In the 1990s, first-year students at the University of Southern California’s School of Journalism were required to take a journalism history class taught by a kind but loquacious professor named Ed Cray, whose white beard and round belly reminded some of us of Papa Smurf. Required reading included a tome titled “The Powers That Be.” The book was written by the renowned author David Halberstam and considered a comprehensive compendium of the news business in America, so I dutifully leafed through it.
Like many college textbooks, it was the size of a cinderblock – no Cliff’s Notes here. One page after another was filled with coma-inducing details about the evolution of American journalism. Most of the contents left a dull ringing sensation in my head until I reached a passage about Ed Guthman, a professor of mine for the next semester.
Like many of his students over the decades at USC, I became a big fan of Ed, who became my journalism career’s benefactor-in-chief, a great friend and my favorite veteran.
In the ‘90s, the Greatest Generation was an abstraction you read about it Tom Brokaw’s book – not someone with whom you lunched. Ed became my window to history, the first World War II veteran I got to know well. Following his graduation from the University of Washington, he was drafted into the Army in 1942, fought as an infantry platoon leader in North Africa and Italy in World War II, and received a Silver Star for heroism and Purple Heart for being wounded.
Upon returning home, he started his journalism career. At the Seattle Times, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for his reporting on McCarthyism, later served as Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary in the ‘60s, and elevated the stature of my hometown Los Angeles Times as its national editor and the Philadelphia Inquirer as its editor-in-chief in the ‘70s and ‘80s, respectively.
I considered myself lucky for having met a few notable people during my brief journalism career. This link, which leads to a tribute page for Ed upon his retirement from teaching, features photos of him rubbing elbows with the likes of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Richard Nixon hated the Times’ coverage of his presidency enough to rank Ed at No. 3 on his “enemies” list. (Who could’ve been Nos. 1 and 2? Woodward and Bernstein?)
How many guys have stories about breaking their nose during a “touch” football game with the Kennedys? (Writer George Plimpton wrote about it in his book Paper Lion). Or can matter-of-factly talk about helping RFK carry an inebriated Marilyn Monroe back to her apartment? Tom Brokaw profiled Ed in his book “The Greatest Generation” as an example of the people who fought and survived World War II to thrive and build the nation that exists today.
And yet his office reflected few of these extraordinary experiences. I remember Ed’s cramped office inside Salvatori Hall was adorned with the things that mattered most to him: pictures of his smiling children and grandchildren, the semester’s syllabus, and the schedules for the USC football team and Los Angeles Dodgers. His desk was crowded with students’ homework assignments, which bled from a million nicks from Ed’s red pen.
He was already in his 70s when we met, but still sharp as a whip. There was no room for hyperbole in his classroom or the homework assignments we submitted weekly – get the 5 Ws straight and the details will help the stories practically write themselves.
I only had Ed for a couple of classes, but we spoke regularly – about the news business at the dawn of the Information Age, about the old days at the Inquirer and Times, about working for RFK, about his newest batch of students. He was unfailingly positive – the kind of guy you never wanted to let down in the classroom or in life.
Ed was also my personal LinkedIn network. He seemingly knew everyone and helped countless students find jobs in the shrinking journalism job market of the mid-1990s. His desk was a factory for letters of recommendation, which flew across the country to give us fledgling ink-stained wretches a paying gig anywhere from San Diego to Bangor. Closer to home, he got me my first job at The Associated Press’ Los Angeles bureau – as an editorial assistant helping out with coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. At my graduation in 1995, he was the one who literally gave me my diploma; that photo still sits on the fireplace at my parents’ home in L.A.
Every once in a while, a few of us former students would accompany him to Dodger games – always on Ed’s dime; he insisted. The group included Jeff Fellenzer, a former journalist who is a co-founder of the John Wooden Basketball Classic; Joe Schlosser, a future TV industry executive; and me, a wire guy with no future. We were quite the unlikely, motley crew that spanned three generations: Ed the octogenarian, Fellenzer the suave Baby Boomer, and Joe and I – products of the MTV era.
Runners on first and second with one out and Raul Mondesi at bat? “Send the runners,” Ed would say. “What’re we waiting for? Ain’t getting younger.”
We didn’t talk much about his time in World War II, until the months before I joined the Marine Corps. As always, he was one of my references for my Officer Candidate School application.
“After ‘Saving Private Ryan’ came out, more kids ask me about the war,” Ed said one afternoon at lunch on campus. “They ask me, ‘Did you kill anyone?’” He paused.
There were others in the Faculty Dining Hall, but I felt like we were alone. Seconds felt like minutes.
“Well yeah, of course we did,” he said, practically shrugging. “It was either we killed them or they killed us. What else were we gonna do?”
I made a mental note never to ask anyone that question. Ever.
We stayed in sporadic contact despite my new life as a Marine. Ed was among friends and family who attended my homecoming party in Pasadena, Calif., when I returned home from Iraq in 2003 – no small feat for an old guy who lived on the other side of L.A. in Pacific Palisades. Years later, when I joined the D.C. working world, he again served as a reference.
The last time we exchanged emails was in 2006, when I sent him a silly animated e-Birthday Card. His reply: “Never had a birthday card like yours. … Great help in starting #87.”
This great man passed away in August 2008, a few weeks after I returned home from my final trip to Iraq. His memorial service was attended by many of the former students and colleagues he helped over the years.
I thought about Ed often this Veterans Day, especially with the large numbers of former service members attempting to return to some semblance of normalcy in civilian life. Ed lived an amazing life – one that managed to be enriched and not scarred by his combat experience.
My only hint about what Ed would think about American life now comes from his Los Angeles Times obit. One quote stood out from Bill Boyarsky, the Times’ former city editor and, like Ed, another one of my demanding former journalism professors.
“Ed was my friend and mentor,” Boyarsky told the Times. “I learned much about journalism and leadership from him. I was also inspired by his positive attitude toward life. Ed always looked for the positive side of things even when pursuing the worst crooks. Finally, although he was the most ethical of men, he was not self-righteous about it.”
The positive side: A record 16 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were elected to Congress this year, and scores of others ran for office at the state and local levels. I think this is absolutely essential to narrowing the disconnect between America’s political leaders – who have overwhelmingly not served a day in uniform – and the military that does their bidding in a dangerous world.
And like many of Ed’s generation, tens of thousands have taken advantage of the generous Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to attend college and take the first steps toward becoming the nation’s next captains of industry.
There’s a new generation of thinkers and problem solvers who, much like Ed, are ready to accept the mantle of leadership the nation needs to get things moving again. With high unemployment, a stagnant economy, political divisiveness and persistent threats to national security abroad, there is no shortage of missions.