Jon Klarfeld was the type of guy no sane individual would quarrel with; even in his later years, he seemed like the sort of person who would chew his own damn arm off before screaming, “Uncle.” I always describe Klarfeld, who taught the basic journalism skills class I took as a grad student at Boston University in 2004, as someone who tended the net in hockey before goalies wore face masks. That’s no exaggeration; Klarfeld, who passed away last week at 80 years old, stopped pucks for his college team at Colgate University, where he graduated in 1960.
Having moved to Boston to attend BU and learn how to become a journalist, it was my hope that I’d meet experienced hacks of Klarfeld’s caliber. Someone whose hands, forehead, and clothes, like his, were perpetually stained with newsprint. Klarfeld walked slowly (I’m guessing due to back and knee problems he collected playing contact sports into his golden years), wore his sleeves rolled up with his tie loose, and habitually carried multiple newspapers—all of them bloody with his plentiful red edit marks—in the crease of his elbow, like a headlock. The guy never had a lot of nice things to say about headlines he read to our class; one time I recall him mocking the Boston Globe, one of a few papers where he had worked, for posturing as if its editors were the first to discover that hipsters were increasingly favoring beer in a can.
The demands that Klarfeld put on us in class were seemingly impossible to meet; treating the amateur reporters sitting in a horseshoe formation before him like the city desk staff of a big city daily, he’d reel off details of a breaking story and then order us to terminals to produce copy. He would play a fire captain at a major blaze, or a police sergeant handling reporters in the wake of a shootout, and then he would hover over our shoulders barking insults, like, “So fah… SO WHAT?!” There were always twists and unexpected turns, with scenarios that looked a certain way on the surface, but that upon examination turned out to have multiple dimensions.
Though it’s funny to imagine just how badly he would mock me for suggesting such a thing, Klarfeld’s approach to those stories in class speaks to the person he was. As a professor, and probably as a journalist and editor before that, he was such a smokey old-school newsroom caricature that it was hard to imagine him being anything else—even though at home he was a family man and close friend to many, including the iconic Boston author George V. Higgins, “all” of whose weddings Klarfeld once told me he stood as the best man for.
But for those of us who sat through his class, he was an archetype. The newsroom was his church, deadlines his commandments. He taught us that there’s no such thing as an excuse in this business, while his occasional smirks of approval gave this young reporter way more encouragement than he probably realized. As long as there are still hundreds of media makers among us, from the New York Times to daily newspapers across America, who trudged through Klarfeld’s boot camp and emerged to write the story, our profession has a fighting chance.