WESTPORT — Woody Klein has lived one of those lives so chock full of experiences it’s difficult to wrap your head around how they could all exist within the confines of just one man’s lifetime.
A Westport resident, Klein, 88, has served in the armed forces, and worked in local and international print and television media organizations, corporate America and higher education. As he moved through many of society’s different worlds, one activity remained constant: Klein’s Westport News column, “Out of the Woods,” which he will be retiring after 50 years.
Born in 1929, Klein, a native New Yorker, attended school at the Fieldston School in the Bronx and graduated from Dartmouth College, where he was sports editor of the Daily Dartmouth, with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1951. He holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which he received in 1952.
In his first two years out of college, Klein served in the U.S. Army as a public information officer for the Corps of Engineers in Virginia during the Korean War.
After the service, Klein returned to journalism, first as a reporter for the Mount Vernon, N.Y., Daily Argus, and then a year-and-a-half stint as a night police and general assignment reporter for The Washington Post before moving to the New York World-Telegram & Sun to cover poverty, politics, housing and civil rights.
Klein found his stride on the social-justice beat, interviewing formidable figures, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and winning numerous awards for his writing, including a 1965 Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 10-part series, “I Lived in a Slum.”
“There’s too much poverty in our country with this much wealth. It’s just wrong. It’s not fair. People are not being given a chance,” Klein said.
On nights and weekends, Klein wrote his first book, “Let in the Sun,” published in 1964, in which he chronicled his time as an undercover reporter in some of New York’s worst tenements.
Klein’s wife of 55 years, Audrey, called him a “workaholic.”
“I’d plead guilty to that,” Klein said. “I don’t have a very good record when it comes to work-play. Too much work and not enough play.”
Klein said in retrospect he would have liked to spend more time with his family. If he sacrificed anything, Klein said it was family time. “I think I got obsessed because I loved it,” Klein said.
Audrey did not seem critical of Klein’s work ethic and interjected when he criticized his work-life balance. “But that was the focus of your life, the work. It’s all-consuming when you’re an award-winning reporter, as he was in New York,” she said.
In fact, Audrey has been an integral supporter and partner in Klein’s work throughout his career.
“It’s fair to say that nothing I’ve ever written — columns, books, speeches, whatever it is, has left this house or any house I’ve ever lived in, that has not gone through Audrey,” Klein said.
Audrey said Klein’s three years as press secretary to then-New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, which followed his tenure at the World-Telegram, were especially exciting.
In 1968, the couple moved out of the city with their young daughter and headed to Westport, where Audrey had spent several summers during her college years. At the same time, Klein left the Lindsay administration and joined IBM, where he spent 24 years working in communications in the manufacturing, development and marketing divisions of the company. Upon his move to Westport, Klein began his column for the Westport News.
His last assignment at IBM was as editor of Think magazine, the company’s international employee magazine distributed in more than 170 countries.
Following his retirement from IBM in 1992, Klein began a robust third act at the age of 63 as an editor of the Westport News from 1992 to 1997 and author of eight more books on topics harkening back to themes, such as politics and poverty, that he wrote about in the first iteration of his newspaper career.
While editor at the Westport News, Klein oversaw a group of reporters who won numerous awards for their work. One piece, “Behind Closed Doors,” by staff writer Christina Hennessy, focused on abuse of women in their homes in Westport and Weston and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Hennessy, who works for Hearst Connecticut Media, said Klein kept her on her toes while he was the editor.
“He wanted you immersed in the community in order to tell the stories that mattered,” she said. “He loved the town he calls home, and he loved the paper.”
Indeed, Klein loved Westport so much that he wrote a nearly 400-page book about the town’s history, “Westport Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence,” published in 2000.
“I treated it like a personality. As I did my research, I found the beginnings of certain trends we have here. For example, we love to sue each other,” Klein said about his process of writing the Westport book.
“How did they gain these characteristics, these personality traits? Where did they show up? The emphasis on education, the emphasis on success, materialism, tremendous emphasis on materialism. I don’t necessarily say that’s good, but it’s a fact,” Klein said of Westport.
Sitting at his condo in Westport, Klein said he took his accolades of his rich career off the walls.
“They don’t make my day any better,” he said.
Although Klein’s column is set to finish, he promises to keep working in whatever capacity he is able.
“The object is to keep doing what you did,” Klein said.