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Longtime Courier-Journal reporter Martha Elson, who for 40 years illuminated readers with insightful coverage of primarily Louisville neighborhood and historic-preservation issues, died at her home Thursday, July 6, 2017. She was 64 and had been ill with cancer.
Elson was an accomplished journalist and musician who worked at the Courier-Journal as a writer, editor, and columnist. She contributed to many different sections of the newspaper over four decades.
She also had a formidable repertoire of classical and contemporary pieces for organ and piano that she played at her church and elsewhere.
In a declaration honoring Elson this past April, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer referred to her as "a consummate professional journalist and history buff (who) helped her readers look to the future while honoring our past. A grateful community thanks Martha for making the newspaper, and our city, a better place."
Courier-Journal News Director Veda Morgan, who worked with Elson for more than 20 years, said that Elson "had a deep passion for Louisville's neighborhoods and the history behind them. She loved telling stories about people in our community and their efforts to preserve the places that they hold dear. As a journalist, Martha was persistent, fair and thorough. As a colleague and friend, she had a heart of gold and always put others before herself. She will be missed in the newsroom and in our community."

Elson and her sister, Mary, were born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in September 1952. The journalist had a bachelor's degree in English from Duke University, graduating magna cum laude in 1974.
Her work on the Duke Chronicle college newspaper launched her long, award-winning journalism career. Early on she worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Newport News Times-Herald, and also did freelance work for magazines in Nashville and Louisville.
After college she worked briefly in Louisville as a bookseller and as a researcher. She was hired by the Courier-Journal in February 1977.
For the Louisville newspaper, Elson developed a reputation for her exacting reporting, graceful writing and lucid explanation of complicated issues. She was exceptionally versatile, covering everything from breaking news to neighborhood life and the cultural and arts scene. All the while, she was handling sensitively written profiles and feature and human-interest stories.
In 2014 she began writing a Courier-Journal Sunday column called "Celebrating Our History."
The Louisville Historical League announced it would name an award after Elson. Steve Wiser, president of the organization, said the award will likely recognize research and writing on themes such as preservation and will be given out for the first time next year.
Wiser, an architect, said that "Martha Elson loved local history. She was the original Louisville Encyclopedia. Her wit, passion, inquisitiveness and good nature were much to be admired. There will be no more like her. She will be greatly missed."
The Crescent Hill Garden Club recently planted a dogwood in her honor at the American Printing House for the Blind.
One of her close friends and a former Courier-Journal reporter, Siobhan Morrissey, visited her recently and wrote to her family: "Martha has been a magical presence in my life - someone who listened with love, not judgment."
Another longtime friend, Louisville photographer John Nation, said that Elson's "writings were accurate and readable, giving life to her subjects and character to history. She plugged along tirelessly, reliably. She will be missed, but not forgotten."
Her survivors include: a son, Garret Cull, of Louisville; sister, Mary Elson (Jim Mahan); niece Madeleine Davis (Tyler Davis) and family, of Charleston, South Carolina, grand-nephews Charlie and Evan Davis; a nephew, Russell Fincher, of Chicago; cousins Karen and Jim Georgeff, of Florida; and cousins John and Barbara Kennedy, of Kansas. She was preceded in death by her parents, Ruby and Ralph Elson, and a brother, Mark Elson.
Martha's memorial service will be held Monday at 7 p.m. at Crescent Hill United Methodist Church, 201 S. Peterson Ave. Visitation will be Sunday from 3-7 p.m. at Arch L. Heady-Cralle Funeral Home, 2428 Frankfort Ave.
Preferred memorials are to: Crescent Hill United Methodist Church, 201 S. Peterson Ave., Louisville, KY 40206; Louisville Historical League, P.O. Box 6061, Louisville, KY 40206, or the William K. Bauer Foundation, Inc. Organ restoration/Louisville Memorial Auditorium, 970 S. 4th Street, Louisville, KY 40203.