Jack Rosenthal, 1935–2017
I was deleting some old voicemails recently because my mailbox was full, and came across one from Jack on May 6 of this year, Lisa’s birthday, apologizing for not being able to make it to a party that night, because, as it emerged, he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I couldn’t bear to delete it, because I don’t want to lose Jack’s voice in my life, but I was struck in listening to it again by his enormous consideration and courtliness — he’d just learned he was facing a likely terminal condition, and Jack was, as ever, concerned about our feelings.
I remember it also because within minutes of that call with its awful news, we got one from my daughter Una telling us she was pregnant. That baby is due any minute now, and here we are at Jack’s memorial service, another mixture of the sad and the joyous.
There are many folks here to testify to what Jack accomplished in the world — the man who wrote the most famous and lasting words of the landmark Kerner Commission report, who was on the scene for the Kennedy Justice Department in Selma, whose storied career with the Times included stewardship of two great institutions within it, the Editorial Page and the Magazine — where he edited my beloved Sunday crossword and even constructed some of them.
In the sweet StoryCorps interview that Dave Isay did with Jack, when asked about his legacy, Jack pooh poohs the notion and talks about two significant but quotidian achievements from his time on the editorial page: the law requiring cleanup of horse manure in Central Park and one ending the monopoly of optometrists on sale of reading glasses. Indeed, those are enduring, and as a person with a strong nose and weak eyes I am ever grateful for Jack’s effective editorializing. But even though my professional life intersected with Jack’s in recent years through StoryCorps and the Atlantic Philanthropies, I want to use my few minutes here this morning not to talk about the kinds of accomplishments that made it into his impressive obituary, but the care and kindness he took in matters large and small.
I met Jack for lunch about 15 years ago through Herb Sturz, I believe, though it may have been Fritz Schwarz, the three of them forming a small group of close friends and contemporaries who, among other ways of spending personal and professional time together, had a practice of attending opening day New York Yankees games, and at one point invited me into that circle despite my (relative) youth and my lifelong attachment to the Red Sox.
Jack came to the lunch, at which we were meeting for the first time — he was then still at the Times Foundation — armed with a relic he had dredged up from the Times morgue, a sarcastic letter someone had written to the New York Times in response to one I had published, on libel laws, from sometime in the 1980s. Unearthing this long-forgotten gem was the perfect gesture, and as always, Jack had done his homework.
When the Times Foundation contracted almost ten years ago, because I so admired the innovation and outsized influence Jack wielded from his perch there, I invited him to come to Atlantic as a Senior Fellow, and he agreed. Jack had some specific responsibilities, including grantmaking on media and journalism, which he did with his customary brilliance, but what I really wanted in having him there was an experienced, wise, accessible mensch for other staff to learn from. That role he played beautifully, to the great benefit of Atlantic’s work and impact, because — well, because that is who Jack was.
I asked a few Atlantic staff this week, a few of whom are here this morning, what they would say about Jack. MaryAnn Nesdill, who worked for him, said that when she started, “Jack immediately arranged a lunch as he was known to do in the office for new employees. As an administrative assistant working for three people, Jack took me under his wing and made me feel welcomed. He invited me to attend his many meetings so I could learn and participate in grant making and his initiatives. He shared his love for writing, human rights and compassion daily with me and many others at Atlantic. When he walked into the office in the mornings, he greeted everyone with warm inspirational words and a beautiful smile. He actually taught one of our colleagues to write in calligraphy…Jack had impeccable penmanship. He was the kindest man and an inspiration to so many.”
Edith Asibey, who ran the communications team at Atlantic and went on to work for Unicef, told me that “those of us in the communication shop thought that we had won a major prize when Jack came on board. We told everyone we knew, and did so repeatedly, in case they didn’t hear us the first time around. Some of us dropped it ‘casually’ in conversations: ‘Oh, I now work with Jack Rosenthal of the New York Times.’ A few years later, Jack invited me for a coffee at the New York Times building. I had never been there before; I was seeking feedback from Jack on a work-related matter of mine. I remember noticing how many of the people we came across on our way to the cafeteria knew him, and how I felt ‘very important’ by simply being in his company. To me, that is the thing about Jack: he always made you feel important, no matter who you were or what your story was.”
Vivien Labaton wrote: “One thing that struck me is how low ego he was and how approachable he was. He always seemed interested and open to learning new things no matter where they came from which is not always the case with someone of his background and stature.”
These remembrances and others don’t vary much, because everyone at Atlantic, whether they were running the South Africa or Ireland offices or opening his mail in New York, experienced Jack the same way: as a good, thoughtful and considerate man. I won’t go as far as to say that these qualities, and the way they make the eyes of his colleagues and friends glisten in recalling them, are as important as Selma or the Kerner Commission. But they are etched into souls, and paid forward for years and even generations.
I looked through my old emails from Jack, thanks to the miracle of search functions. A typical one, to Fritz and Herb and me, reads: “Our annual day to play hooky for baseball is Thursday, 1:05. Early forecast: all sun, not quite so hot. You have your tickets; let’s plan to meet at our seats in Yankee Stadium. I look forward to seeing you all and catching up. Idiomatic footnote: Play hooky is probably derived from the Dutch term hoekje (spelen) ‘hide-and-seek’. The Dutch word hoek means ‘corner’ — the boys in 17th-century New Amsterdam played this game around the corners of the street.”
Now that is classic Jack — boundless curiosity and infectious joy in communicating the results of it. It’s what made him a great journalist. It’s what made him a great philanthropist. It’s what made him a great human.
Besides care with other people, Jack took great care with words, obviously, but also with the presentation of words. As MaryAnn recalled, his penmanship was legendary, and many a time I saw it applied to Yankees score cards, a practice maintained over many decades, a collection in perfect calligraphy that ought to be displayed in the Museum of the City of New York, or even more appropriately, in the stadium itself.
This care even extended to his email fonts, and in homage to Jack, I typed this in Bookman Old Style, which he always used.
Everyone who knows anything about Jack knows he was a journalist. Not everyone knows he was an immigrant, born in Tel Aviv, emigrating first to Portland, Oregon as a child. The experience gave him a lifelong passion for what newcomers contribute to this great country of ours — what indeed, they have contributed to making it great. Some of Jack’s friends, wanting to create a living memorial for this wonderful man, had the idea to establish a Jack Rosenthal Scholarship at the City University Graduate School of Journalism, a fabulous public institution that trains many of those who are the future of journalism — a great many foreign-born and people of color. And so we have done so, and a few generous early gifts have assured that this will happen — that for years to come a Jack Rosenthal Scholarship will make it possible for these diverse, young, curious and tenacious writers to insist that facts, reported with care, remain central to our public discourse. For the scholarship to be well-endowed and funded in perpetuity, we need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars more, and I know we can do it from Jack’s wide circle of friends and admirers. There is information about how to contribute in the program, and please talk with me if you want to learn more or have ideas of others we should be talking to.
One final thing. Once we knew we could make the scholarship program happen, a few of us went to see Jack, just a few weeks before he died, to tell him about it. He was really pleased to know so much opportunity would be opened up for others. But the most wonderful thing, the most Jack-like thing, is that weak as he was, he was animated about it and full of ideas about how to select the scholars, run the program and every other aspect of designing and launching a charitable venture. Among his last acts, then, was to help shape it. As with so much in the time I spent with Jack over the years, that was both a privilege and joy to be part of.