For Young Journalists, Gerald Boyd Pointed the Way
Saturday, November 25, 2006
The chair didn't so much as fly at me, as it rattled and rumbled across the floor, stopping close to where I was standing.
Gerald M. Boyd, who decades later would become the first black managing editor of the New York Times, and who died Thanksgiving Day at the heartbreaking age of 56, had just kicked it. Hard.
His voice was urgent, his eyes piercing, as he collected the newspaper stories we had filed 10 minutes late. We were among a small number of high school kids attending a summer journalism workshop at the University of Missouri at Columbia. The other participants had all gone by then, and there were just three of us left-- two students desperately typing, and Boyd, pacing and waiting, pacing and waiting.
"You can't blow deadlines, you just can't do it," he'd said, using that heavy wooden chair as his exclamation point.
It was the mid-'70s and I was between my sophomore and junior years, and had already made up my mind. I was going to be a journalist. I knew it, and Boyd did too. This was serious business going on between us. He was passionate about journalism's critical role in society and what it meant to have people of color in the profession. Mainly, though, he believed that the world needed disciplined journalists of integrity, regardless of race or gender.
He would raise generations of reporters and editors, starting with kids like me, kids from his home town of St. Louis, where Boyd had grown up in the care of his grandmother. He had worked hard and won a scholarship to the University of Missouri and then went on to become a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And our teacher.
That summer at Columbia was not my first encounter with Boyd. I had met him and George Curry, another brash young reporter, when they established a seven-week journalism workshop, a program for black high school students taught on Saturday mornings at a community college. Their model would be repeated all over the country. Under the program's guidelines, I was too young to participate, but I'd written a letter pleading my case and they had opened the door, had let me in.
I and others learned about asking tough questions, being fair and accurate and how credibility was all any journalist had. Questioning authority meant everything. If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
A few times I tagged along with Boyd while he worked. Once, when he went to a city agency where senior citizens had gathered to complain about ill treatment, who would I find there but my own grandmother, sitting with a number of other women from the public housing complex where she lived -- and where I had spent a big part of my own life.
Journalism was about people, their tragedies and their triumphs, their struggles and their successes. Journalism was about challenging those in power to get it right. And when they got it wrong, it was a journalist's job to call them on it.
Boyd was never shy about his belief in the purity of these notions and his belief in newspapers to honor them. That can sound like a bunch of hokum to those who complain about the liberal media or corporate-run media (as I did when I got to college), but he believed it deeply, lived it fully.
He wasn't shy about his own ambition either. His dream, he told me once, was to work at the New York Times and eventually to be on its masthead. It was ambition born out of a belief that he had much to contribute to getting it right. And he did, first covering the 1980 presidential race and the Reagan White House, for the Post-Dispatch, then moving to the Times in 1983, where he covered subsequent presidential races and eventually became an editor.