On Sunday, a few hundred of Richard Ben Cramer’s friends, family, colleagues, and admirers gathered for a memorial service at Washington College’s Gibson Center for the Performing Arts in Chestertown. The acclaimed writer/journalist, who passed away January 7, had said he didn’t want a somber gathering and master of ceremonies Adam Goodheart promised an upbeat affair with “no tears or ‘Amazing Grace’ on the bagpipes.”
The service began with a recording of Cramer, with that fine-grade sandpaper voice, talking about Sunday school, where he learned mostly about “tyrants trying to do in the Jews. But then God showed up and smote them a mighty smite and things were better until next Sunday when the Jews were in trouble again.” As a result, he said, Jewish holidays “pretty much all add up to the same thing—they tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, so let’s eat.”
That got a laugh, and then longtime friend Tom Horton spoke about working at The Sun in the 1970s with Cramer, who impressed fellow staffers with his writing and reporting skills. “He once had a guy lower him down a non-working elevator shaft next to the wall where a closed session, judicial meeting was being held,” recalled Horton. “He tape recorded the whole thing and wrote about it as if he were sitting in the room. They never figured that one out.”
That got another laugh.
New York Times political columnist Matt Bai followed Horton and cut straight to the heart of what made Cramer’s writing and reporting so special. “There was genius in Richard’s work, but it took no genius to understand how he managed to do it,” said Bai. “He was a genuine, caring, and compassionate person. He came to stories with a genuine sense of curiosity, intellectual curiosity. He cared, and he listened. And when people told him things, he saw larger truths in their lives.”
He noted that Cramer repeatedly talked to him about “doing the Lord’s work. I think what he meant by that didn’t have to do with journalism or politics,” said Bai. “I think, in Richard’s mind, `the Lord’s work’ was listening to people and capturing their stories in a way that’s ennobling, in a way that illuminated that little bit of heroism in all of us, whatever our struggles may be.”
Finally, Governor Martin O’Malley, who knew Cramer for 25 years, delivered a moving tribute structured like a book or story (Introduction, Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc.). It was indicative of a subtle shift in O’Malley’s speech over the past year or so, as he’s moved away from political-perfect/focus-group sound bites towards more centered and heartfelt speaking that, when he’s on his game, resonates after the applause fades.
O’Malley claimed Cramer as “the older brother I never had. He challenged me, mentored me, kicked me in the pants when I needed it, consoled me in times of loss and defeat, and cheered me on through times of grey endurance.”
O’Malley also observed that Cramer wore many hats: “There was Richard the naturalist, Richard the Country Squire of Chestertown, Richard the fellow traveler in dire need of a triple A membership, Richard the serious journalist, Richard the mystic, Richard the woodworker, and Richard the storyteller, who could wile away the night regaling dinner guests with the true life urban ethnic political adventures of the Staszak, DiPietro, Bonvegna Southeast Democratic Club.”
He then circled back to Bai’s point. “You see, Richard was a deeply principled journalist who loved the quiet truth at the heart of every great human story,” said O’Malley. “He loved the quiet human truth so much that he lacked any patience with those who chose not to hear it—those who treated such a vitally important civic responsibility as political journalism as if it were something less than civil, something less than journalism, something less than honorable.
“Richard affirmatively rejected the sort of fashionable, insider, all-so-smart, smug, know-it-all, seen-it-all political journalism. He rejected the cartoon cynicism that can freeze idealism into indifference, twist justice into cruelty, and drown righteousness in hypocrisy.”
He thanked Cramer “for telling true stories and challenging all of us to listen for them ourselves.”
By the time O’Malley finished, there was no mistaking why the State House flag flew at half-staff on Sunday.
[Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster]