Upon hearing that Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger Sr., the retired chairman of the New York Times Co., had died last Saturday at 86, a coterie of former African-American employees at the paper submitted their impressions of him to Richard Prince’s website Journal-isms.
Significantly, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, from which Prince’s Journal-isms emanates, might never have existed without Sulzberger’s help in 1974.
In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Columbia University established a training program for people of color. Reporters Earl Caldwell and Bob Maynard, of the Times and the Washington Post, respectively, were recruited to co-direct the program. However, by 1974 the program was in financial trouble.
Fred Friendly, who had created the program, told the directors that the program could be salvaged if they could raise the funds needed.
“I had high visibility,” Caldwell, currently writer-in-residence at Hampton University, told Prince. “I decided to go to Punch Sulzberger–I laid it out to him. We had only a month at the most. Sulzberger said, ‘I’d like to help you, but the New York Times couldn’t underwrite this.’”
Sulzberger told Caldwell that what he needed was something to take to foundations. “He said,” Caldwell continued, ‘I’ll give you this amount, and you can say the New York Times supports you.’ Then he said he would contact executives at Time, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal and tell them that Caldwell was coming to see them.
“There were six people, all big names” Caldwell said, “And it worked just as he said. They greeted me with open arms and couldn’t wait to tell me they were going to give us something.” Friendly was astonished, and Columbia University was shocked by the speed of the success.
Sulzberger, Caldwell said, “actually saved the summer program. He never got any credit for it. No one ever knew about it.”
Perhaps feeling the money couldn’t be raised, Columbia had already begun preparations to shutter the program, which moved to the University of California at Berkeley and eventually became the Maynard Institute of Journalism Education. And Sulzberger’s contacts continued to send money, Caldwell added. Later, when the government pressured Caldwell to reveal his sources in a story, Sulzberger backed him without equivocating.
This action and Sulzberger’s sensitivity to racial issues in general were typical of him, according to a number of other Black reporters at the paper.
“He was a genuinely decent man who had several African-Americans on his senior management team and one among the company’s board of directors,” the late Gerald M. Boyd wrote in his memoir “My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times.”
A former senior editor at the paper, Paul Delaney, had mixed feelings about Sulzberger, but was pleased that he allowed a minority lawsuit filed in 1971 (and settled nine years later) that called for hiring, promotions, training and assigning Blacks to major beats “to continue enforcing the agreement after the expiration date,” Delaney told Prince.
Other former reporters, Reginald Stuart and Gerald Fraser, shared their feelings about their former boss. “Punch had class and a real appreciation for the important role serious newspapers play in society,” Stuart recalled.
“Sulzberger,” Fraser said, “was everything they say about his being low-keyed and a gentleman. He greeted all level of employees by name. He had so much power in New York, and I never saw or heard of him using it inappropriately.”
A former editorial writer, Roger Wilkins said, “Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was a real gentleman with a powerful determination to preserve and improve the enormous gem that he inherited. You could call him ‘Punch’–a childhood family nickname, I believe–but when you brought him a tough issue, he could become a very steely gentleman who was determined to preserve and enhance that gem.
“Punch was a very good man devoted to his work and to the people who had brought into help him achieve that goal,” Wilkins added. “In all, he was one swell boss and a very good guy.”