Alvah Chapman Memorial Service by David Lawrence, Jr.
Dec. 29, 2009
What a life Alvah Chapman led. What an example he gave us. Were I only to concentrate here on his newspaper life, which I will, I merely begin to share what made him quite extraordinary. His is a life built from the greatest Biblical lessons: An insistence on saying things plainly. The imperative for truth-telling nurtured by compassion and fairness. The deepest understanding of what is right and what is wrong. A thunderous defense of “the least, the last, the lost” in our midst. It is a path to a good and meaningful life and, yes, the path to a good and meaningful newspaper.
If Alvah Chapman ever lost his composure, I never saw it. Disciplined he was. More organized than anyone. Goal-oriented, to say the least. A man who could “lean” on people -- always on behalf of a righteous cause and always a gentleman -- better than anyone I have ever known. From all that came great giving and good works.
Alvah was such a presence in my life for 37 years that I saved – as I did with Jim Batten and Lee Hills – every letter, every note I was ever sent. I read them all the day after his death. It took me a while because he had so much to say, ranging from the seemingly minor to the clearly major – and all of value.
To remind us what made Alvah so memorable and meaningful, I quote briefly from just five of those notes:
- Recruiting me a decade ago to lead the Community Partnership for the Homeless, he reminded me that Jesus “would have spent much more time at the Homeless Assistance Center than he would have spent at the Indian Creek Country Club, the Rotary Club or a Knight Ridder board meeting.” I promise you that it took great will power to turn Alvah Chapman down on anything.
- Or this is Alvah after a columnist took apart a business leader in the community: “I have never felt it to be good journalism (or even fair play, for that matter) for a responsible daily newspaper to ridicule anyone.”
- Or this after he received a letter that insulted him unfairly for his civic efforts after Hurricane Andrew: “A letter like the enclosed does little for one’s morale. (I am glad she is not writing my obituary.) Do you have any thoughts about the proper way to deal with this lady?”
- Or after another column that dumped on the wisdom of a “purity pledge” for teenagers and was clearly too sexually explicit: “I thought we were publishing a ‘family newspaper.’ (This) column is revolting.”
- And finally, to give you a sense of how tough and good an editor he would have been, I quote from an Alvah Chapman note that absolutely demolished the inconsistencies in a three-paragraph Herald story headlined “Florida man bitten by shark.” In eight paragraphs, Alvah demonstrated all sorts of geographic and logistical inaccuracies, and then – for good measure, noted: “The divers never should have been in the water at 5:15 p.m. That is a terrible time for divers. Many shark attacks occur in the late afternoon. I have always gotten my people out of the water by 4 p.m.”
That was Alvah Chapman – so much was important, beginning with faith and people. He thought newspapers ought to make money to be able to do the best journalism, and 33 Pulitzer Prizes stand in testament to that. He thought God’s Word and journalism’s words ought to have some real relationship to one another. He was deeply involved in the community and perhaps the strongest-willed man I have ever known – and , yes, as good a story tipster as I have known – but I never felt the slightest intimidated from doing any story that ought to be done. Indeed, I always felt encouraged to do my and our very best. Alvah Chapman was a mighty ally for good journalism and a mighty force for what is right and good and fair in this world.
Like all of you, I am blessed by his presence which will be with me all the years of my life.
Thank you, Betty, and Dale and Chris and all in your family for sharing him with all of us. I can promise everyone here today that Alvah H. Chapman Jr. is now organizing the angels to get ready, I hope, for the rest of us.
David Lawrence, Jr. retired in 1999 as publisher of The Miami Herald to work in the area of early childhood development and readiness. He is the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami, chair of The Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade County and "University Scholar for Early Childhood Development and Readiness" at UF. (Source: Univ. of Florida )
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.