Bill Raspberry—Great Journalist, Great Man

By Jack Limpert

Bill Raspberry, 76, died July 17 in Washington. Very few journalists, and almost no columnists, had as many readers, admirers, and friends. Here are snapshots of Bill from 40 years of knowing him.

We met in the early 1970s when WRC, the NBC-owned television station in Washington, wanted to start a Sunday morning talk show. They wanted three local journalists, and politically correctly they picked out a woman (Clare Crawford of the Washington Daily News), a black male (Bill from the Washington Post), and white male (me from The Washingtonian magazine). They wanted us to talk about local issues, and as a hint of what was going to happen to journalism, they wanted more heat than light. So we did it. Every Friday morning we’d get on the phone and talk about the week’s top local issues and how we were going to disagree with each other. Then we’d go out to the Channel 4 studios on Nebraska Avenue and sit down with moderator Angela Owens and tape the show for viewing on Sunday.

I think we enjoyed it at first–it was one of the first TV talk shows featuring print journalists, we got a little money and notice, and we hoped we were helping sell copies of our publications. I was never sure how Clare felt about the charade, but it didn’t take long for Bill and I to talk about the high B.S. factor of what we were doing. After about two years of this, WRC mercifully moved on to different Sunday morning programming.

In 1974 The Washingtonian honored Bill as one of our Washingtonians of the Year for his local journalism. There was no B.S. in this–Bill was a great columnist and nobody could better reach both blacks and whites. Lots of reasoned discussion, lots of bridge-building, lots of light.

In 1975 when I married Jean Vincent in the back yard of our Bethesda home, Bill and his wife Sondra were there.

Then in October 1976, The Washingtonian published what probably was its most controversial cover ever. It showed an ice cream cone–one scoop of vanilla topped by four scoops of chocolate. The cover headline was “Can Whites Survive in DC?” The cover deck: “A ‘Chocolate City” mentality is taking hold in the District. A new kind of racism is emerging. And there is a greater frustration and bitterness between blacks and whites.” Bill wrote about the cover and came pretty close to calling the magazine racist. We exchanged some private written words but  didn’t see much of each other for some time.

In 2001 I wrote Bill a note about a Washington Post story that had echoes of our 1976 cover story. He wrote a good column about it.

In 2003 The Washingtonian published an admiring story about Bill’s efforts to improve the education of small children in his Mississippi hometown of Okolona. He was giving lots of his time and money to make a difference in the lives of lots of kids.

In 2005 Bill retired from the Washington Post and split his time between teaching at Duke University and his efforts to help the kids in his Mississippi home town. Finally, in 2010 we both spoke at a dinner of the Society of Professional Journalist in Washington. As always, he was the most admired journalist in the room–a great journalist and a great man.

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