Syd Schanberg: Gone, But Still Filing His Stories

He was always "Syd" for those of us who knew him and worked for him at the New York Times.

Other than the editors who applied the celebrated institutional byline Sydney H. Schanberg to his dispatches, I can't recall anyone referring to him as "Sydney." Except perhaps the late Gloria Emerson, his equally celebrated Times colleague and contemporary, who'd exclaim, "O Sydney, Sydney, Sydney" when they both covered the Vietnam War. Gloria always had her journalistic adrenalin pumped high; Syd was an emollient for her. Notwithstanding his own high-energy personality, and his endless ambition, Syd had a gift for calming - and for charming - people.

I had read Syd's dispatches for the paper from India; from the front lines of the war between India and Pakistan in 1971 that transformed the former East Pakistan into Bangladesh; and later, of course, from Southeast Asia. I knew of Syd well before I met him after his hero's return to the Times' cavernous and messy newsroom on West 43rd Street in Manhattan to become metropolitan editor.

His deep love for India was evident from those dispatches, even in the articles that were critical of political corruption and of misgovernance, especially during the rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Syd told me that in later years, whenever he visited Asia and his flight took him over India, he always felt a strange, soothing spirit course through his body.

Syd's courage was displayed in his coverage of Pol Pot's brutal takeover of Cambodia: Times editors implored him to leave that country, but Syd, along with his trusted assistant Dith Pran, stayed behind to bear witness. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage, an award that should have been given to him earlier for his dispatches about the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Hollywood made an acclaimed film about Syd, "The Killing Fields." Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian physician playing the role of Dith Pran, won an Oscar. But Sam Waterston, as Syd Schanberg, should have won one, too.

Syd died early Saturday of a massive heart attack. After he came back to New York, I worked under him when he was metropolitan editor at the New York Times. He always looked out for me, and was both a mentor and friend to many young reporters. Great man, great career, great legacy.

As I write this, it occurs to me that all the heroes of my journalistic generation are gone.

They included: Abe Rosenthal, Arthur Gelb and Lou Silverstein of the Times; James W. Michaels of Forbes; Jack Freeman of NBC and The Earth Times, an environmental newspaper that the late Theodore W. Kheel, the labor negotiator, and I founded in 1991 in anticipation of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, more widely known as "The Earth Summit," that was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. I ran that not-for-profit newspaper for a dozen years until the onerous task of raising funds simply wore me out, and, out of sheer mental and physical fatigue, I fled journalism to embrace book writing.

Not one of my journalistic heroes is around now: I'm looking at a void that can never be filled. At 68, an age when I should be retired, but am forced to continue working, I've been delivering too many eulogies at too many funerals. In morbid moments, I wonder what my own funeral will be like, who will turn up, and what they will say.

So thank you, Syd, for everything you taught me in journalism; and thank you for showing us all what courage is all about.

Syd never bragged about his courage; he didn't need to - his foreign correspondence exemplified that quality. Syd never wore his ambition on his sleeve; he didn't need to because only a driven man could have produced his kind of reporting. Syd never boasted about his resourcefulness; he didn't need to because the difficult places he slid into, often under the official radar, are testimony to his ability to get to any place at any time in the cause of journalism.

His journalism was deeply reported. Yes, it was emotional because the suffering he saw often shook him. Yes, it was sometimes far too full of details because Syd had a hard time editing himself. Yes, Syd prided himself on his liberal views. But they did not color nor distort his writing.

Syd's journalism was always engaging and readable for audiences everywhere.

Syd, as patriotic an American as anyone, was not a flag waver. He was distrustful of self-styled "patriots" whose often-secretive actions - such as carpet-bombing Cambodia - ran contrary to the humanitarianism that they publicly espoused.

It's tempting to say that Syd's brand of journalism will be missed. Of course it will. But the apex of his creativity and enterprise was 40 years ago, and it was a very different time then.

The world has moved on since. And early Saturday morning, Syd moved on, too. I don't know where he is. But wherever that place is, he's surely taking notes and conjuring up stories from them. I can't even begin to tell you how much I look forward to reading Syd again. Perhaps one day he and I will work in the same newsroom.