Warren Leary, noted science journalist who chronicled space travel, dies at 74
Oct 12, 2021
When he was young, Warren E. Leary dreamed of being an astronaut. Instead, later writing as an award-winning science journalist, he took readers to space, as he covered NASA, its shuttle flights and its explorations of the solar system for The New York Times.
In his more than two decades writing for the Times and earlier in his 16 years writing for The Associated Press, the science correspondent covered space flight, technology, engineering, aeronautics and medicine, and also policy issues and federal health and scientific agencies.
Leary, 74, and a longtime member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Washington, D.C., died on Aug. 3, 2021, after suffering from lung disease and heart problems. His Mass of Christian Burial was held at St. Martin’s on Aug. 14.
His funeral Mass program included a reflection with comments from several of his journalism colleagues, including Cory Dean, a former assistant science editor for the Times, who called him “an enduring example of the journalist who gives people the reliable, useful information they need to understand their world, especially the complex, technical issues that seem to confront us more and more these days.”
Jeanne Saddler Leary, Warren Leary’s wife of 40 years who was herself a longtime journalist, said, “He was able to write about the most complicated concepts and make them understandable to the average person.”
A journalism friend introduced the couple to one another while they were working in Washington, and they were married at St. Augustine Church.
“I was always impressed by people who knew a lot about science and technology… He had such a broad range of interests, and we could talk about everything,” Jeanne Leary said.
She added that, “We had an incredible amount in common. It was almost uncanny.” They both grew up in devout Black Catholic families with roots in the South, and while Warren was growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, and Jeanne was growing up in Detroit, they both attended St. Benedict the Moor parishes.
“We both loved journalism, writing and history,” said Jeanne Leary, who coincidentally, also attended graduate school in journalism at Columbia University, a few years after her future husband. Over the years, she worked as an intern and then a reporter for her hometown Detroit Free Press, as an education reporter for the Baltimore Sun, as a correspondent for TIME magazine in New York and its Washington bureau, and covered small business for the Wall Street Journal.
She said while working for TIME, “I met this interesting guy” – her future husband. The couple raised their two sons, Dana Osborne Leary and Devon Warren Leary, and Jeanne Leary later worked as the director of communications for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
As a youth, Warren Leary was inspired by the nation’s space race and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. “He was very good at science in school, and his teachers nurtured his interest in science and English,” his wife said.
He originally majored in aerospace engineering at the University of Nebraska, but instead earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism there in 1969, and a master’s in journalism two years later from Columbia University in New York City.
“He saw an opportunity to combine his love of science and his love of writing,” Jeanne Leary said.
After establishing a science beat for The Associated Press in its Boston bureau, Leary became a senior science writer for AP in Washington from 1976 to 1989, when he joined the Times Washington Bureau, serving there until his retirement in 2008.
The biography of Warren Leary in his funeral Mass program noted that in 2017, NASA inducted him into its “hall of fame” for space journalists. The reflection quoted Reginald Stuart, a retired Times journalist, who wrote in an educational journal that Leary’s “name and that of the other inductees are now inscribed on brass strips on a special wall in the Kennedy Space Center’s newsroom in Florida. It was a writing career that began with setting off toy rockets and making model airplanes as a child.”
Warren Leary’s New York Times articles archived online include a 2007 story on the NASA spacecraft New Horizons while on its way to Pluto discovering lightning in Jupiter’s polar regions. In 2008, Leary chronicled how the space shuttle Endeavour was bringing a 3,400 lb. robot that stood 12 feet tall with both its “ape-like” arms extending 11 feet for astronauts to assemble on the International Space Station. He reported the robot would be doing “odd jobs that previously required a spacewalk.”
