Kevin Cullen Delivers the Ziff Reunion Keynote

Photo by Stephanie Berenson, class of 2016.

     You know, Groucho Marx said he'd never join a club that would have him as a member.

     I sort of feel the same way about a dinner at which I'm billed as the keynote.

     But, like everybody else in this room, I'd do anything for Howard.

     In the fall of 1977, my freshman year, I took Howard's Journalism 101 class on the first floor at Bartlett. I always sat in the back row with a couple of kids I had met at a party. They were pledging at Zeta Nu, the frat house on North Pleasant that was decorated with a stolen ENTERING BOSTON sign. They were Dorchester guys and had played hockey with and against my cousins from South Boston. They were rink rats, and neither one would last the academic year. But they were good kids, and like me they were wearing baseball caps.

     At some point, I realized that the professor, this burly bearded guy with glasses had begun talking, outlining the class and we all dutifully began jotting down notes. Then later, Howard began spinning this long, elaborate story about covering cops in Chicago. He was talking about how important it was to get as close to crime scenes as possible, so you could collar one of the cops and get some information.

     Howard said that an old police reporter had taught him how to fold a piece of lined paper, almost like an accordion. That was how a lot of the old school detectives in Chicago took notes at crime scenes, folding over to the next column when one filled up. The old reporter told Howard that if he took notes like that, the uniformed cops wouldn't give you the bum's rush at the scene, thinking that you might be some detective from homicide they didn't know and didn't want to piss off.

     Now, even at 18 years of age, this seemed like a complete load of bullshit to me. But Howard told the story so well, with such enthusiasm, waving his hands like a cop directing traffic at an intersection, that I, and even the rink rats from Dorchester, were hanging on every word like we were being told the mystery of life itself.

      So as Howard paced back and forth in front of the class, going on and on about the mean streets of Chicago's south side, it occurred to me that one of the hands he was waving for emphasis was clutching a hot dog bun. And at some point Howard - in the middle of this story - took a bite of that hot dog. And moments later, Howard, with his back to the class, remembered something so important, so intrinsic to his story, that he wheeled back toward the class and excitedly imparted that information. One of the words he used started with a hard P. I don't remember the word but I remember that when he said it, a piece of chewed hot dog was propelled from his mouth with such force that it flew toward the front row and lodged in the long, flowing blonde hair of a young woman.

      That young woman shrieked and bolted from her chair, exiting the classroom with great haste, swatting at her hair as if it had been invaded by a swarm of bees.

       Howard paused only briefly before resuming his story about the difference between southside Chicago cops and northside Chicago cops.

      And it was at that moment, at that precise moment, I knew I wanted to become a newspaper reporter.

      We all, everyone in this room, have a Howard story. One that remains as fresh in our minds as the day it happened.

      Howard taught us a lot of things, some of them peculiar to the craft of journalism, like how to write a lede, how to be an ethical reporter. But I think what he taught us most was something more primal. He instilled in us the importance of something that people have been doing since they figured how to light a fire they could sit around. He taught us that the essence of journalism was telling a good story. It's all about the story, about the people you meet, on the street, in a bar, in a war zone, whether that war zone is some foreign hellhole, or a neighborhood in Chicago or Boston where the sound of gunfire is so common some people don't flinch.

      Howard's war stories made journalism sound exciting, so fun, so essential.

      I am far from the only person in this room who can honestly say it was Howard's stories that lit a spark, stoked a fire, made me want to go into the business, to make my living telling stories.

      Howard learned the art of storytelling while growing up in Holyoke, an old mill city where people in the lower wards of the Flats and South Holyoke sat on the stoops of their tenements and talked because they liked to and because it was free. They talked about the old country, and they talked about their new country. They were nosy and they were decent and when you left they'd talk about you, but that was okay because you'd get your chance to do the same at some point.

      Howard challenged us to read things we normally would not have. In my case, it was a lot of Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin and Saul Bellow. Everybody in this room can cite something that Howard told them to read, something that opened their eyes and a part of their brain that was sitting unused, like a vintage car tucked away in some garage.

      The other thing I think Howard instilled in us was the idea that journalism was a noble way to make a living. Not in a Woodward-Bernstein way, that we might someday bring down a president. But that every day we should demonstrate whose side we were on, that ordinary, working people, that poor people, that marginalized people, needed us, that if we didn't tell these people's stories, they would be edited out of the social consciousness and the social compact.

