March 3, 2006

Backspace: John Hassell '91

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Backspace has appeared biweekly throughout the school year in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column has featured a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively history. Past columns, which can be found on The Sun’s website, include memories from journalists, a sportscaster, a rocket scientist, a screenwriter and a producer. This final column is by John Hassell ’91, who was managing editor of The Sun. He is currently an editor at The Star-Ledger of Newark, where he won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his work uncovering New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s affair and resignation.

– MK

I didn’t feel guilty about all the lies until my roommate asked if he could borrow my belt. He stood there in the doorway, cinching the waist of an ill-fitting pair of pants with one hand and pointing at his shoes with the other.

“Mine doesn’t match,” he said.

It was about 5 a.m., as I recall, and my roommate (David Folkenflik ’91, whose mellifluous tones you can hear these days on National Public Radio) had been invited to speak later that morning at a secret session of the University’s board of trustees in Manhattan. Dave’s role, as editor in chief of The Sun, was to make a case for Cornell purging its investment portfolio of any funds tied to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

We had been up all night, putting out the newspaper and then working on his speech.

Divestment was the hot-button issue on campus that year, and he wanted to get everything just right. Who could blame him? The trustees had so far refused to budge. This meeting, Dave figured, offered a chance to change their minds.

What Dave didn’t figure on was a bald-faced liar of a roommate, a collection of scheming friends, a willing accomplice in Day Hall and a business manager at The Sun willing to pay the freight for a little prank. You can’t blame Dave, but it just goes to show the value of journalism’s central tenet: If you mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

Sure, there had been an official invitation from a university vice president. And there was, in fact, a seat waiting for Dave on the 6:30 a.m. flight from Ithaca to New York City. But there was no meeting in Manhattan, alas, and no moral awakening among the trustees about divestment. Dave was on a trip to nowhere, with a belt that matched his shoes.

Poor guy. His intentions were pure.

Did I mention that it was his birthday?

I handed Dave a brightly wrapped gift as he boarded his flight. It was a copy of The Power Broker, a biography of the incomparable Robert Moses, and inside the book was a note explaining the hoax and a ticket for a flight headed back to Ithaca just 30 minutes after Dave touched down in New York.

“Don’t open this until your plane takes off,” I told him, “or it’ll ruin the surprise.”

A group of us greeted Dave’s return flight on the tarmac at the Ithaca airport. I wore a tuxedo, because it felt like a special occasion. We applauded wildly when the plane’s door whooshed open, and as the passengers emerged into the cold morning air they stared at us, befuddled. Were we cheering for them?

No, we were cheering for Dave, who obliged by pausing at the top of the stairwell and raised his arms in a classic victory salute. He had stayed up all night preparing for a speech he didn’t give, traveled more than 360 miles for a meeting that didn’t happen and here he was, smiling and waving and playing the ham.

What can I say? The guy’s got class.

I still have photographs, tinged with sepia now, that capture the images of that morning: Dave with his arms flung skyward, the pilot staring with obvious curiosity from the cockpit, our merry little group laughing like we knew something everyone should know. Jeremy Schaap ’91, of ESPN fame, is there. So is Sam Zia-Zarifi J.D. ’93, who today chronicles the world’s atrocities for Human Rights Watch. And there’s Preston Mendenhall ’93, NBC’s intrepid Moscow correspondent.

I treasure those pictures, but I don’t really need them.

Because in my mind we’re all still standing there, young and carefree, joined by a friendship nurtured during long nights in a spartan room under the Ithaca Commons, where we neglected our studies in the pursuit of something strange and wondrous and never fully attained – the truth – and then tried, however feebly, to write it down, fast, before it disappeared.

I’m still trying. We all are. Someday, maybe, we’ll get it right.

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