Workplace farewell parties are formulaic affairs — requisite speeches that are rarely memorable. There is cake, half glasses of flat champagne. The true emotions are often masked by the professional decorum that marks office life.
But that was not the send-off given to Stu Bykofsky, a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer who left the newspapers after 47 years this week.
Friends and colleagues spoke about the man for about an hour, before Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s architecture critic, was given the floor. Emcee and fellow columnist Jenice Armstrong introduced her, according to an account in Philadelphia Magazine.
“I’m not sure she’s a friend,” Armstrong said. “But she certainly has an opposing point of view."
Saffron unleashed a rancorous speech about Bykofsky, whose columns have long drawn the ire of some of Philly’s residents. He decried bike lanes and called a cycling columnist a “pedalphile.” He once offhandedly suggested a tax on Chinese food and noted he was a “Sinophobe.” He wrote that there “are women more casual about their abortions than their hair color."
So Saffron got up to read from a sheet that was less of a roast than a full-on takedown. Things went south quickly, according to videos shared by Philadelphia Magazine.
Saffron began with an accusation that Bykofsky never called a bike advocacy group for comment for his stories.
“That is a goddamn lie,” he boomed out, paces away from her. “I don’t want to stand here and listen to this,” he said, capping the phrase with another expletive.
Saffron dug in, singling out a column Bykofsky wrote that had spoken somewhat favorably and in a somewhat personal tone about sex tourism in Thailand and accusing him of writing about “his taste for child prostitutes in Thailand,” which was not the case.
Bykofsky continued to curse at her as other staffers whispered nervously nearby.
Saffron aired more personal grievances, saying that Stu had “slimed” her in his columns and never called her for comments, either.
“I think that should give you a sense of the kind of journalist he is,” she said.
It was not immediately clear what motivated the unusual outpouring of rancor. Saffron declined to speak to The Washington Post, saying she was on deadline. So did Armstrong. Bykofsky also declined an interview. He told The Post his last column was all that needed to be said.
But there are plenty of tensions in the background. The Inquirer, the city’s broadsheet for which Saffron was a columnist, and the Daily News, a tabloid where Bykofsky had long been employed, had been owned by the same company for years, but they been brought together in a painful merger that has been coupled with job cuts and layoffs in recent years.
And many newspapers are still reckoning with histories of being dominated by white men, as larger tensions about questions about gender and power continue to animate workplace discussions around the country.
Saffron went on to extol Bykofsky as a quintessential newspaperman.
“Note that I said newspaperman, not journalist,” she said. “He hails from a time when people that put out newspapers were men, and it was not lost on me that some of the gratuitous attacks in his column were leveled against women. So with his leaving, I hope we are getting a little further away from that unfortunate time.”
Bykofsky said the last time he spoke to Saffron was four years ago.
“Half the things she said were lies,” he said, as other staff members rushed to quell the room.
“Does anybody want to say anything good?” one of them asked.
Gabriel Escobar, editor and vice president of the Inquirer, said in an emailed statement that Bykofsky and Saffron were “opinion writers with strong views and a long history.”
“Aside from that, we’ll let the video tell the story,” he said.
In his last column, Bykofsky posed in a coffin and waxed nostalgic about his career.
“At the Daily News, we didn’t just write tabloid, we lived tabloid. Years ago, we had a 12-year-old columnist who later was convicted of manslaughter. Also, the chief of our former newspaper chain sent his grandson to us to learn journalism, and he was murdered in his Rittenhouse Square apartment,” he wrote. “Aside from working in a candy store as a kid and in a warehouse, I’ve never held a job outside journalism since landing at the New York World-Telegram and the Sun in 1959.”
He said he was starting a blog where he would be free to continue writing what he wanted to write about.
“From phone calls and emails, I know I speak for traditional, older, newspaper-reading Americans,” he said. “I am liked less by lost-in-the-Twitterverse younger people, who live their lives on cellphones. I’ve enjoyed informing you, prodding you, supporting you, entertaining you, infuriating you.”