Breaking Story

Fabled journalist Eugene Roberts reports that his College Park leave is merely meant to let him investigate more of the world

May 13, 2002|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The man who is often called the best journalist in America is about to prepare his 10 graduate students for their final exam. At the seminar table, Eugene L. Roberts Jr. attends to minor business: the date for the traditional dinner at his home in Woodley Park, the time for his guest speaker, the introduction of a visiting prospective student.

The table is so big and the room so small that Roberts stands to let late-arriving graduate students pass around him to the other side. More and more as the days pass, he feels the walls of a relentless schedule closing in on him.

The last time he felt that way, Roberts quit as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he had led his staff to 17 Pulitzer Prizes in 18 years; sold his house; stored his furniture for 11 months; and with his wife, Sue, traveled around the world.

He returned to the world he loves, to lead again as managing editor of The New York Times, edit seminal books about journalism and, in the classroom, pass on his passion for a great story.

Now Roberts, who has inspired two generations of newspaper writers, is taking time off from his job as professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

He turns 70 next month, and the face once likened by a magazine writer to that of a frog is wrinkled. He says he's not retiring, only that he still has "that reporter's drive to be out seeing the world."

The final exam is on newsroom management, and in the midst of this review, the subject turns to Roberts' first job.

He smiles, almost sheepishly, at the students. "I wrote a farm column, `Ramblin' in Rural Wayne,'" he says.

They laugh, riotously, as if he has revealed a vulnerability or at the notion that someone of his stature could have written about cotton and strawberries.

Often enough, though, in writing classes, speeches and personal reminiscences, Roberts recalls the decisive lesson from his early days at the Goldsboro News-Argus, a 9,000-circulation paper in Wayne County, N.C.

There he wrote about "the first farmer of the season to transplant tobacco plants from the seedbed to the field; about the season's first cotton blossom. I wrote about picnic tables sagging at family reunions under the weight of banana sandwiches, banana pudding, chicken pastry, sage sausage, fried chicken, and collard greens. I wrote of hailstorms and drought. I once wrote about a sweet potato that looked like Gen. Charles DeGaulle."

The editor of the paper, Henry Belk, was in his 60s and nearly blind. When he heard Roberts' footfall in the morning he would summon the young man to his office and criticize his column from the day before. Again and again, Belk would urge the young reporter to be more descriptive.

"You aren't making me see," Mr. Belk would say. "Make me see."

The importance of Mr. Belk's admonition, make me see, to make the story stay in the minds of readers, came home to Roberts more than a decade later when he was covering the Vietnam War. It was 1968, and the Tet offensive had just occurred. As he tells it:

He'd heard reports of trouble in Hue and made his way there by truck and helicopter. He found the Marines surrounded and, over 10 days, watched them retake and then lose two city blocks at a time until they managed to reach American advisers who had been hiding in a house the night the Viet Cong overran the city. Roberts heard the advisers had been taken to a bunker in the Americans' compound to make them feel safe. He crawled in through a tunnel and over some sandbags until he dimly made out some human forms.

"My name is Gene Roberts," he called out, "I'm with The New York Times, and I've come to get your story."

Out of the darkness came a voice:

"Hey, did you ever write the `Ramblin' in Rural Wayne' column for the Goldsboro News-Argus?"

Ready to learn

The wisdom concentrated in Roberts' small seminar room is inspiring enough that students who aren't enrolled stand for hours voluntarily to absorb it.

He covered the most important stories of his day - the civil rights protests, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam. Born into newspapering - his father owned a hand press and started the "Ramblin'" column - Roberts graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1954, in the month that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.

When lunch counter sit-ins by black students spread to Raleigh in 1960, Roberts was covering North Carolina state government for The News & Observer. It wasn't his beat, but he asked an editor to assign him to cover Martin Luther King's visit to a local church.

It was a big church and he arrived a half-hour early and found it full. He spotted a deacon and explained he was a reporter and "he boosted me on his shoulder and pushed me through a window so I could get in."

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