Nelson Marans: “The meaning of life was to read newspapers, to become incensed, to write a Letter to the Editor”

From a John Kelly column in the Washington Post headlined “Farewell to Nelson Marans, one of the most prolific writers of Letters to the Editor”:

Last month, when 97-year-old Nelson Marans was headed to the hospital, he motioned for his son, Jon, to lean in closer. He had something to tell him.

“I thought he was going to give me great pearls of wisdom or the meaning of life,” Jon told me. “Instead, he said, ‘Check my emails. See if I got any more published letters.’”

Nelson Marans died on July 17. Perhaps for him, that was the meaning of life: to read newspapers, to become incensed, to write a Letter to the Editor, to see it published, to do it all over again. The retired chemist wrote one to three letters a day to newspapers across the country, keeping meticulous track of where the letters went and which were published.

If you’ve been a regular reader of The Washington Post during the past 40 years—especially the editorial page, the Free for All page and other places where readers get their two cents’ worth — you will have seen Nelson Marans, Silver Spring.

It appears that Marans’s first letter published in The Post was on May 7, 1982. An anti-nuke protest that had attracted 500 people had garnered coverage. A 3,000-person pro-Israel rally in Lafayette Square had not.

Wrote Marans: “Such an oversight does not reflect favorably on the quality of The Post’s news coverage.”

Thousands of letters followed that one. Hundreds were published….

Nelson was a District native, a graduate of Roosevelt High School and George Washington University and had a PhD in chemistry from Penn State.

Politics—especially involving Israel—was a regular subject for Marans, but he weighed in on other topics, too.

In a letter published Oct. 2, 1994, he agreed with Tony Kornheiser that Ken Burns’s 18-hour baseball documentary was too long. “A little editing would have gone a long way,” Marans wrote.

On Feb. 3, 2005, Dr. Gridlock printed Marans’s observation that light-colored clothing could prevent pedestrians being struck by cars at night. “At a minimum, a white hat or scarf would increase the visibility of a pedestrian for drivers,” he wrote….

The Post has a rule that letter writers can’t appear in print on the editorial page more than twice a year.

“Some writers have gone to great lengths to evade that rule,” said Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor. “Nelson Marans always respected it — but took every opportunity he was entitled to on our page and creatively found other ways to appear in print, writing to sections across The Post. We admired his dedication to taking part in civil debate, and we will miss him.”

Marans was profiled in the Washington City Paper in 2004. He told Erik Wemple, then of the weekly, why he churned out so many letters: “When I get very angry, I want to get rid of the anger. At the same time, I want to let them know that they have violated their journalistic integrity.”…

Nelson Marans was not one to let things slide.

“My father had an opinion about everything, so much so that when my plays started getting produced, suddenly he became a theater critic,” said Jon, 64, a playwright who lives in New York City.

That was the last thing Jon wanted, especially when Nelson said he was preparing to pick a fight over a Post review of one of his works.

“I said, ‘Don’t write that letter,’ ” Jon remembered.

In 1989, Marans was a subject of articles, not just a commenter upon them. He said that his employer, W.R. Grace, was forcing older chemists such as himself to take early retirement or accept a demotion. He sued, claiming age discrimination, and boosted his campaign in his favorite way: by sending letters to publications across the country.

“W.R. Grace thought he was this mild-mannered fellow,” Jon said. “Suddenly they just wanted to shut him up.”

The company gave him a payout, Jon said.

Nelson’s survivors include his wife of 66 years, Rhoda, and their son and two daughters.  In 2016, the couple moved to New York City to be closer to their children. Marans was bitter that his New York address seemed to cut his Post publication rate, down from 11 percent of the letters he sent while living in Silver Spring to just 5 percent.

One of Marans’s last letters published in The Post came after the 2018 death of Charles Krauthammer: “While The Post may have lost a distinguished and highly regarded columnist and journalist, our country has lost a national treasure.”

And we’ve lost a local treasure. I expect if Heaven isn’t up to snuff, God is going to hear about it.

John Kelly writes John Kelly’s Washington, a daily look at Washington’s less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.

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