light touch, brevity, puns if possible and, above all, speed,” Seth Borenstein, another AP science writer, wrote of Schmidt’s retirement in 2011. with the public at the Smithsonian said that contestants complained that he must have received information for stories or press conferences. He didn’t.

Schmidt’s playful use of language was noticed by a former boss in Washington.

“Randy was a devoted science writer, but he never missed an opportunity to try to slip a pun into a title or lede. He was a classic AP newsman throughout,” said Sandy K. Johnson, who was the AP’s Washington bureau chief from 1998-2008.

One of his recent AP stories demonstrates Schmidt’s light-hearted approach.

“It might not be Sonny and Cher, but some South American birds sing a duet, taking turns as the tune plays,” the story begins.

“Colleagues who were stuck on their leads often went to Randy for help, so much so that we often brought him in as a ghostwriter. It was a phrase he hated but a role he cherished,” Washington news editor Carol Feldman said.

Bob Furlow, AP copy editor, described Schmidt as “a solid reporter but still a champion of the unusual. He could find nuggets others overlooked in a Census Bureau or other government report that turned to gold on his keyboard.

Furlow added: “We’ll be giving him a special shout-out on Sunday for going Daylight Savings Time – one of his favorite topics to spin a few hundred funny words around the half-yearly reminders.”

Schmidt, of West Carthage, N.Y., started at the AP as a news reporter in the Albany bureau in 1968 and was a correspondent in Memphis from 1969 to 1973, where he periodically had to debunk rumors that Elvis Presley had died, said Mike Bobal.

He moved to the AP’s Washington bureau in 1973 and worked his way up from news reporter to science writer and earned a master’s degree in meteorology.

“He loved working for AP,” Bobal said. “He loved trying to get the public to understand things, whether it was the weather or climate change.”

Schmidt enjoyed traveling with his wife, Marcia, who died in 2004. Bobal said Schmidt was “never the same after that,” but remained close to Bobal’s family and remained gregarious and a voracious reader.

“Randy took absolute joy in finding just the right slice of pop culture to make science news fun and accessible,” said Laurent Nygaard, AP medical writer. “Transformation Optics? To Randy, it was like Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. Bacteria in showers? He called it the scariest shower news since Psycho. He was unfailingly nice—and the king of puns.

“Even after his retirement, several times a month Randy sent an email with some science humor while connecting with friends and colleagues,” Nirgaard said. “And when Randy moved into the nursing home, he had a photo collage presented by the AP at his retirement — pictures of some of his favorite stories — hanging right in front of his bed, ready to reminisce with visitors.”

And many of those stories were memorable.

“Many of the most interesting, entertaining and important science stories that people have read in the last generation,” Borenstein said, “were by Randy Schmidt.”

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