David Halberstam, Mensch

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

We lost one of our best and brightest this week. David Halberstam, gone in a senseless, instantaneous car crash on Monday, and the world goes on without one of our best journalists, one of our brightest human beings.


I was a graduating college senior in 1973. Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, published the previous year, was heroic stuff on our campus. A typical small liberal arts school of the era, we were bent on an anti-establishment graduation. No caps and gowns, no formal line-up to receive diplomas, no hired speaker. Then we learned that David Halberstam was available and willing to speak to us. We changed our minds.

It was an idyllic, sunny day at Lake Forest College, just North of Chicago, early June, 1973. When I think back on all the celebrities I've brushed elbows with through the years, I can say without hesitation that I was most starstruck that afternoon, in my early 20's, to spend an entire afternoon with the Pulitzer Prize winner, the gritty truth-teller Vietnam war correspondent for the New York Times, Mr. David Halberstam. I'll never forget his speech. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop as his deep baritone voice, his marked New York accent, wafted across the campus' central lawn. He was a Harvard graduate himself, but he boldly told us that higher learning was a limited experience. He asked which of us were going on with graduate school, law school and the like, and coaxed us to reconsider, to dive into living life instead of distancing ourselves from it in ivory towers.

Due to a number of random circumstances, David and I became friends that day and we stayed in touch all through the years. We spoke just ten days ago, to make a plan to see each other on my next trip to New York, in early June.

The career of sportscasting sort of chose me, in 1980, when I finished my last marathon swim and was offered an on-camera job with ABC's Wide World of Sports. But it was my mentor, David, who helped me realize it wasn't really sportscasting that I thrilled to. Yes, it was grand theater, to attend all the world's top-flight sporting events. Olympic Games, the Tour de France, the World Series. I have vibrant personal memories from all those experiences. But the nature of the work--bringing the action into living rooms--wasn't my life's work and it was David who opened my eyes to that fact. David was one of the great sports story tellers of our time. He was genius at connecting the outrage, the compassion, the inspiration, the sociology, the poetry of sport to our society at large. As I took my baby steps all along, I deeply admired the large footprints of David Halberstam.


For his prolific production of books, 21 in total, a third of them were about sports. When I read The Amateurs, his 1985 story of four rowers trying to make an Olympic team, I was inspired to pursue my own path in the non-reportorial world of sports journalism.


Like so many of us, I found his books to be the final word on any given aspect of modern culture. His analysis of the empires of American media, The Powers That Be, published in 1979, was a spellbinding education on media politics and personalities. I last got the chance to interview David, as a matter of fact here on KCRW, exactly a year ago, April, 2006. The subject was the demise of the newspaper. He was so clearly the most astute, the most original, and the most expressive of the five erudite guests on that particular program that I remember, as the host, struggling to include the others at all. It could have easily been a one-man show.

David Halberstam was, in fact, a one-man show. His was a penetrating mind, a unique voice. Readers and thinkers will miss him dearly.

And I will miss you dearly, too, my friend. I am so very lucky to have known you.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Photo: Robert Mora/Getty Images



Diana Nyad