AJR  Columns
From AJR,   April/May 2009

A Giant Departs   

Reese Cleghorn was something special. He will be missed.

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

They Might Be Giants is the name of an alternative rock group.

"A giant" is the way I'd describe Reese Cleghorn.

The phrase "larger than life" is used way too often. But in Reese's case, it fits.

Reese, who died Monday at 78, was a distinguished civil rights correspondent, an excellent editorial page editor and an accomplished journalism professor. But his role in building the University of Maryland's journalism school into one of the nation's very best was his defining achievement. When Reese took over the school in 1981, it was hardly a player. When he stepped down an extraordinary 19 years later, it was firmly entrenched in the journalism education pantheon.

He did it thanks to an imposing amalgam of intelligence, vision, passion, relentlessness and iron will. It didn't hurt that he was equal parts Southern gentleman and pirate. Reese had an unflagging commitment to excellence. So he hired stellar faculty members like Gene Roberts and Hodding Carter and Haynes Johnson and Carl Sessions Stepp.

A born entrepreneur, he brought AJR (then WJR), the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the Journalism Center on Children & Families to the school. And he oversaw the creation of Capital News Service, where Maryland J-school students cover government in Washington, D.C., and at Maryland's Capitol in Annapolis.

I met Reese in the late 1980s. In 1991, we got together for lunch, and he offered me a job. It didn't particularly interest me. But I had seen that Bill Monroe, the former "Meet the Press" host and NBC Washington bureau chief, was stepping down as WJR's editor. That I'd be interested in, I told Reese. But, I added, he probably was looking for a big name.

"I've already interviewed the big names," Reese replied. "Critique the magazine."

I did. Then we had three long breakfast meetings. And then, Reese later told me, he interviewed 25 people in five news organizations about me.

He hired me anyway.

Reese proved to be a great boss. His philosophy was to let the editor be the editor. Not a lot of second-guessing. If he didn't like what the editor was doing, it was time to get a new editor. Luckily, he liked what I was doing. And eight months in, he abolished the position of publisher and asked me to worry about the business side as well. In more than eight years together, we didn't have one bad moment unless you count the water balloon incident. More on that later.

One episode early on made abundantly clear what type of dude I was dealing with. Someone was pushing a proposal that in Reese's view would have infringed on the J-school's prerogatives. This was not something Reese was ever very high on.

At the climactic meeting on the issue, Reese was asked what he thought about the proposal. He arose in his full Deanliness and said forcefully, "Let me tell you what I think it means." He then proceeded to interpret it in a way that rendered it entirely meaningless. "If that's what it means, I think it's fine," Reese said. "If not, I don't have the slightest idea what it means, so I can't possibly tell you what I think of it." The room was absolutely silent, except for a gasp or two. Then came the reply: "Oh, like you said, Dean" (or words to that effect). And just like that, Reese had buried the evil proposal. I said to myself, "You better start taking notes."

Reese was at heart a serious man, he also had a great sense of whimsy. He had a twinkle.

Which brings us to that water balloon. Back in the late 1990s, when AJR was based in a '50s-era -style house, we had an annual summer barbecue. One year, the staff organized a bunch of games, including a water balloon toss. Several key staffers were upset that my pal the great Mark Lisheron and I, doubtless consumed by in-depth discussions of doo-wop, New Orleans rhythm and blues and microbrews, weren't participating.

So, rather than risk what they laughingly referred to as their careers by doing it themselves, they asked my daughter, Amanda, to hit me over the head with a water balloon. She readily agreed. When her balloon broke prematurely, Reese volunteered to do the deed. He enjoyed it way too much.

After serving as dean, Reese turned to teaching, instructing students on the art of writing commentary. Late last year, when Reese was ill, I volunteered to take over his class for the rest of the semester. I was struck by two things. First, he had a terrific group of students. Second they got and adored Reese.

I asked Raquel Christie, a hugely talented former AJR editorial assistant, why she had been so impressed by Reese the professor. Here's what she said: "Reese introduced me to voices that I had never heard--Ernie Pyle, Ralph McGill, William Allen White--rich, elegant and powerful voices that would become my inspiration. Through this and through his careful consideration of my work he taught me that yes, there is a place for strong, moving, creative writing in modern journalism, and he helped me uncover my own unique voice and my own unique subjects, and to bring them to life. 'Tell me more,' he'd say. 'What did it sound like, taste like? How did it look and feel?' When everyone else was telling me to make it short and snappy, he coaxed me to make it full. Make it true."

We will miss you, Great One.