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Opinion What I never got to say to Fred Hiatt

The author, Dana Milbank, at his wedding in 2017 with Margaret "Pooh" Shapiro and Fred Hiatt. (Dana Milbank)
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My dad left when I was 9 years old. I grew up and spent my young adulthood without a father figure. Then I met Fred Hiatt.

Fred had three wonderful children of his own and, only 13 years my senior, he surely would have disowned my paternity claims. But calling him my boss doesn’t capture it. He was my protector, my teacher, my mentor, my North Star. When my first marriage broke up, I talked to Fred. When I had a health scare, I talked to Fred. Whenever somebody powerful attacked my integrity, I talked to Fred. More times than I care to admit, I went to him seeking his reassurance, his approval. If Fred said it was going to be okay, it was going to be okay.

After we received the terrible news of his death on Monday, Fred’s team gathered in stunned grief. The world was then remembering him as a man of towering intellect, unerring judgment and moral courage, and so were we. But what struck me most was how many colleagues spoke of a persistent desire to make Fred proud of us. In a sense, we were all Fred’s children. We loved him, and he loved us.

He wrote tender messages to his staff during the pandemic, attaching photos of his baby granddaughter. “As time goes on, it gets more painful, not less, to be working remotely,” he wrote a year ago. “I continue to be in awe at the stellar work you are doing under difficult circumstances — not least those of you caring for and helping teach kids at home while you work from home. … I really can’t wait until we’re back together — and that time will come.”

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When I was feeling down, he checked in regularly. “That spam call you got was me,” he wrote after I missed one such check-in. “No need to call back — I was just wondering how you are feeling. Your columns are at 100 percent health.”

Oh, how I craved Fred’s praise! All I needed was one word atop a draft to feel as if I’d hit a home run: Stunning. Excellent. Great. Smart. Funny. Fabulous. Strong. He sent the same messages to everyone, of course, and occasionally enough that we knew they were genuine. Like others, I saved mine as mementos of Fred’s approval. When I was caught in some maelstrom of criticism, he’d send off a simple note of reassurance: “This one will blow over.” Other times, he’d correct me with the gentlest touch: “Are you sure you want to say” this? or “I would vote not to say” that. And that was the end of the discussion.

My last communication with Fred was by email the morning of the day he collapsed. I had lodged a whiny complaint about an unimportant matter, but Fred saw it for what it was: one of my routine pleas for his reassurance in stressful times. He asked his editorial staff manager, Nana Efua Mumford, to schedule a meeting for us, and in the meantime he replied to me with some paternal comfort. “You are loved and valued,” he wrote.

Fred Hiatt, you were loved and valued. More than I ever got to tell you.