A former editor of Smithsonian magazine and the author of a novel and three Time Life books, among others, Donald J. Moser died at home in Sag Harbor on Dec. 8. He was 81 and had Parkinson’s disease for a long time.
Interested in the natural world from the time he was a child, Mr. Moser was a birder, amateur astronomer, and fly fisherman. He became a volunteer for the Wildlife Rescue Center in Hamptons Bays after his retirement.
His first book, “The Peninsula,” of photos and text about Olympia National Park, was published by the Sierra Club. His novel, “A Heart to the Hawks, which was semiautobiographical, was nominated for a Newbury Prize, and his Time Life books were “The Snake River Country,” “Central American Jungles,” and “The China Burma India Theater.”
He was named executive editor of Smithsonian in 1977, and he and his wife began dividing their time between Sag Harbor and Washington, D.C. He became its editor in 1981. During his leadership, the magazine attracted two million subscribers and won a National Magazine Award, among other prizes.
A colleague described his reign as akin to “the independent tradition of H.L. Mencken at the American Mercury and Harold Ross at The New Yorker.” Another colleague said, “While Don was in charge we not only benefited from his editorial genius, but from his fair-minded, even-keeled approach to management. . . . I will never forget his kindness, integrity, and gentle leadership.”
Mr. Moser’s journalism career began at Life as a military affairs reporter in 1961. During a six-month leave, he was a special assistant to Stuart Udall, then secretary of the interior, returning to the magazine as an assistant sports and adventure editor following Cassius Clay, who would become Muhammad Ali. He was Life magazine’s bureau chief in Hong Kong during the Vietnam War, and his war reporting was included in “Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-69,” a prestigious collection published by the Library of America.
He was born in Cleveland on Oct. 19, 1932, and attended Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. He set out for points west after his tuition money ran out, working as a fire lookout for the United States Forest Service in Idaho and Wyoming. Drafted in 1953, he had hoped to see combat, but the Korean War had ended. His military time, in Indiana and Georgia, was spent, in his own words, “pushing pencils, peeling potatoes, and driving trucks.”
He then returned to college at Ohio University on the G.I. Bill and spent the summer as a park ranger at Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks. After graduating, he went on to become a fellow at Stanford University, studying with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner. He also was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia.
Mr. Moser worked at Life magazine until it folded in 1972, by which time he was its assistant managing editor. He had served as Los Angeles bureau chief in 1965, covering the Watts riots, an Alaska earthquake, and Hollywood. He later wrote about the Philippines, East Texas, and the Azores for National Geographic. He and the former Penny Lee Ward, who grew up on a farm in Shabbona, Ill., met in 1973. They shared enthusiasms for bird-watching, pork sandwiches, beer, and snakes. After a long-distance relationship, they married in East Hampton in 1975.
Mr. Moser had rented a cottage on the ocean in Bridgehampton beginning in the late 1960s.
In retirement, Mr. Moser enjoyed fly fishing on the South Fork’s freshwater ponds while his wife snorkeled. She had recruited him for the Wildlife Rescue Center and said he was a dedicated rescuer of swans, even when they bit him. He had earned his stripes pulling a moose out of river ice in the Grand Tetons, she said, noting that they once pulled an impaled doe off a high metal fence post on Ferry Road on North Haven. It survived. The couple also continued bird-watching in all the “little hide-y holes that people don’t know about,” she said.
Mr. Moser’s parents, Donald Lyman and Katherine McHugh Moser, died before him, as did a brother, Lt. Col. Mark Moser. He is survived by his wife and his brothers Gilbert Moser of Sharonville, Ohio, and Dennis Moser of Chesterfield, Mo. His ashes are to be scattered in the Gulf Stream, which his wife said he thought would be a good way to travel. Memorial contributions have been suggested to the American Kestrel Project Peregrine Fund, 5668 West Flying Hawk Lane, Boise, Ida. 83709. A gathering in his memory will be held in the spring or summer in Washington.