Ford Burkhart (’63) was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
The Wildcat in the 1960s jolted its reporters and bruised egos as it pointed career goals to the best newsrooms around. In short, it gave a few green kids a chance to work with Sherman R. Miller of The New York Times and to grow up fast into competent reporters. The latest copies of the Times were on a shelf in the newsroom. We were expected to read it, talk about it and emulate it, and we did our best, which was all that Mr. Miller would accept.
My first news story, about a fire, gave me the jolt of my life: a grade of F, for failure. Mr. Miller explained why, tersely. Cliches, trite, hack writing, reader’s questions, long sentences. I wrote about “purple clouds of smoke billowing into the blue Tucson sky.” It’s painful to recall, but true. I kept that paper for years, through my work at The Miami Herald and The Associated Press.
Five decades later, I offer Mr. Miller’s comments to young writers, advising them to rely on Strunk and White and “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, which comes closest of any text to the Miller approach.
In the 60s, the Wildcat newsroom in the J-Department was filled with sturdy typewriters, plenty of carbon paper and ash trays. In the late afternoon you were expected to be back from your beat typing away, top copy for the news desk, which would toss it to the copy desk, and a copy for Mr. Miller. Next day, the print shop would have page proofs, sharp pencils and grimy, earmarked, annotated stylebooks.
I recall Mr. Miller’s advice each time I begin writing. For a feature, have a strong beginning, a good kicker, and a clear theme to link them, like a clothesline. Hang the parts on it with transitions, the clothespins.
I joined The New York Times in 1996, and after 9/11, I was asked to join the team of reporters writing the Portraits of Grief, 300-word sketches of those who died. I used the Miller approach for reporting each loss of life. Each sketch reached print with almost no editing.
Work at the Times was not unlike being at the Wildcat, frankly. We did original reporting on any number of national stories. In my senior year, on a September night in 1962, white students and outsiders rioted at the University of Mississippi as 30,000 troops and marshals enforced integration. The Wildcat editor, Malcolm Terence, had me call the Mississippi campus and interview whomever I could reach. I wrote the story and drew a political cartoon, which was picked up by the Arizona Daily Star. Nothing special, just what we thought we were expected to do in a night’s work at a serious newspaper.
BA, History and Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, the University of Arizona, 1963
MA, Mass Communications Theory, Stanford University, 1964
Ph.D., Public Administration, Arizona State University, 1992
Journalism Professional Positions
Reporter and bureau chief, The Miami Herald, 1964-1967
Editor, political writer, correspondent in China and at the U.N., The Associated Press, 1969-1976
Editor and writer, The New York Times, 1996-2007
Journalism Faculty Member
The University of Arizona Department of Journalism, 1976-1996
Other Awards and Activities
U.S. Peace Corps, lecturer in English, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1967-69
Fulbright lecturing fellowships: University of Jos, Nigeria; Bernama News Agency, Malaysia; Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
Asia Foundation teaching grants: Mongolia and Singapore
U.S. Information Agency grants: Thailand, Pakistan, Zambia and China
Chairman, Fulbright Selection Committee for Central and Southern Africa, 1997-2000
Lecturer on writing and editing, Stanford University, for the graduate program, headed by Prof. William Woo. Taught as video conference from The New York Times.
Lecturer on science writing, Columbia University Biosphere 2 campus
Share of team Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times, 2001
Independent science writer, Tucson, Arizona
Writing projects for institutions including the Research Corporation, Tucson, and the BIO5 Institute for Collaborative Research at the University of Arizona