THE BLOG

Remembering Jack Freeman: Jack of Journalism, Jack of the World

04/01/2015 07:25 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

He was always "Jack" - never Jacob, his given name - and his byline at news organizations that he worked at for nearly seven decades all around the world was always "Jack Freeman."

He would have been 82 years old this month, but his energy, his enthusiasm, his sheer zest for the world of words had no timeline to them.

Ask him to go to Nepal, and Jack was already out of the door. Ask him to catch that midnight flight to Durban, and Jack's bags were already packed. Ask him to travel to Tokyo, and Jack happily displayed his specially carved chopsticks that he'd acquired in Vietnam. Australia? Just say when. China? Of course. New Delhi? Jack would salivate at the prospect of savoring the Indian capital's curry kitchens.

Jack never said "No!" to any assignment. There was, after all, always a story to ferret out, new people to meet, and a tale to be told. And, gourmet and gourmand that he was, there were always new dishes to be sampled.

I wondered sometimes how his wife Dulcie - an acclaimed educationist - tolerated this peripatetic schedule. Jack once confided that he appeased her by taking Dulcie along whenever her own schedule allowed her to go along for the ride. Their children were grown up, and their grandchildren were reaching adulthood. So Jack - and Dulcie - were free to wander around the world.

Jack had been everywhere for NBC News, Esquire, The Earth Times - which I'd founded in 1991 and edited for a dozen years - and other entities too numerous to list. To say that Jack was a well traveled journalist is to say too little. To say that Jack had interviewed a dazzling list of stellar leaders of our era is to understate it. Jack knew the world as few men and women of his generation of news people who were weaned on radio, and then moved on to print and television.

That knowledge of the world encompassed a variety of disciplines, from archeology to politics to zoology. When Jack traveled he would carry not only his laptop but also a sack of history books and other literature so arcane that its value, when it emerged in Jack's dispatches, was inestimable for his audiences.

They all loved his style because it was simple, explanatory, almost poetic, comprehensive in providing context, and - perhaps most of all - it explained the complexities of our increasingly bewildering world in declarative narrative that was accessible to all. No mumbo-jumbo for Jack, no jargon, no convoluted sentences that required rocket-science to figure out, no coded phrases that needed special parsing and delicate deciphering.

Jack would always say: "I ask myself, 'What does it mean?' If I couldn't answer that question, then I'd failed as a journalist."

He seldom failed. In explaining those complexities, Jack betrayed no biases. That's because he had few, if any. Yes, he was an observant Jew - but his coverage of the Arab world's travails had a special sensitivity to it. Yes, he was a devout defender of democracy - but he also recognized that not all political systems possessed the institutions and leadership that could carve the path to the voting booths.

This is not to say that Jack Freeman was naïve about the world he covered so zestfully. He was artful in framing his questions - so good at it that even if those questions sometimes did not elicit meaningful responses, the very fact that Jack posed his questions in a straightforward manner spoke volumes.

Jack understood that a good journalist needed to draw his subjects out from the shell in which they sometimes encased themselves. It meant listening, and it meant listening very, very carefully. It meant cultivating trust. And it meant keeping one's word to the person who'd agreed to be questioned by Jack.

Those questions were not posed belligerently, nor were they guised as something other than the language that Jack used. Jack was not a poseur. If he wasn't satisfied during an interview - whether it be with a potentate or an everyday person - he would reword his questions. Jack had all the guile any journalist would want - but it was used in service of his readers.

If Jack had a special fondness for a particular subject, it was the environment. He was writing about the dangers of global warming, and the hazards of climate change, long before it became fashionable to do so.

His coverage of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - popularly known as the Earth Summit - in Rio de Janeiro still remains the definitive work on explanatory journalism about sustainable development. Too bad that The Earth Times did not qualify for a Pulitzer Prize in those years: Jack would have been a certain winner.

He was a winner, nevertheless, in instilling in younger men and women a love of the craft of journalism. "The romance of reporting," was one of Jack's favorite phrases.

For him, "catching the midnight flight" wasn't merely a simple act of boarding a plane; the phrase was a metaphor for practicing what he considered the best trade in the world - being a "story teller in the bazaar," to use the late novelist Irwin Shaw's memorable line.

Jack told many stories during his long decades in journalism, all of them real, all of them deeply felt, all of them clearly explained, all of them relevant to the exigencies of our times.

Hard to believe that he stopped telling those stories a year ago when he died of pneumonia.

I still turn around to ask Jack if he would catch that midnight flight to...anywhere. Then I realize that Jack Freeman - he, Jack of the ready enthusiasm, Jack of the endless energy, Jack of the sweet but penetrating demeanor, Jack of the impeccable integrity - has already caught that flight.

He's not filed his stories yet from wherever he's gone to. But I'm sure that he will. Jack Freeman never let anyone down. That was simply not his way, and that was simply not part of the romance of journalism. Taking that midnight flight meant that you hit the ground running, that you reached out to people you'd never met before, that you listened to their stories, and that you then wrote your dispatches with clarity and common sense for an audience that would be magically transported through Jack's words to the places he'd been to.

Oh, what places he'd been to, and what things he'd seen. I can't wait to hear again from Jack.