In Nieman Storyboard, award-winning journalist and author Walt Harrington remembers his friend and mentor Ed Lambeth, a 1968 Nieman Fellow, who died on May 2, 2020. Lambeth was a Washington, D.C. correspondent for Gannett News Service and created the Washington Reporting Program for the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He was recognized as an expert in journalism ethics.
The path to excellence: Hard thinking, constant worry and “lunch-pail labor”
The last time I visited my old teacher and friend Ed Lambeth in Missouri before his death at age 87, we sat in the small apartment in Cedarhurst of Columbia, where he had lived since his memory was too far gone.
“I have your books,” he said, pointing to a nearby shelf.
Then he went silent.
Then he smiled and said, “I used to call you Tiger.”
“Yes, you did,” I said, smiling back. “That was a long time ago.”
Winter of 1975, to be exact, in the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington office, a cramped and dumpy space in the National Press Building. Ed, a distinguished 42-year-old journalist, was working on his doctorate while he also worked on me and the 10 or so other students under his charge that semester. He was a tall, gangly man with unruly hair, wrinkled white shirts, and skinny black ties that were not in fashion even then. He was a soft-spoken man but ran his shop with a strong editor’s hand and a relentless demand that we do our best.
“What’s the heart of it?” he would ask of our stories. “Get to the heart of it.”
Like so many kids in Missouri’s famous journalism school, I was imbued with a youthful and unearned confidence. Ed Lambeth taught me how to begin to earn and deserve that confidence, how to accept my limitations and yet reach to be better every day with every story. Learn the craft, yes — how to dig through documents, interview, put words together. But Ed taught so much more: an elemental philosophy of our personal place and duty in the journalism universe.
He taught work, work, work — lunch-pail labor. Being smart is useless to the lazy. Knock on every door. Use every minute of your work day, waste nothing on water-cooler chatter or office gossip. Never envy the success of colleagues. Always admire fine work. Go be better. Knock on more doors.