David Halberstam, who was killed in a car accident in California last week, was no stranger to Memphis and the Mid-South.
He began his journalism career in West Point, Mississippi, and Nashville in the 1950s and early 1960s. He returned to Nashville 10 years ago to revisit the Rev. James Lawson and the other participants in the lunch-counter sit-ins in his book The Children. His own daughter joined Teach For America and worked
at a school in the Mississippi Delta. And Halberstam was a close friend of Memphian Henry Turley and, through him, became acquainted with several Memphians.
In the jargon of psychology, Halberstam would be considered a "phenomenologist" — someone whose judgments came from intuiting the life lived by the subjects of his journalism, seeing the world as they experienced it in the fullness of keenly seen details. He was never one for bestowing prefabricated judgments on his subjects.
Curtis Wilkie, a retired Boston Globe journalist who, like Halberstam, logged time in Mississippi before heading to other points on the compass, recollected his friend and fellow émigré in remarks to the downtown Rotary Club on Tuesday. Wilkie, who still has his down-home drawl and settled finally in New Orleans, talked of how Halberstam never got the South out of his system. He would return to these parts over and over, and though Halberstam had documented better than most the South's time of trial during the years of the civil rights revolution, he never felt superior to the troubled region and never failed to see its virtues.
Halberstam was generous with his time and advice if he considered one a serious journalist and not a "twinkie." His voice was god-like, his eyes probing, and his range of knowledge simply incredible.
Many of us in the news business grew up with his bylines in The New York Times during the Vietnam War. For four decades after that, he produced an impressive shelf of thick, hard-to-put-down books on the news media, war, the Fifties, baseball, basketball, and the auto industry.
The fact is, he was able to discern the complexities of humanity and its struggles and surprises from wherever he reported — including Vietnam, where he was the first full-time reporter of the war, getting there years before the massive infusion of American troops and seeing, earlier than almost anyone, the developing tragedy of that effort. For his efforts, he won a well-deserved Pulitzer. And Halberstam's books on sports history, notably his chronicle of the Yankees-Red Sox pennant battle of 1949, showed that he could render conflict and suspense in that arena as well.
He was a master at interviewing people and explaining things. His books touched so many people in so many walks of life that his memorial service could have filled Yankee Stadium (or, well, Fenway Park) had that been his wish.
To read David Halberstam was to feel uncomfortably inferior but also to determine to try harder and do better at the craft he practiced so well.