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Honoring Halberstam

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  June 13, 2007 04:27 PM

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So how does a truly great man get sent off by the city he loved?

If you're David Halberstam, you get famed Jazz pianist Billy Taylor playing an uninterrupted half hour of "Selections" as the guests take their seats at the mammoth Riverside Episcopal Church on the far Upper West Side of Manhattan.

You get Paul Simon singing "Mrs. Robinson," while apologizing because he didn't have any Ted Williams songs (Dave McKenna, the great jazz pianist and fanatical Red Sox fan, did give us a song entitled "Splendid Splinter," but, alas, there are no lyrics).

You get Lucy Chapin with "Wildflowers." You get Peter Yarrow, of "Peter, Paul and Mary" fame, with "Sweet Survivors."

You get Robert Johanson with an a capella rendering of the 23d Psalm.

You get the 16-member Metropolitan Baptist Choir with a powerhouse "American The Beautiful" like you ain't never heard before. You get the likes of Ben Bradlee, David Remnick, Bill Kovach, Graydon Carter, Les Gelb, and Calvin Trillin among the honorary pallbearers.

You get 10 speakers, some of whom the public knows (Anna Quindlen, Neil Sheehan, Congressman John Lewis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gay Talese, etc.), and some of whom they don't know, but all chosen because of specific connection to a man whose tentacles were endless.

You get nearly two hours, and when it's done the overall effect on those in attendance is to reinforce the idea that David Halberstam, who died at age 73 in an automobile accident on April 23, was perhaps even more of an amazing man than most of us had realized.

You can't even say he led a dual life. He led a phenomenally multi-layered life. For among the speakers were old journalistic friends such as Sheehan, whom he had met 44 years ago in Saigon when both were covering the Vietnam War, as well as Sean Newman, a fireman whose home station had been immortalized by Halberstam in his vital book "Firehouse," a story of the men who lost 12 comrades on 9/11, and which is located in Halberstam's midtown neighborhood; and Ralph Hockley, a Korean War veteran befriended by Halberstam beginning in 2002, when Halberstam began work on what would turn out to be his final epic journalistic effort, a book entitled "The Coldest Winter," a tome on the whys and wherefores of the Korean War that will hit the bookstores in September. Hockley said that Halberstam had told him he was enormously proud of this book, that it was, in his judgment, his "best" book ever.

Another speaker was Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter who has spent the last four years in Iraq. He said he felt a bit funny to be up there because he really didn't know David Halberstam very well.

What he did know was that David Halberstam was universally regarded as the patron saint of all Iraq War correspondents, all of whom had read "The Best And the Brightest," Halberstam's legendary tale of the massive screw-up that was the Vietnam War. Using a sports metaphor he said he was certain Halberstam would have loved, Filkins said that Halberstam had served as the "pulling guard" for all subsequent war correspondents. "He cleared the way for us all," Filkins said.

The speakers all had something to offer, but I was most moved by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Quoting someone (regrettably, I forget whom), she said that Halberstam ideally fulfilled the idea set forth to balance properly work, play, and love. The work part was self-evident. The play was two-fold.

First, there were his sports books, which were truly his recreation.

Secondly, there was his deep love of fishing, both fresh and salt water. There is a new, thick compendium of fishing stories on the market (Don't know the title, but I happened to see it in Barnes & Noble last week), for which he had written the foreword. One of the speakers said that when he was asked to do the foreword, he acted hurt that he had not actually been included as an author. He was just kidding, of course -- or was he? But he graciously wrote the foreword and it is of some considerable length.

His immediate family consisted of his wife, Jean, and his daughter, Julia, who read "if there are any heavens," a poem by e.e. cummings.

I make no claim to being a Halberstam intimate. But we were friends by any measure, and I will always cherish treasure the memory of the many phone calls we shared over the years. He invariably ended with, "Be well, my friend," and with his voice that sounded like an order. We first met in 1980 when he joined the Celtics on a West Coast trip. He was researching his first sports book, "The Breaks of the Game," and he was also working simultaneously on a magazine piece about Pistol Pete Maravich. It was the beginning of a 27-year relationship that would culminate in our exchanges over his book on Bill Belichick, "The Education of a Coach." Coach Bill was present at Riverside Church on Tuesday, as were Scott Pioli and Belichick's personal assistant Berj Najarian.

Halberstam was a serious man, but he was also a total sports junkie. As a result of his forays into sport, he came away with friendships with the likes of Bill Walton, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Bob Knight, Belichick (a fellow Nantucket guy) and, of course, the venerable Red Sox trio of Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio, immortalized in "The Teammates." And no one ever did more to explain the lonely sport of crew than he did in his exquisite book, "The Amateurs." He was killed, as many of you know, en route to an interview for his next sports venture, a book on the celebrated the 1958 Giants-Colts NFL Championship Game and the men who played in it.

To sit and listen to the remembrances of Pulitzer Prize winners, firemen, authors, soldiers and family friends such as author John Burnham Schwartz, who recounted just how much Halberstam loved to tell stories, was to be overwhelmed. How, you ask yourself, could one man touch so many disparate lives?

I am grateful to have been a peripheral satellite orbiting around the sun that was David Halberstam.

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