The Joy and Pain of Being a First
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Gerald Boyd Services Illustrate Obligation, Burden
Gerald M. Boyd's former colleague Bernard Weinraub raised an issue worth considering when discussing those who hold the distinction of being the first of a race or gender to reach a milestone.
"The job of every single editor on the New York Times is to publish a good newspaper," Weinraub said at the memorial service for the man who became the first and only person of color to reach the highest ranks of the New York Times newsroom.
"But Gerald's job was not only to publish a good newspaper, but to carry the weight of his race and to represent his race every single moment he walked into the paper," Weinraub, who is white, continued.
"That's a brutal weight to carry. Are you ultimately set up and doomed to fail? I don't know," asked Weinraub, addressing a packed lower-level auditorium of 375 people at Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
"I have no doubt that Gerald felt a mixture of pride, anger, resentment and confusion. How does a sane man represent his race at an institution like The Times while doing his job like everyone else? I have no idea."
One answer was to represent with dignity, which was very important to him, speakers said. Another was by bringing into the profession more young people of color, which some said would be Boyd's greatest legacy. A third was by devoting his life — maybe too much of his life, some said—to meeting and setting standards for excellence at a paper such as the New York Times.
Boyd died at age 56 on Thanksgiving day, of complications from lung cancer. He smoked. He felt the stress of his pioneering role.
Richard Torres, a Newsday columnist, recalled in this column meeting Boyd once at a Times Square noodle shop. Torres said he "told him the reason I stopped him was that I just had to thank him for being a pioneer at the Times and how important and inspirational he was to a journalist of color such as myself.
"Then as an aside, I mentioned how tough it must be for him in those offices. Before I could say another word, he looked me in the eye and in a quiet voice said: 'You have no idea.' The forcefulness with which he said those words stunned me," Torres wrote.
"The burden of being in that role," Times Executive Editor Bill Keller acknowledged to Journal-isms after the service, "is something a few of us are beginning to comprehend."
A private funeral service and a public memorial service were both held for Boyd this week in Harlem. Although Boyd participated in winning Pulitzer Prizes for the Times, most notably for coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and for the Times' "How Race Is Lived in America" series, not much was said about the stories he had worked on over the years.
Instead, the talk was about helping, and about character. Always implied, if not stated outright, was the burden. One section of the audience was less integrated than the rest; that was the section where his New York Times colleagues sat. Still, the Times reported on Friday that three former executive editors — Max Frankel, Joseph Lelyveld and Howell Raines — were present, in addition to Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and the current executive editor, Keller.
George E. Curry, a colleague of Boyd from his early days in St. Louis, looked straight at that section of the audience Thursday as he declared, "I am angry over the way Gerald's career is being framed by many of our colleagues.
"In case some of you rode the short bus to school, let me be more direct," Curry said a few minutes later. "It is irresponsible, in writing about Gerald's career, to mention that he lost his job at The Times because of Jayson Blair before you mention that he is dead or what he accomplished as a journalist. It is unfair to act like Blair, that serial liar, was an appendage of Gerald Boyd. Gerald was not his direct supervisor and Gerald certainly did not fabricate any stories. But you'd never know that from some of the coverage of his death, including that of the New York Times."
Curry apparently found his mark. Keller acknowledged to Journal-isms during the reception afterward, "Some inconvenient truths were spoken on the stage that really needed to be said. . . . Gerald would have been most pleased with it. He didn't go for pussyfooting around."
Such forthrightness was a credit to Boyd's character, Allan M. Siegal, who retired as an assistant managing editor of the Times this year, told the gathering. When Siegal was chosen in 2003 to head an in-house committee to investigate the scandal involving Blair, whose plagiarism and fabrication led to the resignations of Boyd and Raines, some feared that Boyd would not want to testify. Though he had already left the paper, he did testify, without conditions, Siegal said.
"In the lowest point in his career, I saw the highest character," said Siegal. "He was incredibly gracious. . . He never allowed himself to get down in the mud. He left with dignity, and the memories are pure platinum."
Curry had another message, apart from his friend's treatment in the obituaries. He maintained that, "Gerald's greatest contribution to journalism was that he introduced hundreds of young people to our profession and because he was hard on them, they have excelled as journalists."
