Maine: An Encyclopedia

Wiggins, James Russell

James R. Wiggins, United States Mission to the United Nations photo

James R. Wiggins, United States Mission to the United Nations photo

(1903-2000) former editor of The Washington Post, served briefly as ambassador to the United Nations, then retired to Ellsworth, where he continued to work at the Ellsworth American, a weekly newspaper he owned from 1966 to 1991 until his declining health forced him to stop in 2000.

Coming off a Minnesota farm, he never got to college but compensated with a self-organized reading program. From his legendary curiosity and intellectual capacity came his later aversion to the sort of school aptitude tests that would have screened out the likes of him and many other subsequent achievers.

A graduate of Colby College, he was the editor of The Washington Post in 1954 when he was chosen as Colby’s third Lovejoy fellow, an award honoring the Maine-born anti-slavery publisher Elijah Parish Lovejoy.

“Russell had a contagious enthusiasm for everything he encountered and read. He was an endless optimist about human nature, interested in everyone he met, whether young or old,” said Alan Baker, a friend who had bought the Ellsworth American from Wiggins, according to a newspaper account of his death.

Wiggins’ newspaper career began in 1922 after he graduated from high school in Luverne, Minnesota. He started at his hometown paper, the Rock County Star, which he purchased at age 22, then worked for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, where he rose to managing editor.

He served in the Army Air Corps Intelligence Division during World War II. After the war and a year as assistant to The New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Wiggins joined The Washington Post, where he spent 22 years and was named executive editor in 1955. He served as editor and executive vice president from 1960 and 1968, and was the last editor to oversee both the newspaper’s news and editorial departments.

During his newspaper career, Wiggins headed the American Society of Newspaper Editors (1959-1960) and the Gridiron Club of Washington, among other national press organizations. A passionate advocate for the public’s right to know, he helped pass the first federal Freedom of Information Act.

In 1968, he accepted an appointment as ambassador to the United Nations for the final months of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

Anticipating his retirement, Wiggins bought the  Ellsworth American in 1966, two years before taking over as editor and publisher of the weekly. He sold the paper in 1991 but continued to work there daily until health problems confined him to his home. He died in Brooklin, Maine on November 18, 2000 at the age of 96.

Additional resources

Wiggins, James Russell, 1903-2000. Papers 1908-1994. Orono, Me. University of Maine. Fogler Library, Special Collections.

“History of USUN Ambassadors: James R. Wiggins.”

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This entry was last modified: June 05, 2012 11:42 PM

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