Remembering a Times Columnist Who Left a Lasting Impression
It was 1984. My first wife had passed away in December of 1983 and I was left a widower with three little boys. I was fortunate to still be working on a steady basis with The New York Times doing illustration for the Week-In-Review and other sections. Busy and moving, but also really lost despite my determination to keep the family ship sailing, and incredibly unaware of all the mistakes, some minor, some major, I was set to make in the many years ahead.
For years I belonged to a book-of-the-month club and one of my paid selections was Russell Baker’s Growing Up. I was a huge devotee of his columns for the New York Times and had even illustrated some of them for the Sunday features in the magazine (if I remember correctly). Anyway, “Growing Up” turned out to be an excellent choice, a wonderful, humorous, arresting yet gentle memoir of growing up poor in Depression-era America, without a father who had died when Russell was five. It elegantly narrated the ramifications that loss had on him growing into an adult, ever seeking a father figure in his own life. James Reston turned out to be one. When I read the book, I never would have imagined that my eldest son would also be a kid of five, left without a parent.
Anyway, I was at the Times either bringing in some sketches or a finish. While waiting for editors to make decisions, I took a walk upstairs. It was the floor (the 10th or the 13th/14th floor?) with great-looking offices where editors made decisions and columnists put their thoughts and observations to the typewriter. I’d been up there once before and had noted that Russell Baker worked in one of those wonderful wood-filled rooms. My memory directed me to the area where I remembered once crossing his office and found it.
He had a receptionist/secretary sitting in front of his office behind her own desk. My eyes detected that he was indeed inside and so I walked over and introduced myself. I still have no idea what possessed me to even do it, but I wondered out loud if Mr. Baker had a few moments to spare for a conversation. I probably mentioned Growing Up, being an illustrator for the Times, and being recently widowed.
Russell was sitting quietly, and, obvious from my vantage point, he was listening as his eyes betrayed attention under heavy lids to the conversation outside. The receptionist, a middle-aged woman, was a pro and probably ready to tell me Mr. Baker was too busy. But Russell, within her eyesight, raised an arm and waved me in. He had me sit down. I introduced myself and told of my current situation as well as how much I enjoyed his book. Then, clumsily, I asked if he had any insights into what I could expect regarding my own sons. His face seemed remarkably gentle and expressed a sad compassion. He leaned back in his chair, his eyes drifting to the ceiling. He lit a cigarette (in the days when cigarette smoking was still commonplace), as one arm reached behind his head, while the other held the nail.
It gets hazy at that point. Baker mentioned that it would probably be a lifelong search, that it wouldn’t be easy, and pretty sure he qualified anything he said by declaiming in a self-effacing way any authority other than his own experience. I must admit I don’t remember the specifics of Russell’s observations, and even if I did it probably wouldn’t matter. It was the time he took, the compassion, the acknowledgement of my circumstances, and that special dim, dream-like light in his office while we talked, that remains in my heart and soul since.
I thanked him, he wished me well, and I left to return downstairs. I turned one last time and saw him looking off, still leaning back drawing on his cigarette. It’s remarkable how some memories impress so deep within us that they will remain till the day we die. Seeing Baker’s obituary deeply saddened me. Ninety-three is a pretty good run for someone who spent many years as a heavy smoker. The columns he wrote for the New York Review of Books were always special. A gentleman in the truest sense. Bless him.
I did a memory drawing this afternoon of him in that meeting. There’s a video in the Times obit and when I watched it I thought, yes, that’s how he leaned back. Except he’d be holding a cigarette.