Friday, 22 February 2008

Reclaiming a gallant voice

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / February 22, 2008

William Worthy reported from Communist China, the Shah's Iran, and Cuba in the early days of Fidel Castro.

He aroused the ire of the State Department by defying travel bans in the 1950s and 1960s and slipping into nations that were off-limits to Americans.

He was the subject of a famous Phil Ochs folk song, "The Ballad of William Worthy" that celebrated his exploits.

And now this journalism legend, born and raised in one of Roxbury's most prominent families, sits nearly forgotten in an assisted-living facility in Hyde Park. At 86, he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

One of Worthy's fondest memories and professional highlights was his time as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, class of 1957. The Nieman Foundation will honor him today with the prestigious Louis M. Lyons Award, named after the program's longtime curator.

"The award is given to a journalist who represents the spirit of conscience and integrity that Louis stood for in his life and career," the current curator, Robert Giles, told me. "We're going to make this a real celebration of Bill's life and career."

The honor is overdue. But it won't do enough to rescue Worthy from his undeserved obscurity.

When I visited recently, he wasn't able to describe his exploits in detail, but many others have been happy to do it for him.

Worthy was a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and a contributor to CBS News beginning shortly after World War II, when blacks were scarce in mass media. An early patron was Edward R. Murrow, the legendary newsman, who encouraged him to pursue a career in radio and then television.

Worthy was always drawn to left-wing causes, and much of his best-known reporting was from Communist-bloc countries.

Worthy combined activism and journalism in a way that would be more difficult today. His political activism began in his early 20s. Worthy refused to fight in World War II, becoming a conscientious objector. "There was no way I could kill another human being," he told me. He was a Freedom Rider in the early days of the civil rights movement and a friend of Malcolm X.

All of this was a departure from the genteel circumstances in which he had been raised. When Worthy entered college, he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a well-known obstetrician. But he discovered that his passion and his talents lay elsewhere.

Worthy's reporting career wound down in the early 1980s. He taught journalism at Boston University, where he clashed with president John R. Silber, and inaugurated a course in media criticism at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He retired from a post at Howard University a few years ago.

After that, he disappeared from view for a while. Michael Lindsey, who taught the media course with Worthy at UMass and greatly admired him, realized last year that he had lost track of his old friend. He tracked him down at the Park Place center in Hyde Park. He discovered that Worthy's money was gone and that he had fallen on hard times.

How he came to be destitute is, at this point, something of a mystery. An appeal by Councilor Chuck Turner has led to the involvement of the city's Law Department, which is working to save Worthy's family home from creditors. There is a trove of Worthy's papers in the home. Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said yesterday that the city hopes that some of Worthy's papers will be placed at the Boston Public Library.

And today, while he is still able to appreciate the moment, he will be honored by the Nieman Foundation. Even as more recent memories have faded, he talks about his year at Harvard with glee.

With its relentless emphasis on the here and now, journalism doesn't do an especially good job of remembering its history. But William Worthy is part of it, reclaimed just in time.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist.

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