Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ode to Dan Barry

My remarks introducing author, New York Times staff writer, and Pulitzer winner and twice Pulitzer finalist Dan Barry as he was about to receive the sixth-annual Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square April 23, 2018, in Newport, Rhode Island. Past winners were

Dan's eloquent address in accepting the honor can be read here.

Me, Dan and Jim Ludes/Photo by Erin Demers

Good evening. I join Jim in welcoming everyone here on this beautiful spring evening. I am especially delighted that so many members of The Providence Journal family, past and present, are present.

I don’t remember when I first met Dan Barry.

It probably was in December 1987, when he arrived at The Journal, latest in a parade of reporters who came to Rhode Island hoping to write their way into distinction. It would have been in our old newsroom. I covered mental health and social services, and still do.

As a young but already senior staff writer by virtue of that beat, I would have introduced myself, exchanged small talk, and offered to help Dan however I could, as is my custom with all newcomers. And that likely was it. We had lots of new writers back then, a new one every month or two, or so it seemed. I had plenty of work, by day at the projo and by night at home writing fiction and caring for my two young daughters. I had no crying need of new friends, or one more writer brother. This was before the online world as we know it today, and our paper was thick with stories by an enormous staff spread around a downtown headquarters and a dozen bureaus. I would read a Dan Barry story if it caught my eye.

Which was almost immediately. When his work began to appear, it was evident that this tall, lanky guy from Long Island who loved baseball and possessed wonderful Irish wit had the gift.

You don’t pull many choice assignments your first weeks on the job – but whether he was writing a cop short or a weather story, Dan’s prose mesmerized with its poetic elegance, elevating the ordinary into the must-read. And when he got the chance to tackle bigger topics and more interesting people, as he soon did, he had no equal. Outside of fiction and a few journalists at a few papers and magazines, you rarely saw anything like it anywhere.

I can still picture Dan in that cavernous old newsroom, his sleeves rolled, his tie loose, conversing with editors Joel Rawson and Tom Heslin, who is here tonight, as he advanced to the head of the class -- and it was a distinguished class, as The Journal's many writing awards confirmed.

Being of Irish descent myself – like a lot of other people in this room tonight – I have come to believe that some things can only be explained by magic. I now understand that Dan’s way with words -- the power of his prose; his voice, unlike any other -- was magic of the highest literary order.

On deadline or with the developed piece, there was nothing Dan could not spin into gold. Sports. Crime. Business. Politics. Profile. Essay. You get the idea. I spent some time recently going through our archives, just to be sure my memory was true that there was no genre Dan did not own, and I can reliably report there was none.

When Dan left for The New York Times in the summer of 1995, he already had earned national recognition, including for his central role in The Journal’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Even in that hallowed genre, Dan had the touch.

So there was little doubt that he would further distinguish himself at The Times -- but to what extent, I bet not even those who hired him could have imagined.

Leaving Rhode Island, Dan needed no Hogwarts, if you’ll pardon the cheap metaphor, but in New York he got even better, until he had joined the ranks of such masters of creative non-fiction as John McPhee and Susan Orlean. With his This Land series, he travelled to all 50 states, bringing back stories of places and people that were at once unique and yet also spoke to the universal bonds we share.

He has written about past lives, present lives, and the afterlife. With his rare ability to connect to people – most of them strangers when he knocks at their door – he has put flesh and blood on the cruel statistics of racial and social injustice and disparity, and on the challenges faced by the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. He has illuminated what is sometimes called man's inhumanity to man.

At a time of national division, of hatred and anger loose in the land, he has brought us stories of inspiration, of people who are sometimes called the salt of the earth. People we can admire and hold as heroes.

And wherever he has cast his spell, he has always produced treasure: a great and unforgettable story, built on the bones of truth.

He has, in other words, become the very definition of a public storyteller, which is why we honor him tonight.

We honor him not only for his journalism, but also for his books, most recently the extraordinary "The Boys in the Bunkhouse” -- and for his storytelling in the podcast hit Crimetown, with Marc Smerling, also with us this evening.

And in honoring Dan, we note that this prize is but the most recent in a list of honors that since joining The Times includes twice being named a Pulitzer finalist, and the bestowing of an honorary degree two years ago at his alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, which like Salve is another great Catholic school.

And so, it is our distinct honor to present him this award “for distinguished storytelling that has enriched the public dialogue.” Ladies and gentlemen, the 2018 Pell Center Prize Winner for Story in the Public Square, Dan Barry.

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