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“I had been a very good college journalist, managing editor of what was arguably the best college paper in the country,” David L. Halberstam ’55 told a Columbia University audience two years ago. “I knew what I didn’t know and what I needed to learn.”
Halberstam, who died today in a car crash south of San Francisco at age 73, will be remembered for what he learned post-graduation—in particular, what he learned about the Vietnam War, and what he relayed to the American people through his Pulitzer Prize-winning dispatches for the New York Times. But at The Crimson, he will also be remembered as "a very good college journalist"—unarguably one of the best and the brightest to pass through the paper in its 134-year history.
As managing editor at The Crimson, Halberstam worked alongside features editor William M. Beecher ’55 and associate managing editor J. Anthony Lukas ’55, both of whom would also go on to garner Pulitzers. (In total, five alums from the Class of ’55 won the award.) Together, Halberstam and Lukas covered the January 1953 resignation of James Bryant Conant, who left Massachusetts Hall to serve as German High Commissioner.
But before he was managing editor, and before he was allowed to cover Mass. Hall, Halberstam applied his reportorial skills to less-glamorous assignments. He covered freshman baseball and intramural basketball before working his way up to varsity football. He quickly developed a distinctive style, and he wasn’t afraid to excoriate the Harvard gridiron squad for sloppy play—as an October 1954 lede by Halberstam attests:
It should happen against Princeton, it could happen against Yale, but some time later this fall the varsity football team is going to stop beating itself and concentrate on the opposition.
As a football correspondent, Halberstam analyzed and criticized the character of his subjects. His September 1952 account of “the sudden departure” (read: firing) of Yale’s 300-pound coach is just one example:
And thus Herman Hickman, so round, so firm, so fully packed, packed up and left, aided by a swarm of slow-burning Yale alumni.
Many of his most memorable dispatches were printed on the sports pages under the column heading “Egg in Your Beer,” and Halberstam remained a sportswriter until his death—the car crash came as he was traveling to an interview with a retired New York Giants quarterback. But Halberstam’s Crimson writings jumped off the sports page to the front page, and they touched upon the Cold War concerns that would reappear throughout his life work. He reported on the Red Scare that swept the nation in the early 1950s, as Senator Joseph McCarthy and his allies took aim at the “Kremlin on the Charles” and as the newly-inaugurated President Nathan M. Pusey fired back.
After graduation, Halberstam joined a small Mississippi daily newspaper, but he continued to file reports for The Crimson from the Deep South. His dispatches were sometimes critical of civil rights activists (see here and here) and may seem outdated to the modern reader. But then again, he was only 21. And while others from the Class of ’55 were working as copy boys at big-city dailies, Halberstam already had set off on his lifetime journey into journalism. “I wanted to report, and I was ready to report, not get coffee for someone else,” he told the Columbia audience. Indeed, from 14 Plympton Street until today's collision along the Bayfront Expressway, he would be reporting for the rest of his life.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at email@example.com.
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