The new class of Nieman Fellows arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1964 with more than the customary apprehension. Confronting formidable Harvard was intimidating enough, but we would have to face our challenge without the guidance of the legendary Louis Lyons, the irascible but beloved old icon who had been Curator almost since the Nieman program’s inception in 1938.
We were the last class to be chosen under Louie’s stewardship. None of us had even met the new Curator, but the name alone—Dwight Emerson Sargent—seemed to suggest stuffy Old Yankee rectitude. On top of that, he had just relinquished the editorship of the editorial page of The New York Herald-Tribune, the embodiment of traditional Republicanism. And, indeed, as Dwight invited us, one by one, for get-acquainted sessions in his cramped office on the second floor of the little yellow house at 77 Dunster Street, these impressions were pretty well borne out. That is, until he deadpanned the story of the time when someone, around the turn of the century, called on the telephone asking to speak to the Harvard president.
“I’m sorry,” the secretary primly told the caller, “but the president is in Washington, conferring with Mr. Taft.”
The story was entirely Dwight’s invention, but the wry humor alerted us that here was a guy who could both celebrate Harvard’s tradition and poke fun at its pomposity in the same breath.
We soon began to notice that Dwight was away a lot that year. Not that he shirked his job. Having been a Nieman Fellow himself (class of ’51) he knew how to organize lively seminars, and occasionally he would invite some of us for long, convivial lunches at Locke-Ober’s, his favorite Boston restaurant. But he also spent a lot of time on the road. The truth was, the Nieman program was about to run out of money, as that year’s smallest-ever class could painfully attest as we struggled to pay the rent on a stipend of $400 a month. Dwight was out hounding publishers and foundations to cough up some money. If the average penurious publisher of that day had been reading the angry tirades on the deficiencies of journalism that Louie Lyons was publishing in Nieman Reports, he probably would not have allowed his reporters to go to Harvard at all, let alone contributed money to the program. But Dwight was very good at that sort of grubby detail, and our class members especially came to appreciate his talents when, as the year drew to a close, he managed to give us an extra month’s stipend to get us back home.
Over the next eight years he raised $1.2 million—real money in those days—and then he moved on to other endeavors. After serving briefly as president of the Freedom of Information Foundation at the University of Missouri, he came back home to New England as editorial page editor at The Boston Herald American.
While he was there, he called me one day to ask me if I would draw upon my expertise as an old Georgia farm boy to write a piece for his op-ed page in defense of grits—grits being the culinary oddity of the Southern diet. At first I thought he’d taken leave of his senses, but then he went on that he had already enlisted Virginius Dabney, the erudite editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to write the case “against” grits. The challenge was irresistible, and the enterprise turned out to be a delightful respite from the rigors of excessively solemn journalism.
After the Boston stint, Dwight went into the coasting mode in 1978 as the national editorial writer for Hearst Newspapers, operating mainly out of his home in suburban Pelham, New York. But wherever he was, he continued to—in the words of the Nieman bequest—“elevate the standards of journalism” by giving speeches and seminars on editorial writing. He always had something pithy and practical to say. To cite but one of his admonitions: “Dullness is the black beast of editorial writing.” And there were other quiet accomplishments, among them being the creation of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award given by his undergraduate alma mater, Colby College in Maine. The award memorializes an authentic martyr of American journalism—a New England editor who was lynched for writing abolitionist editorials in the 19th century.
But those first impressions, formed back in ’64, of implacable Yankee reserve endured, and this included maintaining a guarded zone of personal privacy. Until I read his obituary, I didn’t know he was an elder in the Huguenot Church. In fact, I didn’t even know that intrepid band of religious dissidents still existed. Somehow, I wasn’t altogether surprised that Dwight was carrying on the tradition.
Ray Jenkins, a 1965 Nieman Fellow, has been retired for 10 years. He had been editor of the editorial page of The Evening Sun, Baltimore.