One of the best and the brightest

David Halberstam dies on way to meet with Y.A. Tittle to talk about football

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam was killed Monday doing what he had done for more than four decades: chasing down a great story.

Halberstam, 73, died in a car wreck just a few miles away from a long-sought interview for a book he was planning about a legendary 1958 football game. Driving the author was a UC Berkeley journalism graduate student drawn by the chance to spend time alone with a living legend.

Menlo Park police are still probing the cause of the fiery three-car accident that injured two others. Halberstam, of New York, was in the front passenger seat of a car that was broadsided as it was making a left turn off the westbound Bayfront Expressway, which connects to the Dumbarton Bridge, onto Willow Road about 10:35 a.m., authorities said.

The car in which Halberstam was riding, an older-model Toyota Camry, was hit by a late-model Infiniti. When paramedics and fire crews arrived, they found Halberstam unresponsive and trapped in his seat, said Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire District.

The engine compartment was on fire, and the passenger side of the car had been crushed, Schapelhouman said.

A rescue crew member was able to pull Halberstam from the car while another doused the flames, the chief said. The author had no pulse and was not breathing when he was freed, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, Schapelhouman said. Halberstam was pronounced dead at the scene.

The author appears to have died of massive blunt-force trauma, but an autopsy scheduled for today should confirm the cause of death, said Kristine Gamble, senior deputy coroner for San Mateo County.

Police declined to say who may have been at fault in the crash. Cars turning left at the intersection onto Willow Road may proceed only when they have a green arrow.

The Infiniti driver suffered minor injuries, and the driver of a Nissan coupe that apparently was hit by one of the other cars was unhurt, authorities said.

The Berkeley graduate student driving the Camry, Kevin Jones, suffered a punctured lung and was taken to Stanford Hospital.

“It’s just a really hard time for him. He’s feeling really sad and freaked out,” his wife, Lily Jones, said by telephone from the hospital’s emergency room. “It’s just a very traumatizing thing to have gone through.”

She said she had not discussed the accident with him in detail.

Halberstam was in the Bay Area to deliver a speech at UC Berkeley about what it means to turn reporting into a work of history, said Orville Schell, dean at Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism.

Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 at age 30 for his reporting from Vietnam. He later turned to long-form writing and wrote 21 books, including “The Best and the Brightest,” about how the United States became involved in Vietnam. His other works covered a wide range of subjects, including civil rights, sports and the auto industry.

But Halberstam’s own journalistic career was anything but history, said John Eckhouse, a member of the journalism school’s alumni board, which arranged the event this past Saturday.

“He had just finished the galleys on Thursday for his latest book, on the Korean War,” Eckhouse said. “He spent Saturday in his room at the faculty club. He said if he could come over to our (afternoon) event he would, but he had some editing to do, some writing to do.”

Halberstam’s Saturday evening speech was a rousing success, Schell said, with a packed house of journalists and members of the public.

“He was speaking about the need for passion to be a journalist, and the importance of it to the whole healthy functioning of the American political experiment,” Schell said. “I think those two things were what made him something of an evangelist to the role of the journalist in our society.”

Afterward, Schell said, he and Halberstam dined at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, talking late into the night about the parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Over the years, Halberstam had developed a habit of alternating weighty historical books with sports books, and he planned to follow up his Korean War book with a work about the 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, often called football’s greatest game.

The game, won by the Colts in overtime, is widely regarded as having contributed to pro football’s modern popularity.

In his typically careful preparation, Eckhouse said, Halberstam had tracked down former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who did not play in the championship but who had played the Colts two weeks before. Halberstam hoped to gain insights into the play of Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas.

To get to the interview, Schell said, Halberstam approached the journalism school’s students, seeking a driver and offering unique compensation, as described in an e-mail from the school to the students: “He said he’ll give you a private seminar on the way back. Details are vague, but this could be a really cool opportunity.”

Kevin Jones, a student whose resume already included awards from stints as a freelancer and at several small publications, had seized on that chance to have some face time with a journalistic icon, his wife said.

“He just wanted to get a chance to talk to somebody that he thought was interesting,” Lily Jones said. “He doesn’t have class on Mondays, and he thought this would be great opportunity.”

Tittle said he was in his Mountain View insurance office waiting at 11 a.m., when he expected Halberstam would arrive. At 12:30, he said, his secretary came in and said he might as well go to lunch.

“I thought maybe something had come up with his family,” a shocked Tittle said Monday evening. “He was only 2 miles away, 3 miles away.”

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This article appeared on page A – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

YOu can read more about David Halberstam in this Poynter Institute memorial

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