      The most heroic of first responders, firefighters, cops, paramedics, run toward, not away from, chaos. They ignore an innate sense of self-preservation and risk all to save strangers.

      The most heroic of journalists move toward, not away, from the very people that make many others uncomfortable, make many others avert their eyes, or cross the street. The best journalists don't measure their success by the numbers in their bank account, but the numbers in the zip codes that most others avoid.

       Howard hated clichés, so I never heard him warm that old chestnut about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. But anybody who was Howard's student had no illusions about where his sympathies lay, and it was with the underdog. And at the end of the day, most of us wanted to please Howard, most of us wanted to thank him by taking the job and the responsibilities that come with it seriously. Most of us believed him that our net worth as journalists was not sucking up to the powerful, but sticking up for the powerless.

       He was part philosopher, part performer. A guy who looked like Falstaff but wouldn't be caught dead drinking Falstaff. He preferred wine and whiskey.

       Speaking of which, the other thing I remember about Howard was that he treated his students like adults. When I went onto the back porch of Howard’s and Jane's house on Dana Street, like so many of us did, I felt grownup. I was offered some wine. Now, believe me, nobody I grew up with drank wine, except when we stole the communion wine as altar boys at Sacred Hearts. I felt instantly older at the back of Dana Street.

       Howard's daughter, Ellen, told me a great story. She was just a kid when they moved to Amherst and Howard was tasked with building a first-class journalism program at UMass. Howard struggled with the transition, from a busy newsroom to a quiet office. The silence was very distracting. Howard went about hiring some great teachers and he asked the teenaged Ellen to accompany him to a dinner, which was essentially Ralph Whitehead's job interview. At dinner, Ralph told a story about a guy he knew who always took job prospects out to dinner, and if they salted their food before tasting it, the guy wouldn't hire them.

       Ralph didn't salt his food. Howard hired him.

       But what Ellen remembers most is that her dad valued her opinion about Ralph. She said it was the first time that any adult solicited her opinion, the first time she felt on the cusp of adulthood.

       I felt the same way as a student of Howard's. He wasn't coddling us. He was challenging us, and we didn't want to disappoint. He told us to put our toys away and pick up a conscience and a notebook.

     Unlike a lot of my journalism peers at UMass, I was not very well organized as the end of senior year approached. So many of the people I worked with at the Collegian were better prepared for the real world, had sent out resumes all over the country, to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and, closer to home, the Springfield papers.

      I relayed my concerns to Howard and he told me I didn't need a resume. He'd make a call, and tell a story. So Howard called Matt Zawadowski, the managing editor of the Transcript-Telegram in Holyoke, Howard's hometown, and told him he had this kid who grew up in Malden and would be worth hiring.

      When I asked Howard if I should be looking to a bigger paper, he shook his head.

      "If you can work in Holyoke," he said, "you can work anywhere."

      As Howard explained it, Holyoke was the physical embodiment of the American dream. The immigrants started off in the lower wards, then they moved up the hill, to neighborhoods like Churchill, and when they really made it, they moved higher up the hill, to the Highlands.

      Holyoke had urban blight and crime and racial and ethnic tension. It was a city that at one point, less than 10 years previously, had Holyoke men serving as the lieutenant governor, senate president and speaker of the house in Massachusetts, but now that influence was gone and Holyoke was teetering, growing poorer and apart. He said I'd learn more in two years at the Transcript than I'd learn in five years at a bigger paper.

       As usual, Howard was right.

      The night before I had the interview at the Transcript that Howard set up, I stayed up, studying the New York Times, memorizing the name of the foreign minister of Thailand, as if my getting a job at a small daily newspaper in western Massachusetts would hinge on my being able to rattle off the names of obscure government officials all around the world.

      The next morning, Matt Zawadowski seemed totally disinterested in my clips. And he asked me only one question, and it wasn't to identify the foreign minister of Thailand.

      "What," he asked, "is the least amount of money you would work for?"

      I was blindsided. In my head I quickly calculated what I spent money on. Beer. The occasional haircut. Bad food.

      "Two hundred bucks," I said.

      "You're hired," Matt Zawadowski said.

      It was a pm paper, and it was mid-morning, and I was given a desk and an assignment. My first story in the Transcript was to compile the names of old timers, including Old Man Dwight, the paper's founder, who played a card game I had never heard of called pitch.

