EDITOR’S NOTE: Storyboard can’t, alas, run tributes to every fine and influential journalist or journalism educator who dies. But some tributes do more than honor an individual at his passing — they reveal the very heart and craft of the journalism that person inspired in others. Award-winning reporter and teacher Walt Harrington shares what he learned from his teacher and mentor, Ed Lambeth, who died May 2, 2020.
The last time I visited my old teacher and friend Ed Lambeth in Missouri before his death at age 87, we sat in the small apartment in Cedarhurst of Columbia, where he had lived since his memory was too far gone.
“I have your books,” he said, pointing to a nearby shelf.
Then he went silent.
Then he smiled and said, “I used to call you Tiger.”
“Yes, you did,” I said, smiling back. “That was a long time ago.”
Winter of 1975, to be exact, in the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington office, a cramped and dumpy space in the National Press Building. Ed, a distinguished 42-year-old journalist, was working on his doctorate while he also worked on me and the 10 or so other students under his charge that semester. He was a tall, gangly man with unruly hair, wrinkled white shirts, and skinny black ties that were not in fashion even then. He was a soft-spoken man but ran his shop with a strong editor’s hand and a relentless demand that we do our best.
“What’s the heart of it?” he would ask of our stories. “Get to the heart of it.”
Like so many kids in Missouri’s famous journalism school, I was imbued with a youthful and unearned confidence. Ed Lambeth taught me how to begin to earn and deserve that confidence, how to accept my limitations and yet reach to be better every day with every story. Learn the craft, yes — how to dig through documents, interview, put words together. But Ed taught so much more: an elemental philosophy of our personal place and duty in the journalism universe.
He taught work, work, work — lunch-pail labor. Being smart is useless to the lazy. Knock on every door. Use every minute of your work day, waste nothing on water-cooler chatter or office gossip. Never envy the success of colleagues. Always admire fine work. Go be better. Knock on more doors.
“The story is everything,” he said. “All else is distraction.”
And think, think hard, work at thinking, turn stories over in your mind again and again. Worry constantly about being wrong. The world is complicated. You can be tricked, fooled, mistaken. Don’t accept easy answers. Never worry that a question is dumb — ask it! Never settle, never write the same story twice. Find something — anything! — to make it fresh. Make excellence ordinary.
“You are your work,” he said. “Your work is you.”
Take the jobs where you’ll learn the most
God knows why, but I fell hard for Ed Lambeth’s preaching. I wasn’t the most promising student. My grammar and spelling were awful. One journalism professor suggested I find another career. I had come from academic sociology and quickly realized that many of my new journalism professors harbored a distrust of scholars and a disdain for complexity. One insisted that no newspaper story should run longer than 14 inches (appx 500 words). Yet I wanted to be a writerly journalist. I admired the work of Robert Caro, Lillian Ross, John McPhee, Gay Talese, Wendell Berry. I wasn’t interested in being a newsman.
Although he was a newsman running a news program, Ed understood. In fact, he was an admirer of essayist Wendell Berry. Instead of suggesting I find another career and insisting I write news stories for his program’s client papers around the country, Ed sent me to the editors of Washington’s then-thriving alternative weekly newspapers to do feature stories for them.
He said, “Go get ’em, Tiger.”
After graduation, when others were telling me to go work for the Associated Press, Ed encouraged me to take a paltry $165-a-week job editing a failing state political magazine where I could pursue my quirky ideas of journalism. When he heard from a colleague that I had insisted he rewrite a story three times even though I was paying him only $75, Ed laughed and said proudly, “I’ve created a monster!” When the magazine folded after only a year, Ed suggested I take a job at a throw-away shopper’s guide that was hiring a single investigative reporter on a whim. I promise, nobody would have recommended I take my prestigious Missouri degree to a shopper’s guide — except Ed, who told me I would never be a fine nonfiction storyteller if I didn’t learn how to dig deep.
Then he said, “Go get ’em, Tiger.”
I think it was the last time he used that nickname.
Paying it back — and forward
An old priest once told me that a person can only see providence at work in his life when he looks back from the distance of a life almost lived. As I look back from nearly the age of 70, I cannot imagine what would have come of me without the providential crossing of my life with Ed’s. I went on to The Washington Post Magazine doing the kind of stories others told me I could never do — long, deep, human stories. The kind of stories Ed never did himself but which he so diligently and passionately gave me the confidence to pursue. Years later, I realized that I was only one of countless kids Ed had helped find their particular ways.
What more could ever be asked of a teacher?
Over the years, Ed and I became friends. I asked his advice often and, eventually, he was asking me for advice. He wasn’t perfect. He had a temper. He could hold a grudge. But what a box score of achievements: Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Fulbright Scholar, Associate Dean at Missouri, director of its Center on Religion and the Professions, two decades of ethics seminars for journalism educators from all around the country. Almost 35 years after its publication, Ed’s book, “Committed Journalism,” is still considered a landmark ethics textbook.
I talked with Ed often, visited when I could, met his students, spoke at his ethics seminars. Then, after 20 years as a working journalist, I got a call from Ed one night asking if I had ever thought about teaching. He said the University of Illinois was running an ad seeking a professor with my very skills.
“No,” I said. “Thanks, but I’m happy here.”
“Well,” Ed said, gently persisting, “I’ll send it on anyway.”
A couple months later, I took the job. In my 20 years at Illinois, I often reminded myself of the gifts of wisdom, passion and unflinching commitment to excellence that Ed had passed on to me, and I consciously used him as my model in trying to pay those gifts forward to my own students.
“The story is everything,” I told them. “All else is distraction.”
Would that I gave some of them anything near what Ed Lambeth gave me.
Toward the end of Ed’s career, I was invited to give the commencement address to Missouri’s winter class of journalism graduates. I felt pretty proud about that.
“You were about the last student most people here figured would ever be coming back to speak at graduation,” Ed told me. Not exactly a compliment, I thought.
Then he smiled and said, “We fooled ’em, didn’t we?”
And, for a moment, I thought he was going to call me Tiger.
Walt Harrington is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, a former award-winning reporter at The Washington Post Magazine, and author or editor of 10 books, including “Crossings: A White Man’s Journey into Black America ” and “The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org