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Tifft remembered for passion, grit

Journalist and former professor Susan Tifft passed away Thursday morning at her home in Cambridge, Mass. after a two-and-a-half-year battle with uterine cancer. She was 59 years old.

Tifft, Trinity ’73, returned to her alma mater in 1998 as the Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of journalism at the Sanford School of Public Policy, where she was a beloved teacher and a cherished colleague for a decade.

“Susan was a great writer and journalist, but the thing that she came to believe that was most important in her life was teaching at Duke,” said Alex Jones, her husband of more than 20 years, in an interview Thursday night. “The thing that was most rewarding, the thing that really mattered more to her than anything else was teaching the students she had at Duke and maintaining those genuine friendships.... She spent untold hours in working and doing right by them.”

Tifft died at 8:30 a.m. Thursday with her family by her side, a week after she entered hospice care.

“Her brother Doug was holding her hand,” Jones wrote Thursday in the online journal where Tifft chronicled her battle with cancer. “He said she left like a candle going out, and her great spirit was released.”

Susan Elizabeth Tifft was born Feb. 14, 1951 and grew up in St. Louis, Mo. She graduated from Duke in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in English and was selected the University’s second-ever Young Trustee.

Ann Pelham, Trinity ’74 and Tifft’s classmate at Duke, said all who knew her were thankful for the privilege.

“Unlike many of us, she didn’t have to grow up. She was very together already,” Pelham said. “She was really, as a student, the same smart, together, warm person that she was later as a professor.”

Tifft had an illustrious career as a writer and a journalist after her time at Duke. In the 1980s, she served as the press secretary for the Federal Election Commission and as a speechwriter for the campaign of Jimmy Carter. After receiving her master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University—where she met her future husband—she took a job with Time magazine.

She also co-authored with Jones two critically-acclaimed accounts of newspaper dynasties—the Binghams of Louisville and the Ochs-Sulzbergers of New York City—uncovering their storied histories with painstaking detail.

Friends and colleagues said Tifft left a piece of herself at Duke—a place she believed changed her life. When offered a teaching position with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy alongside her husband, Tifft jumped at the chance to return to Durham.

The most visible symbol of her Duke pride during her years as a professor: A royal blue Volvo that she cherished—her “Duke baby blue,” she called it.

“She was so flattered and honored to be able to come back after having been an undergraduate,” said Ken Rogerson, director of undergraduate studies at Sanford. “She understood Duke students—she had the perfect balance of commanding respect, of fun, of interesting, of intriguing, of pushing people to the limit. She loved students but she wanted to be fair, and she was.”

Tifft rediscovered herself as a teacher and quickly became a favorite among both students and colleagues, who took to her wit, warmth, sharp intellect and zest for the subject matter.

“I had heard about her for 20 years.... I was sort of jealous of her, I have to admit,” said Karen Blumenthal, Trinity ’81 and co-chair of the Duke Student Publishing Company Board of Directors, which Tifft served on. “Everybody was always so wowed by her. I finally got the opportunity to meet her... and of course, then I realized why everybody was so impressed. She was so smart, so thoughtful, so wise, so lovely.”

Many of her former students identified her classes as the best they took. They said she had the ability to foster honest discussion while still keeping everyone in the room on their toes.

“Her classes felt like cocktail parties without the cocktails. She was great fun to be around,” said Mary Carmichael, Trinity ’01.

But more importantly, it was Tifft’s generosity and genuine compassion for others that touched those she encountered. After Carmichael graduated from Duke and moved to New York City, Tifft let Carmichael and another recent Duke graduate stay in Tifft’s apartment for six weeks while she and her husband traveled to Rome.

“It was like the Susan Tifft dorm in New York,” Carmichael said. “She was someone who cared about the intellectual development of her students but also about them personally.”

In August 2007, Tifft was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer that had metastasized. Doctors told her she had less than a year to live—she lived for nearly three.

Tifft dealt with the news with her characteristic grace and humor.

“Since I last posted in December, I have acquired a CANE,” she wrote Feb. 4 in her online journal as she was undergoing painful brain radiation. “My own cane is not a little old lady version, however. Far from it! It’s psychedelic green and collapses so I can put it in my purse.”

She continued to teach until last year, even as she underwent intrusive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, commuting between Cambridge and Durham every week.

Last year, Sanford established the Susan Tifft Undergraduate Teaching/Mentoring Award in her honor, to be presented every year at commencement to a public policy professor who has exhibited excellence in teaching. In addition, The Chronicle has named its annual editor training session The Susan Tifft Training Conference.

Bob Bliwise, editor of Duke Magazine, remembers seeing Tifft, his friend of more than 25 years, at a conference in November.

“She was characteristically Susan Tifft,” he said. “She could’ve been focusing on so many other things so close to her well-being, but she showed this commitment. She gave it her all.”

Donations in Tifft’s memory can be made to the Susan Tifft Undergraduate Teaching/Mentoring Award or to CaringBridge, which hosts Tifft’s online journal.

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