Esther Kartiganer '59, a '60 Minutes' producer, dies at 74

The pioneering journalist remained engaged with Brandeis throughout her life

Above, Esther Kartiganer is fourth from the left in the middle row in this photo of the 1955-56 women's basketball team. Below, portrait of Kartiganer © 2000 CBS Broadcasting Co.

Pioneering journalist Esther Kartiganer ’59, who rose from a job as a temporary assistant at CBS to become a senior producer with the television network’s flagship “60 Minutes” news program at a time when few women held leadership positions in journalism, died of a heart attack on Aug. 1 in Aspen, Colo. She was 74.

Kartiganer, who had homes in Colorado and New York, was stricken while engaged in a favorite pastime: riding her bicycle to a ski lift that would transport her to a mountaintop, where she enjoyed reading the New York Times, according to CBS.

kartiganerThe winner of 13 Emmy Awards, Kartiganer served as senior editor and then senior producer at “60 Minutes,” the highly rated television news magazine, during a career at CBS that spanned more than 40 years. At “60 Minutes,” she worked on one of the first TV news stories on Shaken Baby Syndrome and also helped produce a piece on the dangers of sulfites that led to new regulations regarding their use.

“She was a highly respected colleague at ‘60 Minutes’ and worked on many major news stories,” said Brandeis Trustee Allen Alter ’71, a senior producer at CBS News who landed his first job at the network in 1971 with assistance from Kartiganer. “In later years, she became the conscience of '60 Minutes’ and ensured that what appeared on the air was journalistically sound and accurately reflected the reporting.”

At Brandeis, Kartiganer was a founding member of the Women's and Gender Studies Program’s national board and served as its co-chair for many years. Upon her retirement from CBS in 2005, the network made a generous gift in her honor to help fund a professorship in women’s and gender studies.

"Esther was a kind of driving force behind anything she was passionate about, and she was absolutely passionate about Brandeis and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program,” said Sue Lanser, the program chair and a professor of English, women's and gender studies, and comparative literature. “She saw first-hand how difficult it was for women, and wanted to live out the Brandeis values of equality and justice. She saw the Women’s and Gender Studies Program as a path to do it.”

Over the years, Lanser grew accustomed to receiving phone calls from Kartiganer at unusual hours. “Esther thought about us all the time — what was good for students, what was good for women’s and gender studies, what was good for Brandeis,” she said. “She had been a scholarship student at Brandeis and felt a responsibility to give back to the university.”

In 2007, Lanser and her colleagues on the Women's and Gender Studies Program faculty established the Kartiganer Prize for outstanding undergraduate work in the field of journalism and women’s and gender studies. The prize is awarded annually to a Brandeis student.

Kartiganer’s engagement with Brandeis extended beyond her affiliation with the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She served as a trustee from 1986 to 1991 and was on the Alumni Association Board of Directors during the 1980s. She was elected to the Board of Fellows in 1991.

Kartiganer generously supported the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and also made gifts to the Alumni Annual Fund. In addition, she was a member of the Sachar Legacy Society, which honors and recognizes individuals who have included Brandeis in their estate plans.

“She was a phenomenal woman whom you couldn’t help but admire,” said Nancy Winship, P’10, P’12, senior vice president of institutional advancement. “Esther was a true journalism pioneer and someone who took great pride in breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ as she advanced in her career.”

As a Brandeis student, Kartiganer majored in politics, worked for The Justice student newspaper and played on the women’s basketball team. She was a member of the 1955-56 team, which was the first in school history to finish a season with an undefeated record and was enshrined in the Joseph Linsey Brandeis Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003.

Born in Berlin, Kartiganer immigrated to the United States in 1939 and grew up in New York. After graduation, she worked for a political pollster, then joined CBS as a temporary office assistant during the presidential primary season of 1964, which had taken unexpected turns after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After two weeks as an assistant, she ended up in charge of gathering precinct returns from Colorado for the news networks and wire services (her secretary in this effort was the mother of Madeleine Albright, who later became U.S. secretary of state).

At the time, there were no women either on news shows or in positions of power at CBS. “Central to my success,” Kartiganer told an interviewer for a profile published in a Women’s and Gender Studies Program newsletter in 2006, “is the fact that I didn’t marry and have children. I was on the road almost constantly for the first year. The men — even one with two sets of twins under age 2 — thought nothing of traveling. But only single women had the flexibility to put work at the top of their priorities. During that year, I got to know almost everyone at CBS, and that’s how the temporary job became permanent.”

After the election, Kartiganer worked in documentary production for CBS News, gaining her first experiences as an editor on a film crew. In 1976, she was named a producer, and from 1979 to 1981 directed a daytime women’s news show, “Up to the Minute.” She joined “60 Minutes” in 1982.

After her retirement, she became a mediator in the New York City court system and was a member of the Institutional Review Board at Columbia University Medical Center.

“She always wanted to ‘matter’ —  to make a real difference in people’s lives,” Lanser said. “She had a truly Brandeisian spirit.”

She is survived by her brother, Joseph Kartiganer, and his wife, Audrey Kartiganer, of New York, and two nieces, Alison Beth Kartiganer of Seattle and Deborah Lynn Kartiganer of San Francisco. She also leaves Deborah’s husband, Constantin Lorenzo Tanno; their son, Nicholas Lorenzo Tanno; and their daughter, Christina Wanda Tanno, all of San Francisco.

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