‘Baby Steps’ columnist’s legacy

This column was first published in the Montgomery Advertiser, Sunday, July 1, 2012

Some readers may remember William “Bill” Raspberry, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who appeared on these editorial pages until his retirement in 2005.

Last week, more than 200 of Bill’s friends and admirers gathered in Washington to roast the man who wrote a column for 39 years. I was honored to be one of four featured speakers.

I worked with Bill for more than a decade. In recent months, when some of his closest friends in journalism heard that Bill was in declining health, the question of a benefit roast went to his family. We wanted to give him his “flowers” while he can appreciate them.

The son of teacher parents, Bill has always had a passion for education, and it troubled him that at-risk children in his own hometown were at a disadvantage. He wrote: “What’s worth doing (in retirement)? One answer is helping to save an endangered generation of children. I still believe in the magic of education. … It scares me that the parents of so many young children today don’t believe in the magic.”

To that end, Bill started a foundation called “Baby Steps: Empowering Parents.”

“The problem may be nationwide,” he wrote, “but I’ve chosen to start in my hometown of Okolona, Miss. … I believe that pulling a community together around the future of its children can do wonders to transform both.”

Bill recognized that his dream was bigger than his personal financial means, and that the only way to make a difference without the appearance of a conflict of interest was to end his newspaper career so he could be free ethically to raise money to fund his dream. That was the rallying call for last week’s event.

Surrounded by loving family members, Bill entered the room moments before the program emceed by Juan Williams, a Raspberry family friend and a colleague from our days at The Post.

I spoke of two memories of Bill.

The first was about how he would come over to my part of the massive Post newsroom and ask “What’s up?” It was Bill’s way of researching by talking to other journalists who were observers of news inside and outside the Washington Beltway.

From my remarks:

“I remember Bill as a wanderer. He knows how to work a room — a newsroom, that is. I arrived at The Post in 1975. In February 1976, I moved to the L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service as an editor. As I recall, that’s when Bill Raspberry came into my life.

“The area where the news service was located was just a fews doors down from Bill’s office. Bill engaged with staff as he developed his column ideas two or three times a week. Most of the time when I passed his glass-walled office, I would notice that he had a reporter sitting with him, presumably going over the background of stories recently published or stories being developed. Bill always did his homework.

“On days when he didn’t have a readily available topic, Bill would walk a few yards to the news service, where we maintained a library of dozens of client newspapers.

“But most remarkable of all was what happened next. After Bill chatted us up for a few minutes or read a few stories in client newspapers, he would retreat to his office and then about 30 minutes later we would see his column move across the wire. It would be a well-crafted, analytical collection of thoughts written in perfect prose in a way that reader Everyman (or Everywoman) would ‘get it.’

I particularly liked the way he sometimes framed his thoughts through a conversation between himself and an imaginary taxi driver.”

My second story about Bill was more recent and more personal:

I have served as a Pulitzer juror four times in four different categories. In 1994, I suppose I got lucky, because I was assigned to the commentary category. I described the process for judging Pulitzer entries:

“You enter this huge room in the Columbia Journalism School in New York. There are these huge books on tables all over the place — room after room, each table designated as a category.

“… In 1994, The Washington Post had the good sense to nominate Bill Raspberry for commentary. As the judging goes along for 2½ days, the rejects, those that don’t emerge among the best, do what we call hit the floor. They get a second read by a member of the panel but most of them hit the floor again.

“The entries that catch a juror’s eye stay in the middle of the table; by the end of day two, the big books still on the table are read by a second, third or more jurors. In the last few rounds entries are tough to eliminate — they are all so good. Then after discussion by the panel of jurors we talk about the final five or so entries, finally whittling down to our three finalists, which go on to the Pulitzer board to decide.

“… As most of big books hit the floor, Bill’s entry stayed on the table. Juror after juror read his columns and one by one, smiles came across our faces.”

In the end, I was chosen by the group to write the summary paragraph that synthesized why we thought the Raspberry columns should win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Even though it was a “surprise” when the awards were formally announced a few weeks later, it was no surprise to us, because we knew Bill Raspberry was a winner.

Last week’s event raised more than $35,000 for Baby Steps.