The first two decades at the Poynter Institute (1975-1995) were marked by lots of confusion about our mission and purpose. Words such as writing and ethics swirled around, but it was a long time before the phrase “a school for journalism” became the common lingo.
To meet the requirements of accreditation as a professional school, we needed a National Advisory Board. In that period before our three-year term limit for advisers, a board member could stay on indefinitely. And they did.
Wisdom figures such as journalism dean James Carey and ethicist Arthur Caplan remained on the board for years and years. Their influence on Poynter was enormous and enduring. My friend Bill Raspberry was a member of that prestigious group. I think of him as an unpaid Founding Father of the Institute.
When I heard news of his death, I was flooded by memories of Bill’s annual visits to Poynter. As befitting a national columnist, Bill lent a strong voice to the most controversial problems facing the fledgling Institute. Should we move from a print-centric curriculum to one that included broadcast journalism? Should we build a website and hire Jim Romenesko as a media blogger? Should we expand internationally to assist emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and South Africa?
Yes, yes, yes. Bill Raspberry was a yes man, but only in the sense that he would encourage you to try something out, and if it didn’t work, try something else.
Perhaps because Bill became a friend, I always listed him high among my favorite newspaper columnists. He could write with clarity and grace on a wide range of national topics, from education to politics to sports to race.
Totally committed to racial progress in America, Bill was fearless on the subject, willing to take African-American leaders to task when he felt it was warranted. He treasured justice and fairness over ideology and was suspicious of any reform that did not offer practical help to people in need.
After his retirement, he took that sense of responsibility back to the small town in Mississippi where he grew up. There he gathered resources, human and financial, designed to help the struggling parents of school children living in poverty. That’s what we mean, I think, when we hope people will “walk the talk.” And, phooey on you Thomas Wolfe, if you’ve got the guts of a Bill Raspberry you can go home again.
I’m leaving out the fun parts. Bill had a quick wit, a hearty laugh, a taste for good food and wine, a splendid singing voice and always seemed ready to “play along.” It was my job to interview him in front of a community group in St. Petersburg and — given his last name — stated what an honor it was to have as a guest “that great slugger from the New York Mets Darryl Strawberry.”
Unrehearsed, Bill leaned over and in a brilliant stage whisper corrected his clueless interviewer. The crowd, shall we say, went wild.