Leon Jaroff, 85, Journalist and Skeptic

February 27, 1927- October 20, 2012

    Leon Jaroff was a man who did not suffer fools gladly. A senior editor at Time magazine, in charge at different times of its science, medicine, environment, and behavior sections, he wrote some 44 Time cover stories and a column for the magazine called “Skeptic Eye.” He was 85 when he died at his Further Lane, East Hampton, residence on Oct. 20, having been in declining health for some time. A memorial gathering was held at the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center on Nov. 29.
    Mr. Jaroff founded Discover magazine in 1980 and was its managing editor for four and a half years. He returned to Time after a disagreement with Discover’s editor-in-chief over the number of articles it should publish on psychology and psychiatry, which he did not consider “solid” sciences. Among his much-quoted articles for Time was “Race for the Moon” and “Did Comets Kill the Dinosaurs?” In 1998, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid “Jaroff,” after the publication of his article on the dangers asteroids and comets pose to the Earth.
    Continuing to write for Time after moving to East Hampton full time, Mr. Jaroff became a frequent writer of letters to the editor of this newspaper. He did not spare the ad hominem in criticizing “extremist know-nothings.” He argued against those who claimed there was a cancer cluster at East Hampton High School or alleged that low-level tritium leaks at Brookhaven National Laboratory caused everything from Lyme disease to low S.A.T. scores. He also attacked Ralph Nader’s campaign for the presidency, the anti-vaccine movement, and a local group called the Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine.
    The actor Alec Baldwin, a supporter of an organization called Standing for Truth About Radiation and another Star letter-writer, became a particular target after the group fought to close down a nuclear reactor at Brookhaven. It was reported, however, that the two men hit it off when they met at a Democratic Party event here. Mr. Baldwin was said to be surprised that the admittedly pro-nuclear Mr. Jaroff was a Democrat.
    Mr. Jaroff also contributed “Guestwords” to The Star. “An Escort to Remember” was about his Ford station wagon, “Bamboozled” described an attempt to rid his property of bamboo, and “Aging Ain’t All That Bad” counted the pleasures of growing older.
    Leon Morton Jaroff was born to Abraham and Ruth Jaroff in Detroit on Feb. 27, 1927. He graduated from Central High in Detroit and served in the Navy during World War II. His interest in science was reinforced as an electrical engineering and mathematics major at the University of Michigan, as was his inclination toward journalism.
    He graduated from Michigan in 1950 and was the managing editor of the Michigan Daily News in his senior year.
    An inveterate Michigan booster, Mr. Jaroff wrote an article for Time in 2003 called “How I Won the Michigan-Minnesota Game.” In it, he described how, with Minnesota ahead by one touchdown, he used a quiet moment to shout “Fumble, you baaastards!” Minnesota fumbled; Michigan regained the ball and won the game. He reported that he “was picked up and passed around the cheering student section.”
    Mr. Jaroff first came to the East End in the 1970s. He and his wife of 35 years, Mary Kay Moran, lived on Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett before buying the Further Lane house, overlooking the Maidstone Club golf course, in 1991. Her husband loved singles tennis, she said, and could be seen on the public Atlantic Avenue, Amagansett, courts three or four times a week until about six years ago, when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Ms. Moran said radiation eliminated the cancer but caused ongoing poor health.
    Although he often was irascible in print, Mr. Jaroff was an acknowledged mentor of young journalists. Denise Grady, the health editor of The New York Times, who attended the memorial gathering, said many of those who spoke credited Mr. Jaroff with having given them their start as writers. One of them was Natalie Angier, an author of four books and a Times Pulitzer Prize-winner for beat reporting, whom he hired as a science reporter for Discover. “We used to laugh that he wrote about the same things,” she said this week, “but I’ve come to see him as ahead of the curve in recognizing the anti-science strains in society. I only wish that more of us had gotten on the ball.”    
    In addition to his wife, Mr. Jaroff is survived by five children. They are Peter Jaroff of Philadelphia, Susan Malfa and Nicholas Jaroff, who live in Westchester County, Jill Jaroff of New York City, and Jennifer Jaroff, who lives in Virginia. His first marriage, to Claire Lynn Fox, ended in divorce.
    His family has suggested that memorial contributions would be appropriate for East End Hospice, 481 Old Riverhead Road, Westhampton Beach 11978, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20005, or the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Ala. 36104.