May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN BIG-CITY NEWSPAPER columnists die, the tributes that follow their passing tend toward adjectives like “colorful” or “two-fisted.” When Murray Kempton died last week, though, his colleagues reached for other words. Kempton, said colorful, two-fisted columnist Jimmy Breslin, was “a lovely human being.” And Jim Dwyer, in the New York Daily News, wrote of Kemp-ton’s mind as “a cabinet of brilliance.”

For close to 50 years, Kempton, who was 79 when he died of an apparent heart attack in a Manhattan nursing home, was a beloved anachronism in the brawling world of New York City journalism. Where others scrambled into radio cars to race to a crime scene, Kempton, who had written for Newsday since 1981, mounted his three-speed bicycle and pedaled there at his own, more civilized pace. He covered trials and political conventions, funerals, murders and mobsters. He had a devout mistrust of power and no tolerance at all for conventional wisdom. And he wrote in sentences that meandered elegantly through thickets of metaphor and allusion before returning gracefully to rest at whatever point Kempton had in mind.

The son of a stockbroker who died when Kempton was just 3 and a mother who counted George Mason, one of the authors of Virginia’s Bill of Rights, among her antecedents, Kempton was an only child, born in Baltimore. A 1939 graduate of Johns Hopkins University, he took a job at the New York Post, served in the Pacific in World War II, then returned to the Post, where he began tilting at the forest of windmills that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

Kempton could find unexpected veins of good. Long after calling for Richard Nixon’s resignation, he defended him in print. And the wife of mobster Carmine “The Snake” Persico sent a bouquet to the Newsday newsroom for Kempton’s 75th birthday; it arrived at the same time as a letter from John Cardinal O’Connor. Said Breslin: “He put more honor in the newspaper business than anyone in our time.”

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