A Fond Farewell to The Deanly One  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

A Fond Farewell to The Deanly One   

Adventures with Kunkel from Miami to AJR

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It all goes back to Tobacco Road.

Back in 1982 I joined the Miami Herald as associate news editor. My major responsibility was the national report, but I also helped oversee the foreign correspondents and the news desk. Since my wife and daughter weren't moving down from the Philadelphia suburbs until the school year ended, and since I was temporarily living in a room in a guy's garage, I volunteered to work some double shifts to learn about the entire operation.

It was a nightside ritual to make an after-work pilgrimage to the 1800 Club, a venue near the Herald that was exactly what a tropical nightspot should be. But there had been big news, and by the time we wrapped up it was too late for the 1800, which had the temerity to close at 3 a.m. That's when Tom Kunkel invited me to join the merry band of Herald revelers at Tobacco Road, a dive on the Miami River that bills itself as Miami's oldest bar, a place where Al Capone used to hang.

Little did I know then that Tom and I were destined to enjoy many more adventures together, from working on the Herald city desk during the action-packed heyday of the cocaine cowboys to shepherding AJR's ambitious, 18-part Project on the State of the American Newspaper into existence to doing whatever it took to keep AJR alive and swinging.

I've been thinking a lot about Tom because he's stepping down soon as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland (and as AJR's president) to become president of St. Norbert, a small liberal arts college in De Pere, Wisconsin, just outside of Green Bay.

Trust me, Maryland's loss is a huge gain for the Green Knights.

He's an accomplished editor and writer (if you haven't read "Genius in Disguise," his biography of New Yorker Editor Harold Ross, go get a copy, right now), a gifted educator and administrator, an all-around Great American. Not to mention a man with a truly dark and scary sense of humor.

And, as I learned when I left Miami, a pretty damn good artist.

The Herald at that time was an amazing place, loaded with talent, intensity and ambition. It thought big and moved fast. The local news was stunning, not to say completely insane, but if there was a good story anywhere in the world, that was fair game too. I left there too soon to accept an offer from the Washington Post.

But while the place was outstanding, now and then some fool or knave would screw something up. And young Tom's patience was not quite up to the level it reached when he became The Deanly One. So he had this concept of The Closet. When someone was driving him crazy, he would suggest that it might be good to invite the malefactor into said closet. And then roll a grenade in.

Thus my farewell present, which I'm looking at as I type this: a drawing featuring a closet door, slightly ajar, all perfect Miami pink pastel. And on the floor, just outside the door, a grenade.

Fast forward 13 years. Gene Roberts has gotten major money it ultimately was close to $2 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts for AJR to carry out the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. For an undertaking this massive, we needed a full-time editor, and a quite good one at that.

One day I got a call from Gene, who was finishing up a three-year stint as managing editor of the New York Times before returning to Maryland and the launch of the Project. He started extolling the virtues of one Tom Kunkel, who, among other things, had written three books, edited a magazine and served as deputy managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News since those days in Miami.

I told Gene to say no more. Tom Kunkel, I told him, was one of the best editors and best human beings I had ever met. Let's do the deal.

Tom's start at AJR was humble. There was no room in the AJR complex on the first floor of the '50s-era house we then called home, so he had to work out of the Journalism Center on Children and Families down in the basement, an Old Testament sort of place prone to floods and plagues of insects.

In 1998 we moved into the J-school. Two years later Tom relocated down the hall into the dean's office.

And so for the last eight years we've worked together to keep AJR going, fundraising, strategizing, economizing, lobbying. He's been a peerless ally in the struggle. Journalism reviews are rarely confused with cash cows, and keeping them alive is not for the fainthearted. Tom has never blinked. He believes in the mission far too much for that.

It's going to be weird not having him around for the daily movie or sports update or Miami reminiscence, as well as the brainstorming about AJR.

Best of luck in the Heartland, Tom. Go Green Knights!

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