During 30 years at the Chicago Tribune, de Lama opened three bureaus in Latin America and rose through the ranks from reporter to foreign correspondent to managing editor for news
Looking back on my Nieman year, I see a kaleidoscope of memorable moments, vivid visual images coming together and dissolving, then taking shape again. The warm flush of anticipation at our gala opening reception bleeds into our rapid-fire introductions to the other Fellows, the hair-raising stories of unspeakable courage under fire of our colleagues from Colombia, Liberia and other troubled lands. Memories of class Soundings morph seamlessly into the twice-weekly sessions with our celebrity visitors. Then the usual Nieman smorgasbord of classes: from military history to comparative religion, international negotiation to Chinese society, history of jazz to the life of Michelangelo and Roman art and culture.
They blur together now, but one moment ties together all the rest: a conversation over a sandwich with Bill Kovach.
Bill took each fellow to lunch during the course of the year, and I remember mine clearly. He spoke candidly about his career, the state of the business, his view of the future. We talked about our common origins as the sons of immigrants, our mothers’ passion for education. We discovered we shared an eternal debt to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which provided both of us a second home growing up, worlds and decades apart, in Tennessee and Chicago.
At one point, Bill remarked approvingly that I seemed to be using my Nieman year to follow my interests in many different directions. That would all be helpful later, he said. All of it would come into play someday, even if I couldn’t see it then. Afterwards, a vague feeling that had been building inside me came into focus: Everything is connected. Everything I had been learning and thinking about all year, however specialized, was in some way an interconnected part of how the world works. To see the whole clearly, I really needed to understand the hidden interplay among those parts.
It seems obvious now, even banal, perhaps. But before then, I came to realize, I had approached most of my story subjects in a fairly straightforward, compartmentalized way—topic by topic, as if each stood alone. As a reporter and correspondent, I had tried to frame my stories contextually and enrich them with telling detail. Yet I hadn’t opened my mind, not really, to the powerful possibilities inherent in stepping back and taking a wider view to connect the dots, especially the ones not readily visible on the horizon.
From that moment, this core realization went on to inform my work as a writer and editor. Later it helped guide my transition to the worlds of international development and more recently, digital media and online education. At one time or another since my Nieman year, I’ve dealt professionally with virtually every subject I studied at Harvard, and so many more. Everything is connected, much more than I imagined. For me, that is a precious gift from my year in Cambridge, and from Bill Kovach.