Jessica Boehm Arizona Republic
Published 8:26 PM EST Dec 20, 2018
Former Arizona Republic reporter and editorial writer Joel Nilsson, who worked at the paper for 31 years, died Tuesday night.
Nilsson, 73, was a diligent political reporter turned thoughtful editorial writer who specialized in transportation, the environment, growth and conservation issues.
He was also an artist, an outdoors enthusiast, a Peace Corps volunteer and a dedicated husband and father, according to those who knew him best.
Nilsson is survived by his wife, Pamela, and three sons: Rob, Peter and Mark.
“He was just a very loving and generous and kind husband and a wonderful father to his three sons and my best friend. That, to me, is the essence of him,” Pamela said.
Nilsson, who was a pottery hobbyist for years, dedicated himself to the craft after his retirement from The Republic in 2008. He would sell and gift his creations, Pamela said.
“We use them all the time. We have so many physical reminders of his very capable hands,” she said.
Republic Editorial Director Phil Boas said Nilsson was much more than just a “fine journalist” — he was an “exceptional person who demonstrated daily what is to be a good husband and father.”
“I don’t think I ever saw Joel gleam more than when he talked about his family and his boys as they grew into young manhood,” Boas said.
He called Nilsson “soft-spoken and cerebral, a man who loved baseball, the outdoors and working clay into beautiful earthenware.”
“Always a thinker, he thrilled to tell us about the things he had just learned, whether on a trip to the Arizona Legislature or a hike down the Grand Canyon, his summers in Cape Cod or a visit to his ancestral homeland in Scandinavia,” Boas said.
Before joining The Republic, Nilsson spent five years at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson as a reporter and the Phoenix bureau chief covering the state Legislature.
During his time at the Daily Star, Nilsson was an officer in the Arizona Press Club in 1975 — one year after women were allowed to join the association.
Former Republic reporter Athia Hardt was the president of the Arizona Press Club that year and became fast friends with Nilsson. They helped “clean up” the Press Club by hosting seminars and awards ceremonies, Hardt said.
“He was a really good reporter. He was one of those people who was very straight arrow and very thorough and paid a lot of attention to details and did the research behind the stories that he was covering,” Hardt said.
At The Republic, Nilsson served as a political reporter and assistant city editor, where he won numerous statewide reporting awards.
When former Republic reporter John Leach arrived at the paper in the 1980s to cover Maricopa County, Nilsson was assigned as his editor. Before long, the two were relocated to the state Capitol bureau, with Nilsson reporting on politics (mostly Gov. Bruce Babbitt) and Leach covering state agencies.
Nilsson’s work was a “must read” for anyone in state-government circles, Leach said.
“Joel was always very thoughtful and insightful. His strength as a reporter was big, analytical pieces about politics and policy in Arizona,” Leach said.
But it was his work as an editorial writer that will be best remembered.
“Joel provided the board with something editorial boards deeply need and that is gravitas,” former Republic editorial writer Doug MacEachern said.
MacEachern called Nilsson an intellectual, an artist and a deep thinker with a way of expressing outrage that made people pay attention.
“His standard line was ‘That’s outrageous,’ and he said it in a way that made you think, ‘That really must be outrageous,'” MacEachern said.
He called Nilsson the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts of the editorial board — a centrist who carefully evaluated each issue.
MacEachern said that because most of Nilsson’s best work was done for the editorial board, it was masked by the anonymity that goes along with the board’s work.
“I think in great respect, a lot of what Joel did for his community will be hidden behind that anonymity, and that’s a shame because he’s among the greats of this community,” MacEachern said.
Those who had an opportunity to share their views with Nilsson said the editorial writer made a lasting impression.
When Nilsson retired in 2008, Phoenix neighborhood leader Alexander Tauber lauded his work in an op-ed published in The Republic.
“I sincerely hope The Republic recognizes the intangible goodwill created by Joel and his colleagues at the Editorial Board. They help set the agenda for our state and our cities. While this impact cannot be measured in its balance sheet, it can be measured in the community that it serves. Herein lies a true competitive advantage,” Tauber wrote.
Tauber recalled a time when Nilsson agreed to meet with him and his neighbors, even through they were not well connected, did not have recognizable last names and were not “part of the ‘political establishment.'”
“Eventually, Joel felt our position was a right one and he gave us a voice and became an advocate. That voice brought responsibility and only prompted me to care even more about what happens in Arizona,” Tauber wrote.
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