Higher education had a term for folks like Benjamin Israel: “nontraditional student.” That applied to him in so many ways.
Benjamin died Monday morning. I wanted to share a little bit about his impact.
I first met Benjamin when I worked at UMSL’s student newspaper, The Current. Unlike the rest of us, he was older, with many years of journalism experience under his belt.
Why did he join The Current, a student newspaper at a commuter school with no journalism program?
Joe Harris, the paper’s editor, was in dire straits. There was a lot of turnover after the fall 1999 semester: Joe lost his news editor, photo editor, managing editor, and many other key personnel. Benjamin was working on his masters degree at UMSL and happened to see The Current’s “help wanted” advertisement. He was a journalist, and he needed a few bucks. Why not?
Joe hired Benjamin as news editor and proofreader. I was the production manager, so I worked closely with Benjamin each weekend, as all of us made the newspaper: designing pages, writing headlines and cutlines, proofreading, then printing, cutting and waxing stories onto “flats.”
Benjamin’s experience was a boon to us all. We listened to him and watched how he worked. He was a reporter who took things seriously, took nothing for granted, and had a sense of social justice. He believed reporting was more than just making phone calls; you had to go out into the real world, observe things and talk to people.
No matter what subject was being discussed, Benjamin would have an astute observation to offer, or a related story (or many) to tell. He was a gifted storyteller.
He and I came from very different backgrounds. I was an opinionated young conservative; Benjamin was a passionate liberal who had already lived an adventurous life of activism. That could be a recipe for butting heads, but that wasn’t the case with Benjamin.
My respect grew for him. A couple years later, while taking a Broadcast Writing and Reporting class, I was assigned to interview and write a story about a professional journalist. There were plenty of reporters around St. Louis to ask, but Benjamin seemed to me potentially far more interesting. And I was right. He agreed to be my subject and shared a number of anecdotes with me.
I’m going to post that story below, in tribute to him.
But first I should say that we stayed in touch over the years through email and Facebook. He wrote to me after the protests in Ferguson last fall, to find out how our family was doing. A few months later, we had a chance to catch up at a fundraising dinner for The Current. We talked about his experiences joining protesters in Clayton after the grand jury decision. He also talked a little about his recent health problems. He was as sharp as ever, sharing anecdotes, and making incisive observations as a group of alumni, students and administrators discussed the newspaper’s recent troubles and its plan to overcome them.
Benjamin was a great guy, and I will miss him.
Benajmin Israel reporter interview
(written Nov. 2001)
When Benjamin Israel found a typewriter in the trash, he knew it was a sign.
Israel has definitely led an unconventional life. In person he’s a character, a big guy with curly hair that’s almost an Afro, large glasses and a standard uniform of dress shirt, suspenders, rumpled trousers, but never a tie.
Some might be fooled by his resume, which includes stints as a garbage collector in Columbia, Mo. But eventually he became a reporter and has worked at large and small newspapers around Missouri. He’s volunteered as an activist for various causes, been a hospital clerk, studied to be a nurse, gotten involved in radio, worked in various factories and donut shops, and was active in several Marxist political and social groups during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the early 1970s, Israel got his first exposure to “news.” He started working at radio station KDNA shortly before his 21st birthday. It was a small operation and Israel soon became the news director. KDNA folded, but it was succeeded by today’s KDHX (the DHX stands for Double Helix, as in DNA).
But it was the underground press that really attracted Israel. One such paper was called On the Line and it dealt with various workplace issues in the light of Marxist ideas. Later, they used it to tackle world issues as well. Israel said it was distributed at factories around the city.
Eventually Israel had to take on other jobs to make ends meet. He worked at a factory making hospital beds and sleeper sofas for a while. He ended up in Columbia, Mo. as a garbage collector. One fateful day he found a typewriter in the trash and said “This is a sign!”
It was while he was in Columbia that Israel wrote his first professional news copy. He had been volunteering at a radio station and met a man who was upset about nuclear plants. The man told Israel about a disaster in Virginia and Israel wrote a piece on it that was published in The Guardian. He was paid $15 for his work — the first time he had been paid to write a story for a newspaper. Israel began stringing for the Guardian and selling the newspaper when he had time.
