This is the 13th in a series of articles about recipients of the NSNC’s annual Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.
By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Two things columnists should avoid: “You can’t hurt anybody who can’t hurt you back, and you can’t make people dumber.”
That’s one of the comments Pete Hamill made when receiving the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award at our 2005 conference in Grapevine, Texas.
“I’m delighted to win this,” said Hamill, who has written columns for the New York Post and New York Daily News, served as editor of both papers, worked as a reporter, and authored about twenty fiction and nonfiction books — including the novel Forever and the memoir A Drinking Life.
Hamill suggested in 2005 that columnists read all they can, including fiction, and watch notable journalism movies such as Deadline – U.S.A., starring Humphrey Bogart.
The liberal Hamill said he admired the late Mary McGrory (our 2000 Pyle winner), the late Murray Kempton, and Jimmy Breslin, but added that he was not opposed to good conservative commentary.
Hamill also praised New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd — contrasting her lively writing with the dull prose of former Times pundit Arthur Krock. “Anyone could start his column, but no one could finish it,” quipped the speaker, as he feigned nodding off at the microphone.
And, turning to the personal sphere, Hamill said: “You have to pick your mate carefully. They have to understand that if you’re looking out the window, you’re working!”
Hamill was introduced at the Pyle dinner by conference host Dave Lieber, then with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and now with The Dallas Morning News. Lieber said Hamill was the columnist he most admired when growing up because “he wrote every column like it was his last.”
The 1935-born Hamill, when giving a talk earlier in the day at the Grapevine conference, also said: “As a columnist, the reaction you hope to get from readers is ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘I never thought of it that way.’ If you get either, you’ve succeeded.” And he advised columnists to avoid “‘impactism’ speech,” exemplified by the use of impact as a verb.
Hamill — a Brooklyn, N.Y., native whose parents were Irish immigrants — left school at age 15 to become an apprentice sheet-metal worker. Then, inspired by Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” comic strips, his desire to become an artist had him attending night classes at what’s now the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Later, he became friends with Robert F. Kennedy, helped persuade him to run for president, and then worked for the campaign and covered it as a journalist. He was one of four men who disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after he shot RFK in 1968.
Hamill has also written for The Village Voice, New York Newsday, and other publications. He even did the liner notes for Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, and won a Grammy for that.
Dave Astor writes the “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The Montclair (N.J.) Times, blogs at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of the memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional.