Bill Raspberry the Man of the Hour
The first time Robert Woodson was introduced to William Raspberry, he said a heated three-hour argument erupted as each man challenged the other's politics, positions and precepts.
Neither man backed down but from that stormy encounter blossomed a friendship that has lasted more than 35 years, Woodson said.
"He has written several columns coming out of our conversations, he would call to bounce things off of me and I suggested some columns to him," said Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Northwest. "What stood out is his independence, his political and philosophical independence. A lot of pundits you can predict what they're going to write, but he was willing to change his mind in the face of new information."
"He's a man moved by evidence. Few people are. They have an ideological position and do everything to defend that. His punditry is really missed."
Woodson, 75, counted among the more than 200 friends, colleagues and admirers who gathered at The Washington Post late last month to honor the celebrated columnist and journalist at an event labeled, "Raspberry's Roast."
Washington Post Chairman and CEO Donald Graham and the newspaper sponsored the event, said Paul Delaney, a longtime friend of Raspberry's.
Though slowed by illness, Raspberry, his wife Sondra and his family enjoyed the banter, jokes and witty repartee on an evening when he and his formidable legacy took center stage. An army of admirers and well-wishers swarmed the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, surrounding him when he entered the room, hugging, kissing and chatting, their laughter bouncing off the walls.
Speakers ranging from Post Senior Editor Milton Coleman, fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Colby King, longtime friends Delaney and Ron Sarro and a succession of people whose lives have intersected with Raspberry's, heaped praise on a man all said has left an indelible imprint on the newspaper business and on them.
Fox News Commentator Juan Williams served as master of ceremonies and toward the end of the tribute, choked up as he spoke about the beauty of Raspberry as a mentor, colleague and friend.
"Bill Raspberry is the best," he said. "He's been a mentor to so many people. His writing is heartfelt and incisive ... there were no polemics, it was personal and no one could peg him. He always wrote with a smile. I would be honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. He's a pioneer who paved the way for writers and commentators [and] he had loyal readers across the political spectrum."
After the roast, Williams discussed Raspberry, who he asked to introduce him when he was inducted into the Washington Journalism Hall of Fame.
"I came to the Post as an intern in 1976 and he was doing a local column. Then he went from Metro to Op-Ed. He was always the mentor," Williams said. "It was an interesting time. There was lots of obvious racial turmoil in the city. Washington had burned and there was a transition from no blacks to blacks [at the newspaper]."
"There were lawsuits by black people saying we needed a greater role [but] he stood apart from the lawsuits and the bitterness. Look at who's left standing, leaving a legacy? It's Bill Raspberry."
Delaney, 79, is one of Raspberry's closest friends. They're lives have been deeply intertwined for the past 45 years and both families have vacationed in the U.S., the Caribbean, Europe and North Africa annually for the past 40 years, he said.
Delaney, one of the roast's organizers and a participant in a skit with Sarro, playfully skewering Raspberry, said he was pleased to be able to honor his friend.
"I thought the roast was terrific," he said. "That was very important. People showed up and showed their appreciation."
One of Raspberry's most noticeable qualities, said Delaney, a former New York Times writer and editor, is his adherence to certain values which are unchanged over time.
"He is honest and open about them and sticks to those determinations and beliefs," he explained.
The explosive, heady days of the Civil Rights era illustrated another Raspberry trait.
"He was not like the rest of us. He kept his cool. Some of his friends were angry at the plight and situation of black people and their [plights] in particular," said Delaney. "Sometimes we got mad at him because he didn't get mad enough."
Raspberry, he said, was the person to stand back rationally, challenge the prevailing sentiment and offer an unemotional, nuanced opinion.
Raspberry, 76, began his newspaper career as an intern at the Indianapolis Recorder in 1956 and he was inspired by his work as a reporter, photographer and editor to join the Post six years later. The Army veteran worked as a Teletype operator and soon moved up the ladder from general assignment reporter to copy editor and assistant city editor. He began writing as a columnist in 1966. As a syndicated columnist, Raspberry's columns appeared in more than 200 newspapers. He was first nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, and in 1994, he won for Distinguished Commentary. He retired from the Post in 2005 and subsequently served as a Communications and Journalism professor at Duke University.
Eleanor Clift, a contributing editor for Newsweek and a regular on the McLaughlin Group – for almost 30 years – has known Raspberry since 1976.
"I met him and interacted with him at the Gridiron Club where my husband was a member," Clift recalled. "I always admired his way with words ... he was one of the first African Americans to break into the white, mainstream media. That may sound archaic now, but it matters that people like him broke down the barriers. He did it with grace and opened doors."
Sarro, a former Washington Star reporter, said Raspberry walked the path less traveled.
"He was a genius because he identified the key Civil Rights issue of the 2000s in the 1960s – education as a way to move up," he said. "People were blaming whitey, the system, their neighbors and he said 'we should take responsibility...'"
The wide cross-section of luminaries from the newspaper business, other media, judges, lawyers, business people and others who gathered at the Post to honor him is testament to the admiration and respect with which Raspberry is held, said Woodson.
Native Washingtonian and local attorney Fred Cooke, Jr., characterized Raspberry as "a wonderful, wonderful guy."
"He's very committed and very integrated into the fabric of the city," said Cooke, 65. "He's a wonderful human being and a great teacher without being pedantic. You'd be hard-pressed to meet anyone who has anything bad to say about him. I wouldn't have missed this."
Guests watched a video that detailed the mélange of assistance offered by the BabySteps program that Raspberry established in 2003. Several speakers noted that the program reflected Raspberry's lifelong belief in the redemptive and restorative power of education.
Proceeds from the roast will benefit BabySteps, the non-profit which is located in Raspberry's hometown of Okolona, Miss., for preschoolers. The organization teaches parents how to prepare their children for success in school and life especially when positive role models are not a factor in their lives. Most parents in the program are low-income earners with children under the age of six.
Raspberry once described BabySteps as "my attempt to help give another generation of young people the thing that worked so well for me – a belief in the magic of education."
Raspberry family friend Mary Malgoire agreed.
"BabySteps is an example of how people can change a small part of the world," she said.