The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion For Fred: A letter from the heart

Fred Hiatt. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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We seem never to learn that each meeting with a dear friend could be our last. And so, the things we meant to say remain unsaid when — out of the blue — “one of these days” is no more.

So it has come to pass with Fred Hiatt, the late editorial page editor of The Post, a man so admired by nearly everyone who knew him that his sudden death on Dec. 6 has left friends, colleagues and loved ones reeling with grief. As tributes to him have flowed in, I’ve wondered what I could add, but remaining silent isn’t an option.

As most have spoken of his mentorship and leadership, with at least one columnist recalling Fred’s sometimes paternal role, my own relationship with Fred was largely collegial and professional. This is likely because I rarely wandered into the newsroom and worked remotely before everyone did.

There was one time, however, when I was at the lowest point in my career and Fred materialized as a savior, extending his hand to pull me from the muck of despair in which I was suffocating. No one else could have said the things he said at just the right time in just the right way. He not only saved me; he gave me hope.

I’m sparing the details because of potential confidentiality ramifications. Suffice to say, he might have let things go, let time pass, allowed me to struggle my way out of a soul-crushing series of events, but he didn’t. In matters of import, Fred was not inclined to let things go. This was especially true throughout his own journalism career, during which his passion for human rights and democracy, and his role as the scourge of totalitarian rulers, shone through his work, first as an international reporter and, for the past 20 years, as an editorialist.

He was, indeed, a great leader and mentor, leading by example as well as with a sharp editor’s pen. My copy wasn’t spared his scrutiny, and a handful of columns never saw light. I had meant to discuss those judgment calls someday, but time had other plans. Today, such disagreements seem unimportant.

What I loved most about Fred was his Fred-ness. What I mean is that he was a most extraordinary man — brilliant, gentle and kind — who eschewed the trappings of celebrity that so many in the media require. He declined requests to appear on news talk shows because he knew such arrangements weren’t conducive to nuance or thoughtfulness.

He was utterly without pretense. If you walked into a crowded room, Fred might be the last person you’d notice because he would never draw attention to himself. He was old-school in all the best ways. Confident, witty, smart, bestirred but never shaken, he was one of the most self-possessed people I’ve ever known.

And yet when you did stumble into his quiet aura, you were invariably met with lively eyes and a warm smile. He was a sweetheart.

When he brought me into his fold many years ago, it was a while before my feet touched the ground again. My generation of writers revered The Washington Post. To be part of that storied newspaper was a dream I had never imagined for myself as I puttered around the country working for this paper and that. When Fred submitted a collection of my work from 2009 to the Pulitzer committee, he wrote a letter so sublime I told him that he, not I, won the prize.

Fred was in New York visiting his daughter when he collapsed and never regained consciousness. When I heard the news that he had died, I had just landed in West Palm Beach, Fla., for a writing seminar and was seated in baggage claim, checking messages on my phone.

“I’m so sorry about Fred,” someone had written. I quickly searched his name and read the unbearable news.

I didn’t know I was capable of public wailing, but there I was. My head had fallen onto my lap, and I sobbed without awareness of the crowd gathering to collect their luggage. A woman came over to comfort me and asked if she could say a prayer. “Or are you weird about that?” she asked. “No, I’m not weird about that,” I replied.

When I finally lifted my head and pulled myself together, the baggage-claim area was vacant. I continued to sit for an hour or so, trying to absorb the absence of Fred. Several days later, I still can’t. He was one of a kind — a great editor and a great human being. As another beloved editor wrote to me in the ensuing days, Fred’s death is “impossibly wrong.”