      My clips didn't get me that job. Howard did. He vouched for people in this room, and it mattered.

      At the end of my first week, my new colleagues took me out for pizza and beer at some place in Easthampton. As reporters are wont to do, when surrounded by each other and pitchers of beer, it was a nonstop bitch session about editors.

      I listened to everybody complain, mostly about the ME, Matt Zawadowski. As I recall, the nicest name they called Matt was prick. Wanting to fit in, I put my two cents in, saying, "Yeah, Matt tricked me in my interview. The only thing he asked me was what was the least amount of money I'd work for."

      The table went silent.

      "What," one of them asked, "did you say?"

      "I said 200 bucks a week."

      All the others looked at each other and grabbed their mugs at the same time, and drained them.

      "Shit," one of them said under her breath.

      It turned out I was the highest paid reporter at the table.

     As he was for many people here, Howard remained a mentor long after I headed down 116 to Holyoke, then on to Boston.

     In 1983, I called my mother in Malden and said, "Mum, good news. I got a job at the Boston Herald. I'm coming home."

      There was a slight pause, then my mother replied, "That's nice. Did you know there's a fireman's exam on Saturday?"

      My mother grew up in South Boston and she thought newspapermen were an especially mangy breed.

      When, looking for sympathy, I told Howard what my mother said, he replied, "I like your mother."

      Over the years, I'd come out to speak to Howard's classes once in a while. I just told war stories, about walking up the stairs of tenements, about talking to gangsters and cops and crazy people. What could I tell journalism students other than war stories? I had learned from the master.

       Not long after I got hired by The Boston Globe, I went to visit a friend in Chicago who had gone to school with me in Ireland. Inevitably, at my request, we ended up in the Billy Goat, the famous subterranean bar.

      I only knew about the Billy Goat through Howard's stories.

      One of Howard's jobs in Chicago was to edit the great columnist Mike Royko. Howard and Royko were a formidable team. Howard deferred to Royko's command of the characters and characteristics of Chicago's distinctive, ethnic neighborhoods. Royko deferred to Howard's mastery of grammar and composition.

      Like many newsmen of their generation, Howard and Royko were known to decamp to the Billy Goat after deadline. I would submit that Howard's and Royko's greatest contribution to civic life in Chicago was talking Billy Sianis, the Billy Goat owner, out of selling the bar to a girlfriend whose motives they questioned.

      Howard wrapped an arm around about Billy, like a warm cloak, and advised him: "Give her as much money as you want, Billy. But keep the bar in the family."

      Billy took that advice to heart and left the bar to his nephew Sam.

      So there, in 1986, I'm standing in the Billy Goat, drinking it all in.

      My friend, who is now a history professor at Columbia College in Chicago, pointed out an old guy in a softball uniform at one of the tables. It was Mike Royko. My friend urged me to go over and say hello. She said Royko was approachable, that he'd talk to a telephone pole. I drank a little courage up and walked over.

       I tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself, said I was a reporter at the Boston Globe and that I was a big fan. Royko turned around and looked at me as if I had just burped in his face. He was about to turn back to his softball teammates when I blurted out, "Howard Ziff was my college professor."

       Royko's demeanor suddenly softened, well at least as much as Royko could soften, and something approaching a smile curled at the sides of his mouth.

       I wish I could tell you that that changed everything. That Royko stood up and gave me a bear hug, pulled me into the circle of his softball pals, ordered a pitcher of Old Style and regaled me with stories, stories that inspired me, that changed me, that made me not rest until I was a columnist in a position to kick the shit out of the powerful who kicked the powerless to the curb.

       But all Royko said was, "Howie's a really good guy."

       And then he turned back to his softball buddies. The back of his head practically screamed, "Screw kid. I'm busy."

       The story I told Howard about that encounter was not a long one. I didn't really go into detail. I didn't tell Howard that Mike Royko said exactly five words to me. I just told Howard that Royko talked to me because I dropped Howard's name. And that's true.

      This seemed to please Howard. He sucked in his lips, used a thumb and forefinger to massage his bearded chin, and nodded his head.

      Sometimes the most important stories have to be edited.

      As much as I admired Mike Royko, I don't agree with his description of Howard.

      I don't think Howard Ziff was a really good guy. I think he was a really great man.

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