Later Israel went to Kansas City to join another Marxist group. But this group fell apart and Israel began having philosophical problems with some of the ideas these groups had been espousing. He and a friend named Lenny began producing a leftist newspaper called The Hammer that examined groups on the far right, like the Aryan Nation.
“It was a quarterly that came out three times a year,” Israel said laughing.
He spent a lot of time doing research for The Hammer. He began to realize that he was a good researcher and writer, but not a good organizer.
After a brief foray into the nursing field, Israel decided he needed to get into journalism. He was accepted by UMKC and MU but he decided to start at a small community college called Penn Valley since it would be cheaper the first few years.
“I did journalism before going to school,” Israel said,” but I still learned a lot in school, like how to be fair. I recognized that I had had an agenda.”
Once he joined MU, Israel did well as a student and he worked at the Missourian, a daily newspaper the University runs in order to give students real journalism experience. The other paper in town, the Tribune, is a professional paper that most residents seem to prefer.
While he was there, Israel covered the hospital beat. At that time the public county hospital was trying to go private.
“I consistently beat the Tribune reporter on that story,” Israel said. “Years later, she told me ‘You made me fear for my job!'”
Israel got noticed by the Tribune and the next spring was working for them.
He spent 4 years at the Tribune, but left after a dispute over a correction that ran in the paper about one of his stories. Israel was upset because the correction was run for political reasons, not to fix a mistake.
“I felt disrespected because the paper didn’t back me up,” he said.
Israel also butted heads with some of the editors. They were good people, he said, but “everyone there had been promoted to their level of incompetence.”
Israel liked his stint at the Tribune because the area was easily manageable.
“Here in North County, there are so many goddamn municipalities and so many school districts,” he said, laughing. In Columbia, “we had one big city, one school district, and you had a good handle on it. You knew where to focus.”
Israel’s reporting philosophy is people-centered.
“I’m a believer in democracy,” he said. “For democracy to work, people have to understand how things are. So I try to help people understand things in a story.”
Israel’s primary beats were health care and education. He said he wrote stories “bottom-up rather than top-down.” He interviewed first-graders (but said he didn’t get a lot of coherent ideas from them). He befriended the kids at the high school newspaper and got to know teachers in the schools. They made great sources, he said, and gave him information he’d never have gotten from school administrators who were at the “top.”
“I had a rule that I would spend time in a classroom at least once a week, so I could see what was actually going on.” Israel said. “You know, I ended up marrying a teacher.”
This human element sets his stories apart. Israel said he has always m>ade a point of visiting the people, places and locations his stories mention, rather than just interviewing them over the phone. On more than one occasion, he has discovered unusual things that changed routine stories into more interesting pieces.
“I like to see the things I’m writing about,” Israel said. “It’s nice to be able to describe what someone looks like.”
Israel has been a reporter and stringer for many other newspapers around the state, including the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jefferson County Leader, and others. He was a stringer for the Associated Press. Over the years, he has moved around to meet the needs of his wife and family, and as their financial situation has changed.
After working for several years away from St. Louis, he came back to UMSL to pursue his master’s degree in history. Israel has become something of an expert on the life of Ira Cooper, a famous black police detective who lived in St. Louis in the early 20th century. Israel wrote a big feature on Cooper for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a year ago and is now working on a book about Cooper.
Of course, writing books doesn’t pay much, and school is expensive, so Israel swallowed his pride and joined the staff of the North County Journal. He’s on the Ferguson-Berkeley beat, where a lot of things are happening. While Israel didn’t have much positive to say about the Journal’s management, he said he preferred the Journal’s twice-a-week deadlines to daily newspaper deadlines because it enables him to write better stories than what his competition at the Post-Dispatch is able to.
With everything he’s done in life, it’s hard to guess where he’s going next. But as he pursues his degree, works on his book, and reports for the Journal, Israel said he has an ultimate goal.
“I know that the chances of me making enough money on my book to be set for life are low,” he said, smiling. “But as I like to say, if HBO pays me for the rights to make a mini-series, I’ll be in real good shape.”