Elaine Widner dies at 64, reported around the world for CNN

Elaine Widner traveled the world with CNN news teams, reporting on people and events from the Pope to wars. Widner died at 64 from cancer.

Credit: Courtesy of family

Credit: Courtesy of family

Elaine Widner traveled the world with CNN news teams, reporting on people and events from the Pope to wars. Widner died at 64 from cancer.

Elaine Elizabeth Widner, an early employee of Ted Turner’s then-new global news venture CNN, roamed the globe reporting on issues from delightful to horrifying while using her wit, charm and intelligence to make friends and create the life of adventure she envisioned as a young woman. She died in Atlanta Friday, Sept. 8, at age 64.

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer six years ago, Widner refused to let the illness curb her appetite for continuing her life unabated. She and her husband Jim Kulstad hosted dinners and late-night conversations and traveled, even finding a use for her illness — it ought to be good for something, she said — as she would play “the C-card,” as she called it, to board an airplane first.

She was born Aug. 5, 1959, to Hallie and Avalon Widner at Fort Benning — recently renamed Fort Moore — in Georgia and raised in Janesville, Wisconsin.

She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin and got a job at CNN in Atlanta in 1984, when Widner was one of the eager young TV and film-school graduates Turner hired who would go on to build his legendary news operation. Making little more than $4 an hour, she joined a pool of video editors cutting taped pieces and segments for the voracious 24-hour news start-up.

She distinguished herself as a creative and conscientious editor, and she began traveling on field assignments as a combination video editor and sound technician. She was sought after as much for her conviviality and winning smile as for her professionalism. She made lifelong friends with many fellow greenhorns at CNN, paying attention to details of their lives such as knowing all their kids’ names.

She was in the traveling press pool covering then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s run for president in 1988. One day when journalists joined in a friendly game of horseshoes in the backyard of the vice-presidential home, Elaine coaxed Bush Sr. into recording an on-camera personal message to her father Hallie, a fellow horseshoe aficionado.

While traveling, she would steer a boat in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve, hike the hills of Maui, hear the music in Prague, dine on rooftops in Rome and walk the beaches in South Africa She took an assignment in Rome in 1992 and would work in less pleasant places whose names are imprinted on some of the world’s recent worst moments.

Elaine Widner (center) worked for CNN covering news events worldwide. Here, 
Widner was part of a team covering the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Credit: Courtesy of Family

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Family

As a journalist, she landed with the U.S. Marines in Somalia during the intervention there in 1992, documented the grisly civil war in Chechnya and the first free elections in South Africa, worked in Sarajevo during the agonizing breakup of Yugoslavia, went to the Rwandan refugee camps in 1994 after the genocide, and covered the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. In 1993 she was in Oslo to help cover the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Nelson Mandela. She was in a hotel elevator when it stopped and Mandela stepped in. “Mr. Mandela! We’re going to see you later! We are the CNN crew that will shoot the interview with you,” Widner said. They chatted and as the door was opening for the next floor he asked, “Are you married?” Elaine beamed, “Actually, I’ve just gotten engaged!” and she displayed her new ring. “Oh, that’s too bad!” he said. “I wanted to introduce you to my grandson!”

While in Italy, Elaine and Jim were charmed by the small Etruscan hill town of Blera, the home of one of their friends an hour’s drive north of Rome. They bought a medieval-era dwelling there, and were back and forth from Atlanta to Blera over the years, as Jim — an environmentalist, woodworker and sculptor — refashioned it into a home.

Blera and its residents became another focal point of Elaine’s life with Jim. The Italian-speaking Widner endeared herself with the locals, particularly a group of elderly women who would sit together, chatting and praying with their rosaries on the town piazza. In 1999, she had a rare one-on-one encounter with Pope John Paul II after covering his trip to Poland and used the opportunity to bring him greetings from the the piazza ladies and ask for a blessing for them.

Widner earned a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship in 1997 at the University of Michigan, where her thesis of study was “The Craft of Life - The Art of Survival,” based on her five years of work traveling in the world’s flashpoints. She was also an annual volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and was brought on as technical operator of their Filmmaker’s Lodge.

Survivors include husband Jim Kulstad of Atlanta; Janesville-area siblings Jeffrey Widner, Pamela (Steve) Outhouse, Todd (Dawn) Widner, Thomas (Sarah) Widner, Tina (Brett) Gurney and Melissa (Mark) Gavigan; 13 nieces and nephews; and 21 grand-nieces and nephews.

A celebration of life will take place Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, at 4 p.m. at the First Existentialist Church of Atlanta, 470 Candler Park Drive NE. In lieu of flowers, please plant a tree, and donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists,