By John P. Flannery
When word got around that Russell Baker, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing, for commentary and then biography, was going to speak at St James Church in Lovettsville, neighbors reached for their book shelf copies of “Growing Up,” Baker’s memoir, hoping to get his autograph and to hear from the man who wrote how three strong women helped him “amount to something.”
Charles Kaiser, an author, former New York Times reporter, Wall St. Journal columnist, and close friend, said of Russell, “he’s a national treasure.”
Tom Bullock, President of the Lovettsville Historical Society, said he wished “the media today would allow people to be creative and write a good and thorough story.”
After serving as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Russell joined the Washington Bureau of the New York Times to cover Washington, the White House and presidential politics. His by-line appeared over more than 4,000 “Observer” columns (three a week for the New York Times) with his signature brand of humor (one collection of columns is titled, “No Cause for Panic.”) Russell wrote marvelous “treatments” of noteworthy books (for the New York Review of Books) (refusing to say they were “reviews” — as he thought it unseemly to dispose critically of an author’s long hard work at writing in a 4,000-word review) ( “Looking Back – Heroes, Rascals, and Other Icons of the American Imagination,” contains several of his outstanding “reviews”). Not to be outdone by Benjamin Franklin, there is a “Poor Russell’s Almanac” with many marvelous observations such as, “The dirty work at political conventions is almost always done in the grim hours between midnight and dawn. Hangmen and politicians work best when the human spirit is at its lowest ebb.”
A close friend, Art Buchwald, wrote a tongue-in-cheek blurb for one of Russell’s books: “I refuse to say a nice thing about Russ Baker. I have no intention of helping him get ahead in this world.”
Baker once described Murray Kempton as a “writer” and “not a plain reporter,” and a “man learned in history, acrobatic in grammar, skilled in irony and willing to use it” and able to “laugh at the pretensions of his own trade.” Baker could have been writing about himself although Kaiser said, “the difference is you always knew what Baker meant.”
Russell got to comment on British mores as the host of Masterpiece Theater (succeeding Alistair Cook); he confesses, however, that he thought some friend was playing a joke when he was first invited to take on the assignment.
The golden thread weaving through what Russell has said and done is an elegant and honest telling of the stories that make a life.
In his memoir, “Growing Up,” Russell describes how his mother was after him to decide what he’d become.
When he was 11, he showed her a composition he’d written and she said, “maybe you could be a writer?”
Russell recalled: “I clasped the idea to my heart. I had never met a writer, had shown no previous urge to write, and hadn’t a notion how to become a writer, but I loved stories and thought that making up stories must surely be almost as much fun as reading them. Best of all, though, and what really gladdened my heart, was the ease of the writer’s life. Writers did not have to trudge through the town peddling from canvas bags, defending themselves against angry dogs, being rejected by surly strangers. Writers did not have to ring doorbells. So far as I could make out, what writers did couldn’t even be classified as work.”
Ed Spannaus, the Secretary of the Lovettsville Historical Society, introduced Russell to the 150 people at St. James Church. Russell explained how, when he left Morrisonville for Lovettsville, “it was like going to Washington, DC.” When a cloud of dust was spotted, you could hear the screen doors slamming, he said, everyone gawking, to see the passing car. There was no electricity. No running water. You went to sleep when it was dark. You arose when it was light.
Russell read from his writings in a soft, clear voice, standing upright, tall, his hair falling light on his forehead, his arms on either side of the rostrum, animated, not so much reading it seemed as talking while remembering fresh once again, like it was yesterday, what it had been like to live a few miles south of Lovettsville when his mother insisted he had to make something of himself.
He signed copies of his memoirs after his talk.
You just know his mother always knew Russell would make something of himself.