Maurice Carroll, who brought streetwise insights to his political reporting for a string of major newspapers, and who later became the public face of the emerging Quinnipiac University poll, died on Wednesday in Convent Station, N.J. He was 86.
The cause was colon cancer, his former wife, Peggy Carroll, said. He died at her home, where he had moved from Manhattan after he became ill.
Mr. Carroll, who was universally known as Mickey, covered government and politics for at least eight New York and New Jersey newspapers over four decades. His reporting included an eyewitness account from Dallas of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as well as dispatches from the scenes of civil rights marches in the South.
After he retired from The New York Times in 1995, he became the assistant director of the opinion poll run by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., where he also taught journalism.
Mr. Carroll joined the university’s polling institute just a year after it was formally established, and he went on to play a major role in transforming Quinnipiac’s image — from that of an obscure college named for a local Indian tribe into that of a university with a trusted and widely quoted national opinion survey.
As a hardened reporter — biting on a pencil, a phone cradled to his ear — Mr. Carroll had a flair for detail and nuance in articles that he seemed to write effortlessly and that he delivered dependably on deadline.
He began his peripatetic career in New Jersey reporting for The Passaic Herald News, The Jersey Journal and The Star-Ledger of Newark. In New York, besides The Times, he worked for The Herald Tribune, The Journal American, The New York Post and New York Newsday.
He was working for The Tribune in 1963 when he was sent to Dallas to assist the columnist Jimmy Breslin and the veteran reporter Robert S. Byrd after the Kennedy assassination, and he was in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters when the nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald amid a scrum of reporters and photographers.
He later wrote of Oswald: “I may have shouted the last words he was ever to hear: ‘How about it, Lee!’ ”
The Tribune had Mr. Carroll write a first-person account, which landed on the front page.
He also covered Ruby’s murder trial and conviction and helped Melvin Belli, Ruby’s celebrated defense lawyer, write “Dallas Justice: The Real Story of Jack Ruby and His Trial” (1964).
The Texas journalist George Fuermann wrote of that book in The New York Times Book Review that it “expresses the author’s vengeance against the city,” where Belli argued that the shooting had been an act of “unthinking impulse.”
Mr. Carroll wrote another book about the case, “Accidental Assassin: Jack Ruby and 4 Minutes in Dallas” (2014), which sought to debunk the theory that Ruby had been involved in a Kennedy assassination conspiracy.
Known to be cranky but easily amused, Mr. Carroll would often pepper his reporting with wry and iconoclastic asides.
“The best of all possible promises has two elements,” he wrote in 1977. “It involves something thoroughly worth doing, and someone else to do it.”
Covering the swearing-in of Abraham D. Beame as mayor of New York City in 1974 — on the heels of the eight-year run of Mr. Beame’s glamorous predecessor, John V. Lindsay — Mr. Carroll wrote dryly: “The Beames are not a reclusive family, but they do not coordinate their activities for the 6 o’clock news.”
And in an unusually frank assessment of an incumbent politician, Mr. Carroll wrote in 1979, “Since his father helped him buy a seat in the New York State Assembly, Andrew J. Stein has lived most of his professional life among people who detest him.”
At Quinnipiac, as the chief spokesman for the New York and New Jersey polls, he was known for distilling raw survey results into quotable quips and offering battle-scarred observations on political campaigns. He once said to a seemingly overheated press corps after a candidates’ debate, “Debates have a profound impact on the people who cover them.”
Maurice Camillus Carroll (the middle name was for the Roman statesman) was born on May 24, 1931, in Rutherford, N.J. His father, who was also named Maurice and who went by Mike, was a businessman. His mother, the former Dorothy Joyce, was a bookkeeper.
Mr. Carroll graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1952. His marriage to the former Margaret Wade ended in divorce.
He is survived by their son, Michael, a New Jersey assemblyman; their daughters, Elizabeth Carroll and Eileen Carroll; 10 grandchildren; and a sister, Anne Shannon. Another son, Patrick, died in 2005. In 1976 he married Elizabeth Fallon, who was a columnist for The Daily News under the byline Beth Fallon. She died in 2006.
After retiring from newspapers, Mr. Carroll also taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York University and Montclair State University in New Jersey.
He never lost his reporter’s perspective, though, advising would-be journalists never to take themselves too seriously, no matter how important the news they’re covering may be.
“When you’re a reporter, you’re there at different things,” he said, reflecting on his Kennedy assassination coverage. “And then it was over with, and I went back to reporting the news.”