Two Years Since Don Forst’s Passing

Google Don Forst.

His obituary will come up first but just keep going.

You’ll see his life in reverse. How he taught at UAlbany (my alma mater), worked at the Village Voice, New York Newsday, The New York Times, Boston Herald, New York Post, and then some. An impressive list, right?

But, I never knew any of that when he taught me because he was more proud of displaying his street smart knowledge than rambling off a litany accomplishments. I honestly didn’t know half of the awesome things he did until I sat in a small auditorium at the New York Times building shortly after his death listening to his former coworkers speak about how the late Don Forst was even crazier than I realized.

Some investigative cub journalist I was, huh?

I wonder what he’d think about me now - how after immediately graduating college, I went to the dark side (aka public relations) and then after that, left the spotlight and am currently working behind the scenes at my current job. Of course, I’d tell him about how much I busted ass in between.

The scene would play out like this. It’d be at a coffee house on the UAlbany campus. He’d come up to me, mumbling among the cacophony of coffee mugs clanking, people yapping, and doors slamming.

“I knew you always had it in you, kid.”

The following was originally written in January 2015.

When I found out that one of my most influential teachers (and also, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met), Don Forst, had passed, I choked up.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to cry but I let it out that day in public. When I heard the news, I felt a rush of sadness and had to find a private spot to reflect on everything he had taught me.

He passed away on January 4th, 2014 at 81 years old. I’ve told people that I mourn loss before it happens, but I’ll stubbornly admit here that I’m the exact opposite in this case. It took me over a year to write this.

Don Forst’s kind doesn’t exist anymore. It almost seems as if he were taken straight from an old movie or comic book he’s so far from this century.

I remember him whispering the first time I met him in the spring of 2010. He taught my first journalism undergraduate college class: newswriting. Everyone was seated down, ready to start, and here’s this old man in a sweater, mumbling so low that I have to attempt to read his lips.

Is he asking us to take out our $80 textbook?

Is he talking about the syllabus beside him?

Why isn’t he passing it out yet?

No one had any idea what was happening.

Someone whispered, “Damn. This dude should be in a hospital or something.”

A guy with a thick Brooklyn accent piped up in the back, “Hey, can you talk louder?”

Forst simply turned his head and said, at a normal speaking volume, “If you can’t hear me, then sit right here.”

For the rest of the class, the outspoken student sat right next to Forst as punishment. He would foreverly be made fun by Forst for the remainder of the semester just like the rest of us… except he was closer in proximity.

Forst had a habit of calling people out. One time he called me out on bringing a Dowser water bottle every day to class.

He asked me once, “How much do you spend a week on buying water bottles?”

I answered with, “I actually refill this water bottle every day. I don’t buy new ones.”

Everyone around me smiled. We silently cheered whenever one of us got the best of this cranky old man.

As time went on and we saw the real person and not just the slow-moving, grump we stereotyped him as, we realized why he did the things he did. He whispered because he wanted us to pay close attention. He noticed that I brought a water bottle to class every day so he wanted to know why. Forst questioned everything and did so in a way to bring out both your personality and the truth at the same time.

One of the first journalist tips he taught to my class of cub reporters was, “You’re going to have to ask the mother of a basketball player how tall her son was after he lost his legs in a car accident.” Most of the class stared wide-eyed at Forst. None of us wanted those assignments. We were just college kids.

How could you ask anyone that question, especially a grieving mother? Isn’t there any way around it? I mean, you could ask his coach or a friend. However, the person with the most information would be his mother. Asking her opens a door to the bigger picture; he just said it that way to prove a point: this wouldn’t be an easy line of work.

I remember the first professional assignment he gave me in the second class I took with him. After Hurricane Irene hit the Northeastern United States in August 2011, the hill towns west of Albany were destroyed. Prattsville, N.Y. was decimated. I remember how hard it was to trudge through the mud, walk past FEMA trucks next to houses flipped upside-down, and go up to townspeople who had lost everything. And then, as if possessed by Forst himself, I found myself asking how many floors their houses had before they crumbled and got swept away in the floods.

The Prattsville project was given to us only after he told us to do what we thought were mindless, idiotic assignments: “Tell me everything about the trees in the courtyard” or “Eavesdrop on a random conversation in the dining hall on campus.” Those were code words for see the groundskeeper and get me a good story.

I remember that no matter what, if I saw Forst outside of class at the cafe, he’d already be looking at me by the time I noticed him. Granted, I am very noticeable with my poofy red hair, but he was incredibly observant. He always knew where everyone was. He could tell you what people said and what they wore. He’d be the perfect witness for a crime. That’s why he assigned us such ridiculous assignments. We had to be that way if we’d be good journalists. We must remember and know everything and be truthful.

In class, we’d listen to his stories instead of reading textbooks. He’d tell us about his ex-wife, Gael Greene, who allegedly bedded Elvis and how he broke into someone’s house for a high schooler’s senior picture so he could use it in the paper. He told us about never fitting in and how he made his own path, no one made it easy for him. He told us about how at the University of Vermont in the 1950’s, whites adorned blackface for an annual winter carnival. He dismissed the racism in the school paper when no one else would. Forst believed reporters needed to take a stand on issues even if it’s not the popular opinion.

Despite the amount of good things I say about him, before I got to know actually him… he annoyed me. A lot. Water bottle story aside. Forst irked me more so than any other teacher I’ve had. Nothing seemed good enough for him. When I received one of my first assignments from him and saw I got a C, I marched up to him and asked why I got it.

He said, “I know you can do better.”

He did this to me several times. His class was the only class I believed I was borderline failing in my freshman year. I almost stopped going I was so infuriated. Only later did I realize at the end of the semester when he gave me an A, the grades he gave for each assignment didn’t matter. I don’t even think he even wrote them down in a grade book, to be honest. If he did, it was only for show just like how he told us to buy textbooks that we never used.

The only things that mattered in his classes was if you found a unique angle for your assignments, showed up early, and had spunk, the kind of drive that’s ingrained in your personality and not something you can fabricate. That’s when I knew I had to take a class with him again. In my Junior year, I took Advanced News Writing with him and the year after, I studied abroad in Scotland and graduated overseas. I never said goodbye to him but what pains me the most is that I never thanked him for anything because I didn’t realize until a year later after he died, all the good he did for my writing.

When I went to his Memorial Service at the New York Times building after his passing last year, I was surrounded by Newsday Pulitzer Prize winners, news editors, writers like Denis Hamill, fellow students and teachers, and so on. The amount of people he affected was surreal. I may have gone to SUNY Albany, a state school, but his gritty life stories and lessons were worth more to me than going to prestigious Columbia or reputable NYU. I never had a teacher make me so angry only for me to end up liking him and learning lessons I’d cherish in the end. I thought only parents did that. He never had kids, so in a way, we were his children.

I’m afraid people like him won’t ever exist again. We live in a different world now. I hope spending those handful of years under his tutelage can give me even an ounce of knowledge to spread to my peers so that as time goes on, he seems less like a caricature and more like a person. The kind of people he always told us to write about: real people with life stories that are just waiting to be told.

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