Newsman Mustard's legacy: courage, passion and integrity

January 07, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

JIM MUSTARD slipped away in the dark hours, when the world wasn't paying much attention to him. That was the way he liked it. He sat in front of a television camera for a quarter-century, and he insisted that the story was important and not the reporter, so naturally he waited until early-morning darkness, when everybody had their eyes closed, to make his exit.

Dead at 51. Dead on the second morning of the new year, except it was the wrong year. Death put in a claim for Jim TC dozen years ago, and then another claim four years ago, but Jim kept hanging on, trying to do his work, trying to live whatever was left of his fractured life.

Bone cancer first, then AIDS. When the bone cancer was diagnosed, back in '83, the doctors gave Jim six months to live. When the AIDS was diagnosed, back in early '92, they gave him another six-month sentence.

Meanwhile, he kept working at WBAL-TV, worked there for 23 years until 1994, when he decided it wasn't fair to work any longer. Not "unfair to me," none of that business. Unfair to the story, to the news. He'd work two days, then go home and sleep for 16 hours at a clip. He finally decided to quit from exhaustion, a sense that he didn't want to sacrifice the story for his own fatigue.

The guy was a fighter. That's the great irony of his insistence on putting himself into the background. His was one of the great stories of courage, of fighting the clock, and fighting the twin killers, and insisting that people ignore him and pay attention to the damned stories he was reporting.

He was the most unobtrusively passionate of men. He spent every Fourth of July reading the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. They were his way of reminding himself of the things that made the country great. If you started talking about that inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, you reduced this man to tears.

Some years back, when I taught journalism at Towson State University, I'd bring Jim out to talk to my classes. He'd say a few words of introduction and then ask for questions. Let the kids guide the conversation. A hand would shoot into the air, but never a second one. Nobody got the chance. Filled with enthusiasm, he'd spend the entire hour answering the first question, free-associating from one point to another, trying to give these kids not only the nuts and bolts of journalism, but the beating of a ferocious heart.

For Mustard, journalism had the elements of a moral crusade. Let the people know the truth and they'll figure out the right thing to do. But they have to know the truth. His heroes were the serious TV news people. Edward R. Murrow was a god. Those who would fluff up the news, who would trivialize it simply for the sake of ratings -- well, they lived in a different moral climate from his.

There was a lot of the outsider in Jim. Partly, it was the sickly kid who'd weighed 1.3 pounds at birth and wasn't expected to survive, who grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and never imagined he'd grow up to cover big shots in politics.

And partly, it was the homosexual man living in a heterosexual culture, and wondering why people who live in a free society took pains to try to make other people feel like freaks.

"They talk of religion based on love and caring," he said one afternoon a couple of years ago, mentioning prominent people from the political/religious right. "I have 24 friends with AIDS, and 11 of them have died. They were in their 20s and 30s. You want to tell me where the love and caring is? These people are filled with murder, not with caring."

He simply wanted to be whoever he was. That's what the country's all about, isn't it?

So he lived his life as best he could and reported the news with as much accuracy, and as much passion, as he could.

Summer before last, in much pain, he vacationed in San Francisco. I still have the postcard he sent: "Hi from S.F. Just a note to say hello and that I made it to Mecca one more time."

The air was freer out there, the sense of acceptance liberating.

Once, he said, "Life's a journey to be enjoyed, not an agony to be endured. Life is God's gift to us, and our gift back is what we do with it. I've tried to make the most of what I have."

He did that. He did it with courage, and with passion, and with integrity. And that's a pretty good epitaph for any newsman. Or any man.

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