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Gwen’s Take: Bill Raspberry, 1935-2012

I wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears when I arrived at The Washington Post in 1984, but it was close.

There was a wall of glass offices on the north side of the newsroom. When I was not laboring away in a suburban news bureau miles away, I could look across a sea of desks and cubicles and spy the likes of Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee, David Broder — and Bill Raspberry.

It was quite intimidating in its way. No one was unfriendly, and as the years passed, all were quite great. But Raspberry was the one who made it his business to keep an eye out for the young, black reporters who could otherwise get lost in the rush of an important, big-city newsroom.

Bill died last week, and was sent off Wednesday with great fanfare at a hymn-filled funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral that featured two Episcopal bishops and a half-dozen more priests.

In many ways, the service was pure Bill. His children told charming stories. His eldest daughter Patricia recounted how her father persuaded his kids that he could change the color of the moon.

But what I will always remember is how dedicated he was to the craft of telling untold stories. He often did this by channeling his columns through the voice of an anonymous cab driver who held forth on the issues of the day.

So it was fitting that at the funeral, Bill’s old friend Vernon Jordan started off his tribute by asking, “So, who was this guy, the cabbie asked?”

Bill was, according to his friend and fellow columnist Dorothy Gilliam, someone who “learned how to think, write and listen.”

It’s remarkable how many aspiring journalists I encounter these days who don’t mention any of these three attributes when I ask them why they want to do what I do.

“Bill loved this city, this nation,” offered Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde. And Bill held people and places he loved to a high standard.

Bill’s son Mark captured the mood of the occasion when he said his Dad spent his life and career “looking at things, and perhaps, seeing what others had missed.”

Journalists miss a lot. But Bill was a small-town southern boy at heart, and when it came time to give back, Bill created a program in his hometown of Okolona, Mississippi to teach parents how to launch disadvantaged young children into the world. These were the people, the stories, that others missed, and Bill was determined to do something about that.

Those of us lucky enough to work with Raspberry (and mostly, he was called by his last name) knew what it was to be the thing that others missed. With humor and affection, he kept an eye out for young journalists, and held us to a higher standard as well.

This really mattered to black journalists like me. The news business can be a heady and overwhelming place, especially when you’re starting out. Raspberry set the standard, hit the mark and pushed the rest of us to do the same.

And then he invariably let loose with a laugh so loud and boisterous that we all laughed right along. That was the best part.

Rest in peace, friend.

Bill’s family requests that contributions be made to the CREATE Foundation/Baby Steps, c/o CREATE Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 1053, Tupelo, MS 38802.

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