The surprising thing about John Carroll is that such a kick-ass, gutsy journalist could also be so sweet a man.
It was John’s journalistic passion that inspired those who worked with him. But it was his gentle, generous nature that made so many love him. I was certainly among those.
When John resigned his position as editor of the Los Angeles Times, he had managed to infuriate all sides of the California power structure with the paper’s aggressive journalism. He had also enraged his bosses at the Tribune Company with his stubborn insistence that they cough up the money to create such journalism, which had earned multiple Pulitzer prizes. When he couldn’t persuade or shame or browbeat them, he quit, and the Knight Foundation honored him with a year of reflection.
I invited him to spend that year at the Shorenstein Center, and he readily agreed, having fallen in love with Harvard as a Nieman. The year he spent with us provided a chance to witness the Carroll Method up close.
It soon became his custom to wander up and down the Center’s corridors stopping at every door to chat. Simple, right? Except no one had ever done it before. Not like John. He wasn’t working the room, he was simply being himself. Genuinely interested in getting to know every single person. The most affable of companions. Eager for gossip and for serious talk about journalism or whatever you were interested in.
As we mourned him today at the Center, one of the people who John had touched made a point of saying that she thought him the nicest person she had ever met. That is the pretty much the universal view.
And yet, he was the scourge of those who would undermine his beloved profession and gut the institutions that supported that profession. The year he was at the Shorenstein Center, he worked very hard on a speech that he delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which he scolded them, and told them the hard truth that it was up to them to keep quality journalism alive in a changed world. It wasn’t a gentle speech.
For John, I think all this simply came naturally. He was what he seemed to be—a straight shooter, a consummate pro, a believer in truth-telling, a boon companion, a beloved friend. He was not greedy in claiming credit, and often seemed almost embarrassed by the naked near-worship that sometimes came his way. He was modest, but not falsely so. He was proud of what he had done. And he genuinely liked the bloody sport of exposing the frauds and the crooks and the hypocrites.
For the past several years, he had been working on a book that would tear the hair off of the abuses of the University of Kentucky basketball program. While editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, he had begun that process with articles that were most unwelcome locally. He seemed to delight in it, though he was also a huge Kentucky basketball fan.
Sadly, he was not able to finish the book because of his horrific bad luck in contracting mad cow disease. He also had a wonderful, wry sense of the absurd, and somehow I think he would not be altogether sorry that, if he had to leave us and his beloved Lee early, this was a suitably bizarre way to do it. It would have made him smile that serene, bemused smile that he reserved for things truly ridiculous.
Those of us who loved him will miss him more than we can say.