Also in 2008, Leary wrote about NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander preparing for a “fiery, risky descent to the Red Planet” seeking water ice in an arctic plain “that could have supported primitive life” there. That year, he described how NASA’s Messenger spacecraft “zipped past Mercury,” scanning the “wispy atmosphere” of the “small cratered planet,” offering important evidence about the evolution of the inner solar system, and he also wrote how the space shuttle Atlantis “rumbled into space” as it dodged an approaching weather front, and carried the scientific laboratory Columbus to the International Space Station on its own voyage of discovery.
Leary served on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and was a member and former officer of the National Association of Science Writers. He was honored in 2013 with a Pioneer award by the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America for his work covering that life-threatening condition that afflicts many African Americans and other groups. The University of Nebraska named him one of its alumni “Masters” in 2007, citing his body of work and recognizing him as one of its “outstanding alumni who have shown great promise, success and leadership in their chosen life’s work.”
Those offering eulogies for Warren Leary at his funeral Mass included his sons, Dana Osborne Leary and Devon Warren Leary.
In an interview, Devon Leary said, “I admired how he really was a Renaissance man by the truest definition. He had many different interests and talents. He always knew at least a little bit about everything.”
Devon Leary in his eulogy to his father said, “He was a walking Google before Google. Probably better. If it came from Warren, you really didn’t have to fact check anything. You already know he’s only operating off facts, and he surely had the print outs to prove it.”
Now serving as the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, Devon Leary graduated from there in 2006. His older brother Dana Leary graduated from Gonzaga in 2003 and now works for the financial services company Morgan Stanley.
“I was never scared to go to a school like Gonzaga. I was never afraid of the Jesuits. I had to answer to my father,” Devon Leary told the Catholic Standard. “…The mission and values of Gonzaga weren’t foreign to me. They were already taught at home.”
The funeral Mass program noted Warren Leary’s “role as a devoted sports dad and supporter of each of his sons’ school teams and club sports, including soccer, basketball and roller hockey,” but they had to maintain excellent grades to participate in sports.
In his eulogy for his dad, Devon Leary noted, “Warren demanded excellence… With Warren, every moment was a teaching moment… My fondest memories of my father were the thousands of deep conversations we had in our kitchen starting in middle school and for the rest of my life. It was our thing. He would be posted up slouched over the kitchen table, and I would just sit across from him on this little white radiator and ask him anything. History, politics, race, taxes, girls, space, D.C., you name it. We talked about everything, all the time.”
Father Michael Kelley, the pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish who presided at the funeral Mass, noted in an interview that Warren Leary lived out his faith “by being a role model as a faithful and faith-filled Black man to his two sons. He was their mentor and best supporter.”
The priest also noted that Warren and Jeanne Leary were longtime members of St. Martin’s Twinning Committee that works with St. Raphael’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland, to coordinate St. Martin’s Thanksgiving Basket Outreach and Christmas Toy Outreach.
“Last year during the pandemic the generous folks from St. Raphael’s and St. Martin’s worked together to distribute over 400 Thanksgiving baskets and 1,000 Christmas toys to families in need in the neighborhood around St. Martin’s,” Father Kelley said.
Devon Leary said his father was an empathetic man who “could connect and talk with anybody from any walk of life.”
The noted science journalist who chronicled space travel was remembered for the impact he had on those whose lives he touched on Earth.
In his eulogy, Devon Leary said his dad “wasn’t just the rock of our family, but the rock of our community. My father touched people far and wide and made a real impact during his time here on Earth… When it comes to me, I can assure you that I would not be the man standing before you today without my father.”
Warren Leary is survived by his wife of 40 years, Jeanne Saddler Leary; his sons, Dana Osborne Leary (Elise) and Devon Warren Leary; his grandson, Cameron Warren Leary; his brother, Darryl Evan Leary (Barbara); his nieces, Katherine P. Johnson and Michelle E. Anderson; his nephew, Michael D. Leary, and many other relatives and friends. He was preceded in death by his father, Warren E. Leary Sr. in 1961; by his mother Ethel Kennedy Leary (Whiteside) in 2004; by his sister Karen Leary Snowden in 1970; and by his sister Kimberly Whiteside in 2009.