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Remembering Richard Ben Cramer
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January 25, 2013
The people of Chestertown said goodbye to townsman Richard Ben Cramer last Sunday, remembering his smile and his talent for listening. WYPR Senior News Analyst Fraser Smith reports.
Fraser Smith: He had won the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting. His book on presidential campaigns had redefined the genre. His magazine writing was widely admired. Then he moved to Chestertown where he surrendered all that celebrity. His life was suddenly given over to other things: to walking his dog on downtown streets, to thinking about the perfect Chester River location for mooring a canoe or to conversations on the street with friends like Bob Ortiz, a woodworker and musician. Ortiz spoke last Sunday at a memorial service on the Washington College campus.
Bob Ortiz: Sometimes especially after 911 we’d talk about Greenwich Village where I grew up and curiously enough we’d talk about bread. We’d talk about the hope that someday there might be great bread here in Chestertown. And we’d laugh at our follies for thinking such thoughts and at ourselves for harboring such desires.
Smith: Cramer talked a lot with his old friend Tom Horton. Horton has elegantly chronicled the life and death of the Chesapeake Bay for 40 years. He and Cramer searched over and over for that perfect mooring. Finally, Horton concluded that Cramer just liked the idea of a boat on the river without really wanting to have one. A new Chestertown friend, Trahnz Hollingsworth, always felt welcome.
Trahnz Hollingsworth: He lives in this wonderful big last century house on the Chester River and a that point he had roofer’s all over it. And I think they might have been putting on cedar shakes and I said to Richard you know, I really want to do this. I want to be a writer so that I can afford a roofer. I want to be a writer like you. And Richard grabbed me real hard by the arm and he said Trammy, I want to be a roofer.
Smith: He was still writing, but it was like he wanted another identity. A roofer or a woodworker or a mentor – whatever – Chestertown fell in love with Cramer’s smile and his regard for what they did. Meredith Davies Hathaway says he flourished in his anonymity.
Meredith Davies Hathaway: You know his friends this community were people who lived and worked here and really, to be honest with you many of them didn’t know Richard had been a writer or a journalist. They just knew he was a smart, funny guy that they were always happy to run into on the street. Who had a smile for everybody and was genuinely interested in what you had to say, which is an endearing quality, let’s admit it, in anyone.
Smith: It was a quality that gave him access to the people he wrote about. Governor Martin O’Malley met Cramer in 1988 when Cramer was working on “What It Takes,” his penetrating analysis of the candidates in the 1988 presidential race. People would say later that no book on American politics captured so convincingly what O’Malley called “the true center” of those who choose to run. Gary Hart, the former senator from Colorado, had no interest in being interviewed after reporters had found him on a cruise with a woman who was not his wife. Cramer was determined.
Governor Martin O’Malley: He used me to get to the Hart people. The Gary Hart people.
Smith: O’Malley, then in law school, had done advance work for the Hart campaign in the summer. Cramer thought he might help. But O’Malley hung up twice on a researcher. Then Cramer himself called.
O’Malley: Before you hang up the phone, know that I have an expense account. I love the prime rib which is two blocks from your house. And last I checked no law student in his right mind would turn down a free dinner. And I didn’t say anything. He says I see you haven’t hung up the phone.
Smith: He and Cramer became friends. O’Malley, who spoke at the memorial service, says he and his wife had dinner with Cramer and his wife, Joan, frequently and were in touch ‘til near the end.
O’Malley: I had had lunch with him in November in Annapolis and I knew he had been in the hospital and I asked him what’s up with that? And he said you know, beats the hell out of me. He said you know how these quacks are they tell you this blood count’s that way and that blood count’s another way. He says, all I know is I was feeling really rundown and lousy and now I feel good and I’ve got my energy back so I’m happy. Let’s talk about, you know, what we’re here to talk about.
Smith: The way he was with his neighbors is the way he was at work. Tony Barbieri was Cramer’s friend and colleague when both worked at The Sun. Barbieri, who now teaches journalism at Penn State University, saw Cramer fall in love with politics – and the people who were part of it at every level.
Tony Barbieri: And he just loved talking to them and they loved talking to him because no one had ever talked to them before. People always would tend to dismiss them as machine hacks who didn’t have anything to say.
Smith: Cramer’s stories started appearing on page one of the newspaper.
Barbieri: And the Montgomery County people would stop and wag their fingers at him and say ‘You’re just encouraging them!’ And Richard would smile and look at them and say ‘Yeah that’s right.”
Smith: A journalism student at Washington College, Megan Clearwood heard Cramer himself speak about dealing with sources. He’d been introduced to students as a winner of Pulitzer Prize.
Megan Clearwood: I mean he’s a celebrity but everyone liked him. I only got to talk to him a few times but you felt like you had a relationship.
Smith: Antero Pietila, another Sun veteran who came to the service, says Cramer stepped away from conventional practice as a reporter. There were some who thought he a little too close to his sources.
Antero Pietila: There have been people who cannot handle that kind of intimacy with a person who is a source and there are people who can. And I think that Richard Ben was able to do it.
Smith: One of Cramer’s sources who handled it, Vice President Joe Biden, was profiled in What It Takes. Biden is scheduled to speak at a memorial service for Cramer at Columbia University in March. It seems likely that many days will be memorial days for Cramer in Chestertown. For Bob Ortiz, the woodworker, Sundays will be the day. He’ll buy a baguette at Chestertown’s new bakery, walk home and sit at the kitchen table.
Bob Ortiz: In my mind, sitting at that table, with us are all of those I have known loved and cared for who shared this passion for bread for laughter and for love. And Richard is there with us.
Smith: I’m Fraser Smith reporting from Chestertown for 88.1 WYPR.
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