Dedicated, tenacious and selfless are the words used to describe Rita Holt, a former Detroit News editor who died Tuesday from complications of a stroke. She was 71.
Holt — born Sept. 17, 1946, in Batavia, New York — graduated from Wayne State University and went right to work at The Detroit News in 1968, where she started writing listings for the newspaper’s TV guide.
Holt took several years off in the 1970s to work in public relations but returned to the newspaper in 1976. She worked on the copy desk before rising to features copy desk chief, food editor and eventually deputy features editor, her position when she retired in 2012.
“Rita was an inexhaustible journalist with a wide-ranging curiosity,” said Jon Wolman, publisher and editor of The News. “She was a fountain of story ideas that reflected the interest of Michigan readers — whether music or education or fashion. When she hung up the editor’s pencil, she was off to see the world and discover cultures here in the state and far, far away.”
Colleagues and friends recalled a woman of unusual dedication — invisible to readers, yet one of those quiet, utterly indispensable pillars without whom the paper wouldn’t make it into print.
“I don’t remember a time that she wasn’t there at her desk,” said Detroit News film and music critic Adam Graham. “She was there when I got in in the morning, she was there when I’d leave at night. I don’t necessarily think that readers knew her name, but every story that was in features or entertainment that ended up in the paper, she had a hand in.”
She was famously imperturbable, a dogged problem-solver whose work ethic was famous throughout the newsroom.
“Rita was a consummate professional who never became flustered, no matter how hectic the pace or how many heroics we asked of her copy desk,” said Marty Fischhoff, former features assistant managing editor. “She was conscientious, smart and a crackerjack editor, from whom I learned so much.”
Alan Fisk, a one-time assistant features editor who’d known Holt from their Wayne State days, said she would power right through any obstacle. “I don’t think I ever heard her say ‘no’ to any request,” Fisk said.
Yet, Holt was no editorial pushover.
“Rita was a tough editor,” said Susan Whitall, a former News feature writer. “No matter how smoothly I thought I’d written a story, she’d make it her duty to find something to improve. I’d tease her that she didn’t always have to do that.”
The reporter-editor relationship, of course, can be famously contentious. But Kate Lawson — whom Holt hired in the 1990s — gave her former boss the sort of compliment editors rarely hear. “Rita,” Lawson said, “could turn copy into prose and write poetic headlines.”
“Rita never laughed unless she absolutely meant to,” Lawson added, “and it was a delightful sound. I owe her so much.”
Features assistant managing editor Felecia Henderson worked alongside Holt for 16 years.
“Rita wasn’t my colleague; she was my friend,” Henderson said. “She was selfless and attentive to the needs of others.”
Summing up her legacy in one phrase, Henderson said, “Rita was the backbone of the features department.”
Holt, a resident of Livonia, also was passionate about sports, an appreciation she learned from her father.
“Rita was a huge fan and supporter of Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, but she wasn’t afraid to be critical when they were playing badly,” said Roger Holt, her husband of 49 years.
In addition to her husband, Holt is survived by her two adult children, Julie Love, and Chris Holt; as well as her sister, Carol LaPointe.
Visitation will be 2-8 p.m. Thursday at Manns Family Funeral Home, 17000 Middle Belt Road, in Livonia. Funeral services will be 11 a.m. Friday at Manns.
In retirement, Holt and her husband were able to do a fair bit of traveling — with trips to Florida and the Pacific Northwest, as well as Wichita, Kansas, to visit their daughter and her husband.
Reluctant to retire, friends say Holt absolutely blossomed once she had time to herself. At a lunch last spring, Fisk asked her what she was doing to keep busy in retirement.
“Her answer? ‘Nothing! Just give me a book to read.’ ”