Dad was a blue-collar worker who spent hot summer afternoons in a sweltering New Jersey factory without air conditioning making car tires by day. At night, after coaching my brother’s Little League team, he drove to pick up my mother who also worked in a factory as a part-time keypunch operator. Sometimes I’d get to go with him for the drive. On the way, Dad would stop at a street corner, crank open his car window and toss out some coins to a man hawking the first edition of The New York Daily News. The paper landed on my lap, still warm with ink hot off the printing press. Besides the lively sports section, I’d always turn to
columnist Jimmy Breslin with his riveting stories from the streets of New York City and the colorful people who inhabited them.
Breslin, along with his fellow columnist Pete Hamill, were my early writing inspirations. Breslin was a champion of the little guy; the regular Joe who worked hard, loved his family and sometimes got a bad break in life. Little did I know decades later Breslin would inspire one of my best teaching tools to all the journalists I’ve trained: Go to the Gravedigger.
With his passing this past Sunday, March 19th, 2017, media outlets pulled out what is called not only Breslin’s best column, but perhaps the greatest newspaper column ever written: “It’s An Honor.” It’s the story of Clifton Pollard, a $3.01 dollar-an-hour gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery who was tasked to dig the grave for assassinated President John F. Kennedy that November day in 1963.
As an editor, this situation comes up often. A reporter is assigned to cover a big news rally, speech or event. Dozens of important people will be there from the governor to the mayor to other dignitaries. The reporter will invariably ask me: “Who should I talk to?” My reply is always: “Talk to the Gravedigger.”
This, of course, draws a confused look from the reporter. I then tell them about the great Jimmy Breslin and how he could have interviewed anyone after Kennedy was assassinated from fellow politicians to heads of state. But Breslin chose the humble man. The unknown, ordinary person. The gravedigger. The man who in his lowly job of digging dirt to bury dead people was so honored to be doing it for a murdered president. I tell the reporters we already know what the politicians will say. We hear way too much from them. Give someone else a voice. Let’s hear what the regular person has to say and why they are there. Their stories typically turn out to be interesting, just like Clifton Pollard’s, because of the different perspective we hadn’t heard before. I then give the reporter “It’s An Honor” to read and they are transfixed by Breslin’s writing like so many others before them.
One of my young reporters recently moved on to a new career in law enforcement. He wrote a very nice post thanking me for mentoring him and learning from me. Andrew ended his note with a wink, writing: “Go to the Gravedigger.”
More than 50 years later and 3,000 miles away in California, Jimmy Breslin and his “It’s An Honor” legacy lives on.