It helped immeasurably to have met Margaret Sullivan's mother, Elaine Saab Sullivan.
I was lucky enough to have met her when I was asked to give a speech at a luncheon of Western New York librarians. Margaret's mother was a trustee of the Lackawanna public library.
I sat next to her during lunch. I have seldom been as happy during a public meal as I was sitting next to the woman whose daughter I regarded as the most successful intern The Buffalo News would ever have.
That, in 1980, was what she was when I first met Margaret Sullivan. She had been named the summer intern of the Buffalo News Arts Department, hired for us by managing editor Foster Spencer.
Among the many jokes I've beaten into insensibility is this one:
It's not true that we immediately knew back then that Margaret Sullivan was destined for a spectacular career in journalism. It took us two whole days to figure it out.
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By then, The News' sublime and legendary classical music critic John Dwyer and I were cackling at each other in celebration of our singular bureaucratic good fortune. You would have thought listening to us that we had gotten away with something.
Margaret was the perfect newspaper intern.
She asked good questions. And always listened carefully to the answers. She was never obtrusive or pestilential, though, about making demands of the testy veterans. She always – always – seemed to know when the time was right to talk and receive whatever mentorly wisdom we could conjure up while faking it. The crazy thing I discovered that summer about mentorly wisdom is how good and valuable it could be, even when you were making it up on the spur of the moment to sound good. What I have understood since is that it all depended on the ears of the interlocutor asking the questions. If she were wickedly smart and astute and talented enough, she stood a good chance of transforming the emptiest pomposity into actual wisdom.
Margaret wanted to know back then not just the details of our professional lives, but where they fit into our private lives. Think of her as a holistic journalistic apprentice – an incredibly shrewd one who often found a way to make use of cumbersome improv.
In years since, she has always claimed to be in a sustained state of terror that summer. It is possible that is true, but all we could see was a woman of such preternatural poise and intelligence that her future in our profession always seemed limitless.
I have since watched her become: A full-time Buffalo News reporter. A News columnist. An editor on the News city desk. The News' features editor. After that, The News' managing editor. And then, after the retirement of Murray B. Light, The News' editor-in-chief.
Then the New York Times public editor. And the media columnist for the Washington Post.
Along the way, there were prestige side trips, including the governing board of the Pulitzer Prizes and the occasional chair as a sane and welcome talking head on Sunday morning TV – especially on "Reliable Sources" with Brian Stelter on CNN. And, to be sure, let's add her two books, "Ghosting the News" and the upcoming, marvelously titled "Newsroom Confidential: Lessons and Worries From an Ink-Stained Life," whose official publication date is Oct. 13.
During that library luncheon many years ago, as I sat gabbing merrily with her gracious and charming mother about her prodigious daughter, I discovered something that isn't all that uncommon: that the parents of phenomenally gifted and promising children sometimes seem as though they are awed by their own hugely successful kids almost as much as everyone else. She knew the kind of daughter she had. And she knew in ways I never could what Margaret had learned from her and her husband, attorney John Sullivan.
But there seemed to be a bit of delightful mystery to it all, too.
I have never been surprised by a single second of good fortune to greet Margaret in the world of mainstream journalism. (In one of his more quotable observations, Niccolo Machiavelli referred to those singularly unlucky in this world as victims of "fortune's great and steady malice." I've spent 42 years watching with delight "Fortune's great and steady benevolence" toward her.)
Now, that career has finally plateaued.
Last week, Margaret announced her retirement from the Washington Post for a part-time gig as Pamela and Jack Egan visiting professor at Duke University.
As a personal matter, then, I bracket both the birth and the suspension of Margaret's career in daily journalism. Once, I was an elder determined to be of whatever aid I possibly could. And then, when she left the top job in Buffalo, as a friend happy to applaud on the sidelines for Margaret news on modern social media.
When, early on, good fortune seemed to be carpet-bombing her, she confided to me a tiny bit of bewilderment. I told her of a quote I read once from Bette Midler, a fine source of scruffy sagacity in this world. What Midler said about the onset of major life success is that the hardest thing about it is finding someone who is truly happy for you.
I told Margaret at the time that there would never come a day when I wasn't going to be genuinely happy for her.
I'll always tell all those who are interested that in my 54 years as a writer at The Buffalo News, I never enjoyed myself more than when Margaret was charged with the unenviable task of melding the arts and lifestyles department into a features department, which she performed with shrewdness and brilliance that no one ever expected, except those of us who always suspected how much she was capable of from the very beginning. The resulting department back then was formidable and riotously interesting, with contributions by News Arts Editor Terry Doran, Dale Anderson, Richard Huntington, Herman Trotter, Janice Okun, Lauri Githens, David Montgomery, Paula Voell and me.
As much as I'll adhere completely to my pledge to always be happy for her, I confess to being a bit less than thrilled at the prospect of America in this period of horrific democratic and journalistic crisis doing without one of its sanest and shrewdest and worthiest voices.
Margaret's current career plateau was created by her retirement from daily journalism and the publication of her second book.
I've had a copy of it for a couple of months. When you get to the end of the book, the terrifying word "burnout" sneaks out of her keyboard to aim her at her current place in life.
She recently gave an interview to Vanity Fair's Charlotte Klein where she mentions a couple of new things that she envisions about her new life. 1) "I've begun talking with a friend – a prominent journalist – about possibly co-writing a book about public libraries." 2) The creation of a fictional investigator from the ranks of those put "at liberty" by current journalism's ongoing financial crisis.
To know Margaret personally is to hear her witty take on some of the more dreary posturings of journalistic machismo. You find the wild candor of that Margaret Sullivan in "Newsroom Confidential." She's certainly telling tales out of school, but mostly about herself.
There is the candor of the woman of I've found such a joyful friend for 42 years when I witnessed her emergence from journalism's chrysalis.
She told Vanity Fair that the next incarnation of Margaret Sullivan could be expected to "do some public speaking."
I can't tell you how happy that makes me.
I'm not likely to have much trouble communicating with my old friend through email and social media. But the world at large has come to depend on her formidable shrewdness and passion and idealism.
Such things should never be "retired" from the world we live in.