Marcia Davis, a Style section editor at the Washington Post, and Ann Scales, deputy Living editor at the Boston Globe, were there to attest to that. They both attended the urban journalism workshop that Boyd and Curry helped found in St. Louis. Davis wrote about the experience in an appreciation after Boyd's death.
Anahad O'Connor, a Times scholarship winner who now covers Westchester County and upstate New York for the paper, seconded the sentiments. "What I remember is his desire to give back," said O'Connor, 25, who in 1999 was in the first class of Times scholarship winners. The program put $12,000 a year toward his Yale tuition, and he interned at the Times in the summers. O'Connor said 180 students had gone through the program.
"The one thing we can do," said Fred Sweets, a photographer who knew Boyd long enough to remember when he began as a copy aide at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "is get off our rusty butts and volunteer for urban journalism programs like the ones he did. Write a check for the University of Missouri in Gerald's honor."
It wasn't a time to cry, but to be inspired. Herbert Lowe, a reporter for Newsday who is immediate past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said that listening to that testimony, seeing "the quality of people in the room," and hearing about the impact Boyd had, "you kept thinking what kind of journalist you were. Are you helping out?"
"We all know that he grew up in far more poverty than most of us," Weinraub told the group, speaking of Boyd. "He and his brother were raised by his grandmother, who raised four other boys. He was obviously really gifted. He attended schools on scholarships and anti-poverty programs. He joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and caught the attention of editors there and rose quickly within the ranks and could have climbed to the top. But he began reading the New York Times. He read 'The Kingdom and the Power,'" Gay Talese's 1969 behind-the-scenes book about the paper. "And he was hooked. His dream was to join The New York Times.
"And once he joined The Times, the paper became far more important to him than it should have been.
"It was the home he never had as a kid."
Other journalists of color took note. Greg Moore, now editor of the Denver Post, read a letter he had written to Boyd: "I remember being shocked when I first found out that a black man was covering the White House. I just didn't think back then that was something to which I might one day aspire. I knew Lou Cannon was covering Reagan, but then someone told me a brother was doing it for The Times. Later I saw you on television at a press conference and thought, 'Wow, he doesn't look like Max Robinson or anything. He looks like me.'"
Christopher Windham, a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal who now publishes and edits Human Nature magazine, said at the reception how inspiring it had been to meet Boyd at the Times and see a black man running its daily story conferences.
"Gerald was what every young journalist strives to be—dedicated, respected and cool. His career showed us we can go far as we can dream in the journalism. Gerald has laid the blueprint, now it's up to the younger journalists to follow," said Windham, who is 25.
Asked for his thoughts after the service, Seymour Topping, former Times managing editor and onetime administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, called the scene "a mixture of joy and pain," lauding Boyd's "enormous contributions" to journalism. He said he considered Boyd a beacon for diversity in the profession, "which is essential, not only to the business of journalism but to our self-respect as a society and as a nation." When they worked together, Topping and Boyd were the only two Times news executives from the University of Missouri, he said.
Over the course of the evening, speakers talked about Boyd's love for Robin D. Stone, a journalist whom he met at the Times who became his third wife, and their son, Zachary, who is now 10.
"We've got to be honest," Weinraub said. "This is a sad story. The last few years of Gerald's life were difficult. Thank God, he had Robin and Zach. But the fulcrum of his working life had been pulled away from him. Through no fault of his own." "Thank God for Robin and Zach," more than one speaker said.
At the end of the service, four members of the New York Association of Black Journalists took turns reading short excerpts from the unpublished memoir that Boyd completed.
In the final installment, read by the Times' Michel Marriott, Boyd discussed attending a 2003 gathering of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he was a board member who suddenly had no newspaper affiliation. He felt rootless.
But he went on to relate taking Zachary to the park to teach him how to ride a bike. Father and son were ecstatic when Zach was able to keep riding after the training wheels were removed.
The burden of the New York Times was finally being lifted.
Boyd concluded, "This is my life now, and it was precious."
Macarena Hernández, Dallas Morning News: Boyd had strength of purpose, character
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