Mary Lou Lifka Atkinson, the first female copy editor at The Times-Picayune since World War II, died May 13, 2023, in New Orleans from complications of Parkinson’s disease. She was 76.
ML, as she was known, grew up in Berwyn, Illinois, and graduated from Iowa State University in 1968 with a degree in journalism. It was there that she met and fell in love with her husband-to-be, Richard Atkinson, better known as Rat. She was president of the student body; he was a Peter Fonda lookalike; they were the power couple on campus, each for a different reason. ML and Rat moved to New Orleans that same year because it had nearby swamps for him, a wildlife enthusiast; a thriving newspaper for her, and shrimp Creole for both. Of course, the long-haired blonde and her long-haired boyfriend settled in the French Quarter with their two literary cats, Gandalf and Gollum. Where else would two hippies live? They married a year later.
ML and Rat moved to Albany, NY, for two years where she worked at Knickerbocker News, Union-Star newspaper, and he continued his studies. When they moved back to New Orleans in 1972, ML returned to the TP where she worked until she retired in 2009. They bought a cottage in the Broadmoor area of the city, and quickly filled it with Rat’s toy trains and fishing paraphernalia, ML’s Fiesta pottery, posters, art, books, and memorabilia. After their home flooded in Katrina, they rebuilt and restocked their massive and impressive collection of all things camp. A metal Barq’s Root Beer sign fills one wall of their kitchen. ML’s Mr. Bingle dolls are arranged around a ledge in their bedroom. Rat, a master craftsman, outfitted his home as he would a boat and built nooks and crannies for their ever-growing, quirky collections. A toy train circles the walls in their dining room. Their home is as unique as the people who made it so.
Journalism was in ML’s blood. Her father was managing editor of Suburban Life Newspapers, which covered the metropolitan Chicago area, a position later held by her brother. She described her father’s birth as “a home delivery.”
ML was a voracious reader, a symphony supporter, a ballet lover, a staunch but quiet Democrat, an adventurous traveler (a highlight was her trip on the QE2 with Benjamin Morrison, her cherished friend and colleague) and a top-tier cat lover (her favorite was Detroit). When she was an editor, she listened to her reporters, a trait not shared by all her peers. When she was a reporter, her articles were thoughtfully composed and completely accurate. Benjamin described her as an anchor, and she was, for everyone. She was trusted, loved, and universally respected in both her roles at the newspaper. Around 1974, ML and Jeanie Blake, her dear friend and colleague, discovered Blue Fish clothes. The artfully designed, 100% cotton clothes became the trademark for the 100% natural, makeup-free ML.
ML contracted Parkinson’s about 14 years ago, but it was her secret for years. Not because she was a private person, which she was, but because she was independent and wanted to stay that way. After she retired, she continued her close friendship with her TP colleagues: Millie Ball, Chris Bynum, Suzanne Stouse, and Susan Larson. They called themselves “The Babes.” She volunteered at the Jewish Community Center’s Alzheimer’s Care Program, edited the memoirs of several Orleanians, and wrote occasional features for the New Orleans Advocate. ML formed a meaningful friendship with the women she met at a JCC exercise class: Florence Andre, Val Gross, Laura Bayon, Linda Osborne, Adrian Deckbar, Hazel Schlueter, and, again, Millie Ball. After Covid, the “Zoom ladies,” as they were called, retained their bond with Zoom get-togethers three times a week. She shared her love of cooking with former TP food editors Dale Curry and Judy Walker.
To paraphrase E.B. White’s description of Charlotte: “She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer and a good editor. ML was all three.”
ML is predeceased by her parents, Orville and Alice Lifka. She is survived by her husband, Richard Atkinson, her brother Robert Lifka, two nephews, a niece, and an ornery cat named Genghis.
The family will receive friends on Friday July 7th at 12:30 pm at Jacob Schoen & Son for a visitation followed by a memorial service in the J. Garic Schoen Chapel at 2:00 pm.
In lieu of flowers, consider a donation to Bridge House/Grace House or Zeus’ Rescues.