Sonja Hillgren Downs, 58, a renowned journalist who specialized in farming and agriculture, died of a brain tumor Tuesday at home in Center City.
Under the byline of Sonja Hillgren, she broke such stories as the Reagan administration’s plan to count ketchup as a vegetable in school food programs, and the farm crisis in the early 1980s.
Growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D. – in a home where politics was breakfast conversation, her father, Ralph Hillgren, was a newspaperman, state legislator and farm owner – she gravitated to farm journalism early in her career.
After graduating from high school in 1966, she attended the University of Missouri, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a master’s degree in 1972, both in journalism.
Sonja then went to work for United Press International, covering the Maryland statehouse. In 1978 she began covering agriculture in the UPI’s Washington bureau.
She established a reputation in the agriculture community, longtime friend and colleague Marcia Taylor said, for her reports on the plight of farmers after an overseas grain embargo was established during a time of record harvests. Thousands of American farmers defaulted on loans and lost their farms.
At one point, Sonja rode with a convoy of angry farmers aboard tractors who later encamped on the Mall just outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It was while at UPI that she wrote about the Reagan administration’s plans to consider ketchup a vegetable, said Chuck Abbott, a former UPI colleague.
After working for UPI for over a decade, she joined Knight Ridder Newspapers’ Washington bureau, before joining the Farm Journal in 1990.
She came to Philadelphia in 1995, when she was named editor of Farm Journal, which was founded here in 1877.
In 2004, she was named senior vice president/editorial for Farm Journal Media, the parent company of Farm Journal and several other agriculture magazines with a combined circulation of more than 800,000. As a media executive, she continued to be deeply interested in government, writing policy articles and Viewpoint columns for the Farm Journal and directing the annual Farm Journal Forum in Washington.
She was president of the National Press Club in 1996.Sonja had two brief marriages. Her first husband, Ralph Hill, died 15 days after their marriage in 1980. She married Bruce T. Downs in September, 2006. The couple had met at an Irish pub in Center City on July 4, 2005. “We talked for hours,” he said. “The time flew by. It was magic for both of us.”
She enjoyed attending the theater and classical music concerts and was active with several charitable organizations, including Philabundance. She called herself a fiscal conservative, her husband said, but was a liberal on social policies.
Sonja was a member of the Chesapeake NAMA Chapter since 1996.
In addition to her husband, Sonja is survived by a sister, Annette Bray; a brother, John Hillgren; and several nieces and nephews.
A funeral service will be at 11:30 a.m. today at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Center City. Burial will be in Hills of Rest Cemetery, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Memorial donations may be made to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 1904 Walnut St., Philadelphia 19103.