Randolph E. Schmid, AP science writer with light touch, dies

WASHINGTON (AP) — Randolph E. Schmid, a retired Associated Press science writer who seldom missed a chance to add a whimsical touch to his authoritative stories, has died.

Schmid, 78, died at a nursing home in Falls Church, Virginia, on Sunday, said Mike Bobal, whose late wife was Schmid’s cousin. Nursing home workers said he was watching TV and joking with staff the night before.

His AP colleagues recalled Schmid — friends called him Randy — as a skilled reporter who could find a simple way to present complicated subjects.

“A hallmark of a Schmid story is the light touch, brevity, a pun if possible, and above all speed,” Seth Borenstein, another AP science writer, wrote for Schmid’s retirement in 2011. “A public relations official at the Smithsonian said his competitors used to complain that he must have gotten tipped off about stories or press conferences. He didn’t.”

Schmid’s playful use of language was noted by a former boss in Washington.

“Randy was a dedicated science writer but he never skipped an opportunity to try to work a pun into a headline or lead. He was a classic AP newsman through and through,” said Sandy K. Johnson, who was AP bureau chief in Washington from 1998-2008.

One of his last AP stories showcased Schmid’s light approach.

“They may not be Sonny and Cher, but certain South American birds sing duets, taking turns as the tune goes along,” the story began.

“Colleagues stuck on leads often went to Randy for help, so much that we often enlisted him as ghost writer. It was a phrase he hated but a role he cherished,” Washington news editor Carole Feldman said.

Bob Furlow, an AP copy editor, described Schmid as “a solid reporter while still a champion of the offbeat. He could find nuggets others overlooked in a Census Bureau or other government report that turned into gold on his keyboard.”

Furlow added: “We’ll give him a special salute on Sunday for the switch from Daylight Saving Time — one of his favorite topics for spinning a few hundred words of fun around the semiannual reminders.”

Schmid, from West Carthage, New York, started with AP as a newsperson in the Albany bureau in 1968 and was correspondent in Memphis from 1969 to 1973 where he periodically had to shoot down rumors that Elvis Presley had died, Mike Bobal said.

He moved to AP’s Washington bureau in 1973 and worked his way up from newsman to science writer, and he earned a master’s in meteorology.

“He loved working for the AP,” Bobal said. “He enjoyed trying to get the public to understand things, whether it was the weather or climate change.”

Schmid loved to travel with his wife, Marcia, who died in 2004. Bobal said Schmid “was never quite the same after that” but stayed close to Bobal’s family and remained gregarious and a voracious reader.

“Randy took absolute glee in finding just the right piece of pop culture to make science news fun and accessible,” said Lauran Neergaard, an AP medical writer. “Transformation optics? To Randy, it was like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Bacteria in showerheads? He dubbed it the scariest shower news since ‘Psycho.’ He was unfailingly kind — and the king of puns.

“Even after retirement, a few times a month Randy would email some new bit of science humor as he checked in with friends and colleagues,” Neergaard said. “And when Randy moved to the nursing home, he had a photo collage the AP presented at his retirement — pictures of some of his favorite stories — hung directly in front of his bed, ready to reminisce with visitors.”

And many of those stories were memorable.

“Many of the most interesting, fun and important science stories people have read in the last generation,” Borenstein said, “were from Randy Schmid.”