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A Journalistic Mensch Lays Down His Pen

4 min read

On a corner of Seventh Avenue near Times Square some years ago, a voice behind me exclaimed, “Paul Greenberg, now there’s a mensch!”

Two men were looking together at a tabloid newspaper and discussing Greenberg’s syndicated column, which originated in Little Rock, where Greenberg has written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 1992.

Before that, for most of three decades, he wrote for the Pine Bluff Commercial.

(Mensch, by the way, was defined by “The Joys of Yiddish” author Leo Rosten as “someone to admire or emulate, someone of noble character.”)

But even a mensch can’t go on forever.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer says he’s written his last lines for public consumption, after flinging his views far and wide for decades through Tribune Media Services, Tronc and Tribune Interactive, his syndication services.

Greenberg won his Pulitzer for the Commercial in 1969. The prize came with $1,000, no mean sum 50 years ago.

Other winners that year included William Tuohey for his coverage of the Vietnam War and Norman Mailer, who took the general nonfiction prize for “The Armies of the Night.”

Greenberg coined the nickname “Slick Willie” for former President Bill Clinton back when the man from Hope was a young governor, not yet a blip on the presidential radar. Slick Willy’s was a onetime watering hole at Union Station in Little Rock, but the name referred to what Greenberg saw as flaws under Clinton’s glossy packaging.

All those things about my old colleague — Greenberg and I worked together at the Democrat-Gazette a quarter-century ago — flooded my mind Sept. 23 when Greenberg’s column on the Democrat-Gazette’s editorial page proclaimed itself to be his last.

Greenberg, 81, wrote that he longs “to be one of the shadows beyond the footlights in the great resounding auditorium called journalism.” He yearns for “the leisure of rereading real literature instead of one’s own dreary and all too debatable commentary on the transient news of the day.”

And I understand that inclination perfectly.

Greenberg has been onstage, to extend his metaphor, in Arkansas journalism since joining the Commercial in 1962. (That’s the year I was born.) He took the job after studies at Centenary College in his native Shreveport, bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Missouri and then more postgraduate work at Columbia University.

Except for parts of 1966-67, when he wrote editorials for the Chicago Daily News, he has plied his inky trade from Arkansas, writing with incisive vigor and a literary air. Like or dislike his conservative side, he wrote and argued well.

Now that long career has ended, but the highlights were high indeed: Pulitzer finalist recognition in 1978 and 1986, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 1981 Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary, the University of Missouri School of Journalism Medal of Honor, and awards named for H.L. Mencken and William Allen White, both gentlemen who had a way with opinion writing.

Wait a minute, you say? Hasn’t Greenberg threatened to lay down his pen before?

Sure, but Democrat-Gazette editorial page chief David Barham tells Arkansas Business he means it this time. “Yes, he really is retiring,” Barham said in a Sept. 26 email, adding that the paper was discussing what might take up Greenberg’s customary space on Wednesdays. Greenberg stepped down as editorial page editor in July 2015.

I reached out by email and got a reply from his wife, Sarah Brooke Greenberg, who said some of her husband’s classic columns “will run now and again in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.”

The last column (“I Promise!” Greenberg pledged in the headline) also mused on mortality.

“Old age can be a blessing if taken easily instead of rushing into it. And for all we know, death itself may be an even greater blessing,” Greenberg wrote. “The angel of death can be more than welcome when he brings welcome relief, like sleep at the end of a busy day.”

Those lines led me to ask about his health. “Paul says he was just being philosophical,” Brooke Greenberg said.

So did he have any farewell thoughts beyond what he wrote in the column? Brooke Greenberg relayed a response. “I’ve seldom known him to give away copy, Kyle.”

Now there’s a mensch.

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