Thursday, 9 September 2010

Irreplaceable I. F. Stone

The death of Isadore Feinstein Stone at 81 on Father’s Day triggered fond recollections of my brief contacts with him, phoning to set up the I. F. Stone Award for the Free Library’s Art Festival in 1975.

That award-dubbed the Izzie—sought to honor undergraduate journalism in his investigative tradition. A blue ribbon panel of local journalists (including Taylor Grant, Peter Binzen and Robert Lewis Shayon) picked for first prize the University of Arizona student media magazine, Pretentious Idea (the self-parodying name was the unwitting gift of the stuffy editor of an Arizona daily, who thought it was a “pretentious idea” for undergraduates to presume to judge their betters in the Arizona media). Izzie and Esther were clearly thrilled by the title’s winning winsomeness.

But with characteristic generosity when I told him we had made a special award to an Atlantic County journalism teacher who’d gotten into hot water when her class exposed fiscal hanky-panky in the audio-visual department, he turned to his wife to say “How blessed we were” to be party to the praise of such a courageous journalism teacher.

Runner-up Izzies that year went to a University of Pittsburgh student who researched a precedent-setting study of nursing home abuses in Allegheny County. It gave the pioneer a lift to see that his tradition of responsible iconoclasm was being woven into the fabric of higher education.

I has always assumed that Stone had dropped out of Penn in 1927 (since that was my birth date, I quietly adopted him as my intellectual father) because the curriculum was so boring. But when I phoned him for permission to use the term “Izzie” for our award, he was delighted by the Free Library connection because it had been such a resource for him as a young man. He then went on to discuss his Penn philosophy professor with such enthusiasm, you’d think the guy had just finished the course that year—not almost fifty years before.

It’s salutary to remember that Izzie’s prose and his nose for unraveling complexity did not derive from journalism courses, but from very rigorous traditional study. He had dropped out not from boredom, then, but from enthusiasm for the job he was already doing for local papers like the Public Ledger and the Camden Courier Post.

Penn finally caught up with its undegreed genius, awarding him an honorary bachelor’s degree that same spring, once the Vietnam controversy had simmered down sufficiently. When some witless KYW reporter asked him how he felt about finally receiving his degree, Stone gave him the zinger his question deserved: “I got out of phys ed.”

That wry sense of humor may well have been the most attractive trait of this idiosyncratic lefty. The American left has too often smothered itself in its lugubriousness. Izzie leavened his high seriousness with a delightful playfulness.

I needed that when my only other Izzie episode came a cropper in 1984. I was writing cultural commentary for the San Francisco Business Journal, and since it was the fiftieth anniversary of the general strike on the waterfront, I decided to look into that event firsthand. There was a daylong seminar on the subject at the National Maritime Union hall, and there I got a chance to talk to Harry Bridges. And I tracked down Vincent Hallinan, the holy terror of the San Francisco left, who was as expansive as he was feisty in his octogenarian retirement.

As I was putting Harry and Vincent together in my mind and typewriter, Izzie’s speaking date for the public library series was announced. “How would you like to get together with I. F. Stone?” I asked these left-leaning pillars of the San Francisco radical establishment. “Great,” they cheered. Stone was willing as well “as long as we can eat good dim sum somewhere together.”

The best dim sum I had consumed recently was trying to add up the dim sums veep candidate George Bush had been laying on the Chinatown Republicans at the Palace Restaurant. So I made plans to sit at a very different table with that most un-Republican trio.

Alas, Izzie’s schedule didn’t have a chink in it at that point. So I would never know what kind of chemistry Izzie, Vince, and Harry would have generated at the projected retirement party for three very unretiring types—three American originals.

As Studs Terkel testified truly during the “All Things Considered” obit for Izzie, “The old cliché ‘irreplaceable’ is actually true in this case.” Izzie, I think, would have found that a “pretentious idea” itself. His whole genius was in assuming that all people in a democracy were capable of governing themselves well if they put their minds to the task. The only irreplaceable thing is the example he set.

Izzie lives in the “Izzie.” And it was certainly our blessing that he and Esther put out the Weekly for seventeen illuminating years. Thanks to arguably the best independent journalist Philly has nurtured. Ever.

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