Friday, January 12, 2018

Sad news about influential professor

Jon Klarfeld
Lotta sad things happening these days.

I wrote about the Literacy Project's Zoe Rosenthal dying after being hit by a car, and now I have news about the death of Jon Klarfeld, my favorite and most influential professor from my master's program at Boston University's College of Communications.

Monday, in the wake of Donald Trump declaring himself a very stable genius, a conversation with a friend turned to where The D went to school. (The Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania.)

This led to talk of our own education and to my saying how influential Klarfeld was in starting me on my career. I recommitted myself to seeing him after a previous attempt didn’t pan out a few years ago.

The next day I got an email saying Jon had died in the morning of the very same day I was talking about him. 

It was sad news.

I went to graduate school after realizing my news writing needing help. Having moved to Boston after graduating from Vassar, I wrote for a now-defunct community newspaper, The Newton Times, and was a stringer for the Quincy Patriot Ledger.

I like to say that in the one-year program, Klarfeld scared good newspaper writing into me.

When he dictated the details of an accident or a fire and had us write it – pound  on manual typewriters actually – so that it would engage the reader, he prowled around the small classroom.

I held my breath, afraid to be the would-be reporter who got it so wrong that he made fun of you in front of the whole class. The story that sticks in my head concerned flames that broke out while an overweight man was stuck in the bathtub. If you put the detail about the bathtub man down low in the story, you could be the subject of ridicule in front of the class.

His style didn't sit well with everyone, but to me he was fascinating, like a character from an old newspaper movie. But I liked his sarcasm and dark humor, and it prepared me well for life in the newspaper world. 

He hated unnecessary words. A friend remembers that it irritated him when someone wrote in order to instead of simply to.

He said we shouldn't puff ourselves up by calling ourselves journalists.

"You're reporters," he said, in some kind of growl, or maybe he growled it, but we learned to (almost) always used the versatile said.

I agreed with most of it except for his critique of my name.

 “Ronnnnni,” he said, drawing out my name dismissively. “Nobody is going to take you seriously if you don’t change your name to Veronica.”

I hung around his office with some others Klarfeld groupies, or, maybe you would say newsies. We listened to him tell stories. Many were about his hometown, Holyoke.

He sent me to his hometown newspaper, the Transcript-Telegram, where he had a pipeline with the managing editor when jobs opened up.

The month before I graduated, I got a reporting job in what was then called the People department. I married my editor and had three wonderful children.

In 2015, a beloved creative writing professor at Vassar, William Gifford, died. When I went to the memorial, I felt so bad that we had lost touch. I left determined that the same thing would not happen with my best journalism teacher.

“Hey Jon, remember me? Class of ’79?” I emailed.

“I tell everyone how you started me on my brilliant career by scaring me into being a good reporter. You were right about a lot of things except that I should change my name to Veronica or else no-one would take me seriously. "

He wrote back, "Ronni (or Veronica),"he wrote back. "What a surprise. Great to hear from you."

I thought maybe we could have lunch when I was in Boston for follow-ups at Dana-Farber. Just about every day I could do it, he was busy with teaching or conferences (still sending reporters out into the world). 

We went traded emails for several months yet could never find a time. At least I told him how important he was, something I never did for my Vassar professor.

And at  least we had some virtual conversations.

“Not sure what I would tell the students these days," I wrote. "The outlook is not rosy like when we were in school. I guess somebody has to do the writing even though it’s not in print. Do you teach them how to express themselves in 140 characters or less?

He replied, “You're right  about someone having to do the writing. Anyone who uses 140 characters or less immediately receives a failing grade from me.”

I never got to ask him what he thought about 280, but I’m sure he would not be amused.

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