John Carroll remembered as ‘a great editor and an even greater friend’

June 22, 2015

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.

Lexington Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the newsroom staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

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.”

Happy Thanksgiving from the columnist turkey

November 28, 2013

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving today with family and friends.

And thanks to Linda A. Taylor of Lexington, who made a turkey out of me for the Herald-Leader’s annual Dress the Turkey contest.


Joel Pett marks 30 years of cartooning with retrospective show

September 7, 2013


Herald-Leader cartoonist Joel Pett in his office. Photos by Tom Eblen


Joel Pett just turned 60, and he has spent a lot of time lately going through his three decades of editorial cartoons for a retrospective exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

“If you ever want a humbling experience,” Pett said, “I recommend you look through your entire life’s work.”

Pett makes his living by mocking important people, challenging power structures and opining on a wide range of political and social issues. He frequently offends Lexington Herald-Leader readers, and he considers that part of his job.

He is good at what he does. In addition to appearing in the Herald-Leader almost daily since 1987, Pett’s cartoons have often been published in other newspapers, including The New York Times and USA Today. He won the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 2000 and was a finalist in 1989, 1998 and 2011.

When Pett isn’t drawing cartoons or playing golf, he occasionally gives speeches and performs in nightclubs as a standup comic. You never know if he is being serious or just seriously funny.

More than 50 of Pett’s cartoons will be on display Sept. 18 through the end of October at the Carnegie Center, 251 W. Second Street. The exhibit opens with a sold-out panel discussion featuring Pett and four other well-known cartoonists: Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia newspapers, Jack Ohman of the Sacramento Bee, Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and William Hamilton of The New Yorker.

Tickets ($10 in advance, $15 at the door) are still available for the exhibit’s opening reception Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m. All proceeds benefit the non-profit Carnegie Center’s literacy, education and writing-development programs.

130904JoelPett0017“It’s an opportunity to do something not just for me but for the Carnegie Center,” Pett said. “Everybody has an investment in teaching future generations to read, although they will just take our jobs.”

Pett said that preparing this show made him realize how fortunate and improbable his career has been.

“I have been ridiculously lucky,” he said. “I did not prepare myself in the classic way for this by studying art or political science, or even graduating from college.”

Pett grew up in Bloomington, Ind., where his father taught at Indiana University. When he was 6, the family moved to Nigeria for five years.

After returning to Indiana, Pett became interested in editorial cartoons by following Hugh Haynie’s work in The Courier-Journal. Then a friend’s father gave him a book about Herb Block, The Washington Post’s cartoonist for 55 years.

“This was the only job that I ever saw and thought that, A, I could teach myself to do it and, B, would be worth doing and fun,” he said.

After two years of lackadaisical study at Indiana University, Pett dropped out and started submitting cartoons to the Bloomington Herald-Telephone. He then applied to be the staff cartoonist in Lexington. Looking back on some of his early work, he is still surprised he got the job.

“The biggest thing that struck me was how lucky I had been to be given about a 12-year learning curve, during which time I was tolerated and the stuff was really spotty,” he said. “There was some good stuff, but an awful lot of mediocrity.”

One lesson Pett said he learned was to “stop doing things I can’t do.” Such as trying to be a great artist, like Pat Oliphant or the late Jeff MacNelly. “I can see times when I tried that, and it looks like hell,” he said.

Good editorial cartoons are more about the idea and message than the art, anyway. And Pett’s messages often rub conservatives the wrong way.

“I grew up on a college campus in the 1960s and in a Third World country,” he said. “All of us are products of our environment.”

But Pett also thinks that what some readers see as political liberalism is simply his way of questioning conventional wisdom and the status quo. That, he said, is what good editorial pages and cartoonists are supposed to do.

Pett said the issues he draws cartoons about never seem to change: political corruption, militarism, poverty and hunger. Another issue that bothers Pett these days is political polarization, not that he is helping matters any.

“It does seem the country needs moderating voices,” he said. “I try to be that when I’m in other situations. But that would make for really lousy political cartoons. My mother’s advice — “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.” — was the worst career advice ever given.”