What An Opportunity

Lunch with a Pulitzer Prize winner

In Life on October 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm

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John Pope owns 400 bow ties.

His exceptional tie – it’s his lucky one – was the first thing to catch my eye when I met Pope on Thursday, but his quirky affinity for the accessory was far from the only thing I wound up learning about him, and about life, that day.

I am thankful to have had a unique opportunity – Pope, an integral part of the New Orleans Times-Picayune team that won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, visited my school, the University at Buffalo. He spoke on Thursday to a lecture hall of students and on Friday to the editorial board of The Spectrum, the school’s student newspaper, about the changing times in journalism.

It was a great two days.

An acclaimed English professor at my school, Dr. Barbara Bono, planned and organized Pope’s trip. She arranged for him and I to have lunch together Thursday. We spent an hour and a half talking about journalism – a conversation between an accomplished, seasoned vet in the industry and a young gun not quite sure what he’s getting into – and his life trajectory.

I learned a lot from the bow-tie-loving man who won the Pulitzer, the most esteemed prize in journalism.

He sports a black wristband that reads, “IGBOK.” I asked what it meant. He said, “it’s gonna be OK,” and then explained how the motto has helped him stay at peace throughout the past year; his wife died one year ago. The pain in his voice when he talks about her is clear, and he does so frequently. The wristband keeps him calm. It puts things in perspective.

I immediately felt a connection with Pope after he shared that emotional detail. The conversation flowed.

As I mentioned, Pope was at UB to talk about the changing times in journalism. He is approaching 65 years old, and he has worked in the industry since he was 22. He is no curmudgeon, though; he is adapting with the times, tweeting and working on videos like a 20-something. “I have no choice,” he explained, saying he can’t fight what is happening in journalism so he might as well embrace it. IGBOK, right? He likes the many young folks who have infiltrated his newsroom, and they like him. They’re learning from each other.

He offers young journalists some rudimentary advice – “think before pushing send.” In other words, don’t fire off a tweet or status or email without putting significant thought into it. He explained how one mistake online can ruin a career or just make your life a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Avoiding this quandary is simple: Just think.

He was gracious in talking about covering the hurricane even though he admitted he has done so countless times. He said the night before the storm hit, there was a small get-together in his newsroom. The reporters were enjoying wine and snacks. They were talking about coffee makers. It was an enjoyable evening.

The storm hit around 5 a.m., and his life was never the same. Weather forecasters had indicated the storm would not be that big of a deal; the newsroom thought it would all be over by 2:30 p.m. They soon realized just how big of a deal Hurricane Katrina was. “Waves of anger and fear were palpable in the newsroom,” Pope said.

He slept under a desk that first night, then the staff evacuated into delivery trucks. He bought a house in Baton Rouge – seriously – for all the journalists who had been forced out of their homes. Eight or nine stayed in that house every night for six weeks.

It still hurts him to think back on the storm, though he has traveled across the country speaking on “the stress of covering stress.” He first spoke on the topic at Harvard; he broke down three times during his address. Pope received a standing ovation at its conclusion.

The Times-Picayune’s coverage received so much attention because it was meticulous and trustworthy. Pope sorted through the rumors and only reported what was true (as a local medical reporter, he had a network of sources), unlike many other outlets that had traveled in to cover the disaster.

“I compare what I did to the man in the circus who cleans up after elephants,” he said between bites of a salad. (When I asked where he wanted to eat, he excitedly said, “somewhere healthful.”)

Pope also got emotional, even teary-eyed, describing the New Orleans Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl win and what that event meant to the city. It meant, in many ways, New Orleans had made it back; it had faced a disaster and had finally overcome it. He blogged from bars around the city that night and eventually covered the championship parade. His only regret from that day, such a beautiful day, is working so hard that he missed the Ying Yang Twins’ rendition of “Stand Up And Get Crunk,” an anthem in the city.

In all, I truly enjoyed my time with John Pope. He’s an incredibly articulate, successful and educated man, but he had no problem sitting down with a college kid for an extended period and simply talking about life. He said his favorite part of his job is spending time with people who make him think.

That’s mine, too.

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