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Richard Baker and Me

By Joe Saltzman ’62
Professor of Journalism

After all of us had arrived at the Journalism School in the Fall of 1962, we had an orientation lunch where we each introduced ourselves. When it was over, Professor Richard Baker came over to me and said in a low, ominous voice: "Saltzman?" I had no idea who Professor Baker was, but I acknowledged I was Saltzman. He said, "I just wanted to see what the student who got the lowest score on the grammar test of anyone ever admitted to the School of Journalism looked like," and then walked away.

A few weeks later, I went to my mailbox -- we all had mailboxes in the front of the large newsroom that is now the Lecture Hall -- opened it and saw an "A" on one of my first news stories. I felt someone hovering behind me, so I turned around and stared into the face of Professor Baker. He looked at the grade and said, "Good work, Saltzman, especially for someone who got the lowest score on the grammar test of anyone ever admitted to the School of Journalism," and then walked away.

About a month later, I got a rare "A" on a paper from the infamous John Hohenberg. I was walking down the hall when I heard what was now a familiar voice shout out, "Saltzman. Congratulations on getting an A from Hohenberg," Baker said. "It's even more surprising to me since you got the lowest score on the grammar test of anyone ever admitted to the School of Journalism."

I had made two major mistakes on a science paper – I picked a subject that the professor knew intimately and I misread a key paragraph in a scientific paper and got an “F” on the paper. I purposely avoided Professor Baker in the hallways and finally made it to my mailbox. Inside was a hand-scribbled note: “Now you’re living up to expectations because you got the….Et cetera. Et cetera. Yours, Richard Baker.”

I finally asked Professor Penn Kimball, who had become my mentor, why Baker always mentioned that damn low score on the grammar test. Kimball gave me that familiar mischievous smile and told me that Baker had voted against me because of the score and had argued strenuously that we couldn't admit anyone who was that poor in grammar. "Now you're proving him wrong and me right," he said.

Graduation day came and I was lucky enough to finish fourth in the class, which meant I won the Robert Sherwood Traveling Fellowship and was named an alternate to the Pulitzer Fellowship. Professor Baker came up to me and shook my hand. "Congratulations. You did very well here and we're all proud of you.” Baker and the other faculty were furious at me for refusing a job at the New York Herald-Tribune to go back to California. No one then took the West Coast seriously and the goal of every sane journalist was to work in New York or Washington, D.C., “You made a big mistake by not taking the Herald-Tribune job. It was a rare opportunity. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, you did get the lowest score on the grammar test of anyone ever admitted to the School of Journalism.”

It would be 13 years before I would see Professor Baker again. I was back at Columbia University because I had won the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award for "Why Me?" Acknowledged to be the first TV documentary on breast cancer, the program was credited with saving thousands of lives and changing the way breast cancer was being treated in America. At the reception, I saw Professor Baker making his way toward me. He came up to me and uncharacteristically gave me a hug. He looked at me and said, "Your documentary is quite an achievement. I've watched it several times and it's the kind of journalism we hope our graduates will someday do when they leave Columbia." I waited and waited and waited for him to finish his statement, but when it became apparent he was not going to add that familiar refrain, I smiled and told him, "Not bad for someone who got the lowest score on the grammar test of anyone ever admitted to the School of Journalism."
He smiled, but I noticed something was wrong and that there were tears in his eyes. I said, “It seems to me my documentary affected you more than I thought,” and he told me that someone close to him had seen the program, and because of the program, had scheduled a mammography and that they discovered a small lump in her breast before she could even have felt it. He said the doctor told her that coming to see him so early probably saved her life.

I thanked him for sharing the story with me. This time, I hugged him. He shook my hand harder than ever, gave me a wry Baker smile, turned and disappeared in the crowd.

Six years later, I heard that Professor Baker had died, and this Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, Class of ’62, who got the lowest score on the grammar test of anyone ever admitted to the School of Journalism, broke down and cried.

Posted by: AlumniAlumni April 2012

One Comment

  1. Mervyn Kaufman
    Posted 06.12.12 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    My fondest memory of Prof. Baker was of an incident that took place in his office. I was applying for a grant that would give me a little pin money—perhaps enough to mean fewer meals of crackers and ketchup during the second semester of my school year. For some reason, I had to get Dick Baker’s signature on my application, and I did not relish making that request. Till then, I’d found him intimidating. After all, I’d not only come from California but also had briefly sustained a career in PR rather than journalism. I’d felt his disapproval from day one.

    He nodded briefly when I appeared in his doorway. He gestured for me to enter and pointed me to the chair beside his desk, though he seemed deeply engrossed in reading what looked to me like student work. He read the piece, page by page, then abruptly plunked it in front of me. I saw that is was a play review I’d written for what was then a course in critical writing. The instructor was an adjunct—his day job was at the NY Herald Tribune. I forget his name, but I know I’ll never forget what he wrote:

    “This is the finest piece of critical writing I’ve read in my 17-year association with this school.”

    I’d barely had a chance to digest this message—the first words of praise I received in the school—when Baker snapped, “Now, what is it you came in for?” He never mentioned my piece or the comment, but he readily signed my application. I think I was sweating bullets by the time I left his office.

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