Remembering Professor David Carr

Andrew R Lack Professor David Carr. Boston University School of Communications

When New York Times’ columnist David Carr prepared to apply for a newly created professorship in Boston University’s College of Communication, he realized he’d need a curriculum vitae, the so-called CV that becomes the calling card of every academic. And atop that CV he knew he was expected to include his academic credentials. He stopped typing.

“I had to call the registrar’s office to ask if their records showed that I graduated,” Carr confessed to me later. “I had no memory of doing it and I didn’t want to claim a degree if I didn’t have one.”

As it turned out, he had indeed graduated and earned a degree in journalism, with a minor in psychology, from the University of Minnesota. But this anecdote reveals two things about Carr that shaped his extraordinary life, which tragically ended the evening of February 12 when he collapsed and died in The New York Times’ newsroom.

A missing memory and an implacable search for truth

First, his flawed – or missing – memory was almost certainly a casualty of his drug-addled youth, a nearly 20-year period he spent wallowing in crack cocaine, booze and petty crime to the extent that it seems miraculous he lived beyond his 30th birthday, much less that he went on to become the famed journalist that he did.

Second, it reflects his unrelenting insistence on seeking the truth and telling it, which is exactly what every journalist must do.

These two qualities – the missing memory and the search for truth – lay at the heart of Carr’s best-selling memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which he sought to reconstruct events from those lost years, not by summoning memories, but rather by pursuing and reporting on them, just as he had trained to do as the dogged reporter that he became. Carr knew that because of his debauched habits, he either had no memories at all, or memories that weren’t at all reliable.

The fact that Carr was able to climb out of the blackness of that youth to become a rock-star popular columnist, a quirky public face of The Times, and, in 2014, the Andrew R Lack Professor of Journalism at Boston University is extraordinary and maybe miraculous. Even he looked back on his life with a wit worthy of Mark Twain. Yet the impact he had on his profession and on the people who knew him, read him or saw him on countless videos was profound.

Carr’s sudden death Feb. 12 – at his desk in The Times’ newsroom – is a devastating loss to his family, friends and newsroom colleagues, and to the faculty and students in the College of Communication.

It also cut much too short what promised to be an exciting, even unique, career in academia where he was in his second semester as the occupant of an endowed chair in journalism.

The road to professorship

The story of how Carr came to hold that chair seems so improbable as to border on the hokey, the kind of story that he might ridicule as too cheesy, too neat. But it is true.

In mid-2012, shortly after Boston University Trustee and longtime-news executive Andrew Lack endowed the professorship, a group of us gathered with him to brainstorm about the focus of the position and to envision the type of person whom we hoped to recruit. We agreed we wanted someone who was both passionate about journalism, optimistic about its future and great in a classroom.

One of us – probably Andrew Lack – said that we must find the person whom David Carr would have on his speed dial to interview when preparing a column about the state or future of journalism. That such a person would actually exist was a dream, we thought, and probably impossible to fulfill.

But sometimes dreams come true. Word of our search reached Carr who, ever so politely, inquired about whether he could be a candidate and still continue his work at The Times. We assured him this was possible. Thus journalist David Carr also became — at least to his students — Professor Carr (though he insisted they call him David). His students were in thrall to him.

They loved his old-coot persona, his passion for the subject and his commitment to their success, which included shepherding their work into several publications and news sites.

And he loved them. “Oh, this class was like a bomb going off in my life,” he told The Boston Globe. “I enjoyed it all.”

His course syllabus was accidentally posted on by an eager teaching assistant and — no surprise — it was so witty, so clever, and so innovative, that it quickly went viral.

But David himself was mortified and phoned me to apologize; he called himself a “rookie teacher” and he feared that veterans would think that by posting a syllabus to a social-media site he would be seen as showboating. I, on the other hand, loved the fact that his course outline was public and told him that I hoped he made many more such “mistakes.”

A hard act to follow

Although he was with Boston University just a short time, he has left a lasting legacy which we will work to carry on.

In his letter applying for the professorship, Carr wrote,

“I was taught that truth matters, fairness matters, excellence matters. Those values are relevant even as the skills required to prosecute journalism morph to meet a changing media landscape.”

Those words could well have been the foundational philosophy of his work and his teaching.

And when he was asked recently to contribute a blurb of text to go alongside his photograph on the College’s gallery of faculty members, he submitted:

“I love the current future of journalism we are living through and care desperately about getting my students ready to prosper in this new place.”

The Lack Professorship is endowed in perpetuity and the search will commence, as it must, for a new occupant. But in the all-too brief time that Professor Carr held the position, it became clear that, while he will have a successor, he will never have a replacement.