Norman Pearlstine, the top editor of Time Inc. and, before that, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, stepped to the pulpit of Lexington’s First Presbyterian Church on Monday and got right to the point.
“John was our generation’s best, most respected, most beloved editor,” he said.
Anyone seeking confirmation of that had only to look out across the venerable old sanctuary. It was filled to capacity with John Sawyer Carroll’s family, friends and colleagues who flew in for his memorial service from as far away as China.
Carroll, 73, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Lexington Herald-Leader, died June 14 at his Lexington home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, rapidly progressive dementia that he was diagnosed with in January.
Pearlstine was a classmate of Carroll’s at Haverford College near Philadelphia. His eulogy was followed by two more, from Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, and Bill Marimow, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Maxwell King, another former Philadelphia Inquirer editor, read a prayer selected by Carroll’s widow, Lee. The Rev. Mark Davis offered words of comfort and spoke of a life well-lived that ended too soon. Singer Calesta Day filled the sanctuary with a stunning a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace.
Friends and colleagues came to pay tribute to Carroll for five decades of remarkable journalism that produced more than two dozen Pulitzer Prizes and significant government and social reforms.
Among them: legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, who hired Carroll for his first editing job, and Frank Langfitt, a National Public Radio correspondent based in Shanghai who worked under Carroll at the Herald-Leader and flew 18 hours to get back for the service.
“He had such an influence on my life,” Langfitt said. “I had to be here.”
The service and a reception afterward at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning drew a who’s who of Kentucky media and political figures, including Mayor Jim Gray; Rep. Andy Barr and his predecessor, Ben Chandler; and former Gov. Brereton Jones.
Those who eulogized Carroll spoke of an intellectually curious and demanding editor, an inspiring leader, a great mentor and a kind and modest man.
After editing the newspapers in Lexington and Baltimore, Carroll went to the Los Angeles Times in 2000 after a scandal in which the publisher cut a secret deal with advertisers that compromised ethical standards and demoralized the newsroom.
“What followed over the next several years should stand as one of the finest acts of leadership in a newsroom or anywhere else in modern times,” said Baquet, whom Carroll hired as his deputy in Los Angeles.
“John’s newsroom was fun and ambitious,” he said. “The key people who went to work for him came out different, with bigger, larger ideas and fewer limits. And with the belief in the power and the honor of journalism; that we were part of something much larger.”
Baquet said that when he was named the top editor of The New York Times a year ago, he spoke to his staff and described the kind of outstanding but humane newsroom he wanted to create. “John was deep in my head and in my heart when I said that,” he said.
Marimow, who became Carroll’s deputy in Baltimore after working for him in Philadelphia, told how his curiosity about a routine story about the scrapping of an aircraft carrier near Baltimore led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series about the human and environmental toll of the global ship-breaking industry.
“As an editor, John was a visionary who reveled in great work as well as quirky stories and quirky colleagues,” Marimow said. “He saw the forest clearly, while most of us, including me, were lost in the trees.”
There were plenty of funny stories, too.
Pearlstine told how, when they were college students in 1962, he got Carroll out of jail after he and a friend ran onto the field of Connie Mack Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch to try to shake hands with Willie Mays.
Baquet recalled, early in their working relationship, a long, racy story about how the drug Viagra was changing Los Angeles’ pornography industry. Afraid Carroll might not want to publish it, Baquet gave it a bland headline and submitted it for approval. After a long silence as he read the story, Carroll started to chuckle.
“Then he said, ‘Great story. But why’d you put this really dull headline on it?'” Baquet recalled. “Then he pulled out a pencil, and I swear it took one second, and he scrawled down a new one: Lights, Camera, Viagra. He was the best headline writer in the business.”
Marimow recalled the last time he saw Carroll, when their families got together a year ago on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts.
“John was tan, trim, vigorous and energetic; the picture of vitality,” he recalled. “It’s the way I’ll always remember him. A great editor and an even greater friend. An irreplaceable friend.”