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October 2001

Campuses Mobilize After Terrorist Attack

CUNY's "Success Express" Highlights Grads
Freshman Enrollment Rises at CUNY
First Festival Presented by Gotham Center
CUNY TV enhances recruiting outreach
U.S. Cheers Poet Laureate: Prof. Billy Collins
A Dream of Food On Washington Mall
Navy League Award to Hunter Physicist
Nine Leading Scholars Named Distinguished Professors
Haitian First Lady, CCNY Alumna, Feted
Baruch College Opens Vertical Campus
Historic Matters
Baruch Center Confronts Quality of Urban Life
Hunter College Historian Communes with the Saints
A Displaced Person Discovers His Place on Campus
CUNY Students Vault into Poll Work
Double Play for CUNY Broadcasters
 
A “Displaced Person” Discovers
His Place on the City College Campus

joseph with parentsThe City University student body is filled with recent immigrants contending—heroically, but naturally sometimes with trepidation— with an unfamiliar society and a difficult new language. Any one of these students who reads the first sentences of Joseph Berger’s new book Displaced Persons (Simon & Schuster) will know exactly what the author is talking about: “I. . .felt these alien streets would be a trial, filled with unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar tongues. How could I make a friend when I didn’t even speak English? How could I understand a teacher or classmate? And how could I rely on my perplexed, frightened parents to help me cope?” Berger, now deputy education editor at the New York Times, arrived from a displaced persons camp near Berlin with his family of Polish Jews at the close of World War II, and his memoir (its subtitle is Growing Up American After the Holocaust) describes the experience, one phase of which was attending the City College of New York. He appears at the Graduate Center on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. to read from and discuss the book. Excerpted here is a passage that describes how Berger found his journalistic career—and several future colleagues (including the reporter and columnist Clyde Haberman)—on the already 40-year-old student newspaper, the Campus.

Our clubhouse was Room 328, a long narrow room in the college’s social center, Finley Hall. Here we came between classes, after classes, and too often during classes, to schmooze, gossip, rib one another, and work on the two issues we turned out each week. The room was dominated by a long table with several grimy Remingtons. Two tall arched windows overlooked a deep and spacious lawn. ... Any stab at being clever or provocative was sure to get a retort from the rotating audience on the couches and window alcoves. A good deal of it was sophomoric, like one editor’s quipping that Clyde Haberman—a freshman friend—was so skinny he had to dart around a shower in order to get wet.

Wisecracking and cheeky we were, but we seldom became sour with discontent. Almost no one was a true believer out to transform the world. We saw the clumsiness and silliness in every cause. With that detached stance, we were perfectly suited to be journalists, and that is what most of us became. . .

The campus gates closed at 10 p.m., which on many nights didn’t give us enough time to finish editing. Se we adjourned to a bar on Convent Avenue, the Moulin Rouge, and continued reworking stories in the smoky, honey light of the vinyl booths. In those days before heartfelt stirrings of the civil rights movement congealed into racial distrust, we were never made to feel unwelcome by the neighborhood’s drinkers, whatever they may have thought of our gang of cocky white kids. . .

As a result of the newspaper schedule, we spent much of our days walking around in a twilight of exhaustion, deepened by a sense of guilt at missing classes and term papers and sinking into academic bankruptcy. ... So absorbed was I in our crusade to get the paper out that, one morning on the way to school, I paced the 167th Street subway platform while reading a newspaper and walked right off the edge, tumbling onto the tracks below. . .

We spun our own mythology, a pantheon made up of legendary Campus editors of the past. These included not just journalists like Abe Rosenthal and Ed Kosner, but people closer to my generation who showed up at some of our parties. In our oral tradition, working newspapermen like Vic Ziegel, Jack Schwartz, Bob Mayer, and Mike Katz became giants who strode across the plains of my impressionable mind.

Even without meeting them, they seemed in my imaginings to be wittier, sharper, savvier, more literate, and more level-headed than the rest of humanity. When I finally got to know them, I came to realize they were young men and women who grew up in the same lumpen Bronx and Brooklyn precincts that I did, rode the same straw-seated subway cars, suffered from the same workaday insecurities and hungers that plagued me. . .

joseph when he was a childGradually and with practice, I learned how to write catchy leads, to shape a story so that the significant points were made at the top, rather than in chronological order, to let all sides have their due. Reporting turned out to be no different from what I had been doing all my life—exploring, unearthing, inquiring, trying to figure out the boundaries and the rules and work within them.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the detached attitude of my newly adopted vocation particularly suited me. I could be a comfortable part of this newspaper circle, yet elsewhere keep my habitual distance—from the college mainstream, even its organized fringes—and feel justified doing so. We had to be outsiders to retain the impartiality we needed as reporters, even if we were green ones. We were a club of outsiders, of self-proclaimed exiles, and as a refugee I more than fit in. . .

B the end of sophomore year, it was the rookies’ turn to take the helm. Clyde was chosen as editor in chief, I as news editor, and George Kaplan, the third of our freshman triumvirate, as sports editor. We covered speeches by President Gallagher and antiwar rallies and the consolidation of the municipal colleges into the City University and resignations of deans, doing it in what we believed was a thoroughly professional fashion.

We were impudent in our way and figured we were putting out the best newspaper in the country. Clyde, angular, intense, quick-witted, was particularly fastidious and exacting. He labored over copy until he felt it was immaculate, not worrying as much as I did about the time it consumed or about the bruises to a reporter’s feelings. . .

When term’s end came along, we ran out of money to put out the last two spring issues. Clyde felt it was incumbent on us to find a way to print them. There was a tradition to sustain, going back to 1907. He was going to help pay for the extra issues with his state Regents scholarship money—about $150. He asked me and the business manager whether we might do the same, and we agreed. Although we did not need the money for tuition, this annual scholarship was a considerable help to our working-class families and did pay for books, subway fare, and the rest. We fortified ourselves in our rash gesture with the flimsy belief that the student government would recognize our sacrifice to the cause of the First Amendment and reimburse us later on.

When I told my mother of our plan, she did not wait a second to scoff. “No one will every pay you back,” she said. ... I did as I had promised Clyde, but my mother turned out to be right. We had the glory of knowing we fulfilled the newspaper’s quota for that year, and maintained the Campus tradition. But the student government, whose officers we had regularly tweaked, turned down our request for supplemental funds.

When I became editor in chief, we made a concerted effort to live within our budget. I was not going to squander my scholarship money again.