Justine Priestley, 83, Was a Pioneering Journalist

Justine Priestley, 83, of Oak Bluffs, died on August 4. Born in 1921 in Pawtucket, R.I., Justine was the second of six children born to James and Mary Louise Tyrrell. A true renaissance woman, Justine enjoyed multiple careers while mothering multiple children, defining her life with a richness that inspired the lives of those who came to know and love her.

A graduate of Brown University with a degree in English, Justine married Louis Smadbeck in 1943. They raised four sons, Arthur, Louis, David and Paul, in New York city. In the early 1950s, she became executive director of the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, responsible for providing hundreds of educational grants to students who would otherwise be unable to attend college. With a passion for writing and social justice, in 1961 she began a 10-year tenure as the only white reporter and columnist for the then largest African American newspaper, The New York Amsterdam News, writing throughout the civil rights movement under the byline of Gertrude Wilson.

In her column, White on White, Justine wrote fervently about the most extraordinary events of the 1960s with her own unique perspective as a white, Park avenue mother. She covered the 1963 March on Washington, the famed civil rights walk from Selma to Montgomery and the Apollo 11 moonshot as well as the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. She knew these men and their wives, and was with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, and Coretta Scott King during the days after their husbands' deaths.

Her writing was never diluted and often harshly criticized American politicians for their ignorance and tolerance of racial inequality. After the 1964 killings of three Mississippi civil rights workers, she criticized President Johnson, writing, "How long before we as a nation realize that lawlessness unchecked is lawlessness unleashed?" Her keen insight attracted reams of fan mail with praise and admiration from such notable historical figures as Bobby Kennedy, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Adam Clayton Powell.

She later recounted these tumultuous events in her memoir, entitled You Can't Get There From Here. She was the only white person at Malcolm X's funeral, which she wrote "touched me more than I can ever say." She was present on the funeral train carrying the slain body of Robert Kennedy to Washington and also during the chaos that erupted during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where she was struck by a policeman during one of the protests, her glasses knocked to the ground.

"I was trying to show that we're more alike than we're unalike as people," she said of her memoir. "Families, children, hopes for the future. In some ways, it's extremely idealistic, but you can shoot for the sun or the moon and you may get halfway there." In talking about her deep belief in social justice, she once told Newsday, "It's my fight, too. If one black person is told he can't vote because he is black - I mean, that's my country. One of my countrymen can't have his rights. It's humiliating."

After her years at The New York Amsterdam News, Justine moved to Martha's Vineyard in 1974, and built her home in Waterview Farm, where she has since resided with her husband of 30 years, Robert Priestley. She founded the Vineyard real estate firm, Priestley, Smadbeck & Mone, which she ran in partnership with her son, Arthur, now an Edgartown selectman. She supported many Island organizations as she appreciated their efforts and visions.

Justine is survived by her beloved husband, Bob; her sons, and their wives, Diane, Kathleen and Lois; her step-children, Pamela, Patricia, Paula, Mark and Kelly, and her nine grandchildren, Louis, Mark, Jeffrey, Patrick, James, Adrian, Leigh, Bryan and Sophie. She is also survived by her five brothers and sisters, Louise, Ruth, Betsy, Jim and Pete. Surrounded by loving family and friends her entire life, Justine touched the world with her kindness and energy.

Friends and family are all invited to an open house reception at her home at 15 Old Harbor Lane in Oak Bluffs from 2 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 15. In grateful acknowledgement of their invaluable support, donations can be made in her memory in lieu of flowers to Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, P.O. Box 2549, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557 or to Martha's Vineyard Community Services/Visiting Nurse Service, P.O. Box 369, Tisbury, MA 02568. Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home in Oak Bluffs. Visit www.ccgfuneralhome.com for guest book and information.