By: Mark Fitzgerald
Nearly two decades later, Ken Herman remembers how, in his first job out of college, he followed up on a two-graph wire service obit and wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize sp.
HE WAS THE most intriguing winner among the 1977 Pulitzer Prize recipients: a reporter fresh out of college who helped his tiny Texas paper win the Public Service category by following up on a two-graph wire service obit.
“Kid from Brooklyn wins Pulitzer for Lufkin News,” E&P headlined its story on that year’s Pulitzers.
Ken Herman, a 22-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native just 18 months out of Florida Atlantic University, was definitely the most obscure journalist in the ranks of the 1977 Pulitzer winners.
Among the other recipients: the Associated Press’ then-chief political writer Walter Mears, Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Acel Moore and Wendell Rawls Jr., Boston Globe editorial cartoonist Paul Szep and syndicated columnist George Will.
Certainly, Herman and his editors at the Lufkin News, then a barely 12,000-circulation paper owned by Cox Enterprises, were the most surprised by their prize.
“The famous story is that, because we had won some other award, [the articles] came to the attention of the Pulitzer committee and they sent us a letter inviting us to enter the pieces. We were so excited that we framed that letter ? never expecting we would actually win,” Herman recalled in an interview.
Two decades later, Herman says he regards the Pulitzer as a matter of luck as much as anything.
“I’ve never gone out, trying to get a second Pulitzer,” said Herman, who is now Austin bureau chief for the Houston Post.
“I’ve always believed that’s a bad motivation for doing stories,” he added. “And, anyway, the contest world is so peculiar. The same story had not won the top prize in the state AP contest. It was won ? and I remember this very clearly, after all these years ? by the Kilgore News Herald for a story about a school bond issue. That must have been the greatest school-bond-issue story ever written.”
Clearly, there is still a lot of the kid from Brooklyn in this husband and father who turns 41 in May and who has spent nearly 20 years as a Texas journalist.
“Do I feel [winning the Pulitzer] is a lifelong burden to live up to? No,” Herman said.
He’s not even sure, he adds, that his story would win the Pulitzer in these days when the Public Service award often goes to massive ? and massively documented ? series illustrated with heart-rending photos and slick info-graphics.
Certainly, that is not how the Lufkin News won its 1977 Pulitzer.
The whole thing started, Herman said, with a tiny AP brief in the spring of 1976, reporting that a 20-year-old Lufkin man had died during combat training at a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp.
That obit, and a visit to the Lufkin News’ then-editor, Joe Murray, by the slain Marine’s uncle, prompted Herman to investigate the death of Lynn “Bubba” McClure.
Herman began asking questions in print from the moment McClure’s funeral took place.
“As he was lowered into his grave, two questions puzzled his family and those who knew him . . . . They were, How had a 10th-grade dropout with learning disabilities passed the Marine entrance tests? And why, despite a protective football helmet and face mask, had McClure suffered fatal rain damage during combat training exercises with padded sticks?” the first-day story read in part.
Over the next several months, Herman reported some sobering answers to those questions. He uncovered recruiting and training abuses that led to a presidential inquiry, a Congressional investigation ? and fundamental changes in Marine Corps practices.
Herman is proud of the story ? but not inordinately so.
“That was the kind of breaking story almost any reporter working thoroughly and asking questions could have done,” he said.
Over the years ? first, as an AP reporter and chief of bureau in Austin and, since 1988, as Houston Post bureau chief ? Herman has taken at least equal pride in any number of stories: the investigation of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, for instance, or a big project on the failure of Texas school desegregation.
Certainly, Herman says, the Pulitzer changed his life ? but not in the kind of major way that might have been expected.
It did not, for instance, change his career path appreciably. Ironically, Herman had left the Lufkin News four days before the Pulitzer was announced, and was to begin a job at AP’s Dallas bureau within a couple of weeks.
Not surprisingly, journalism job offers poured in immediately afterward. It was a heady experience for someone who only two years before had applied to 150 papers before finally being hired by the Lufkin News.
Still, Herman kept his head about the sudden attention.
“Fortunately, I had already made a career decision . . . . I tried to hone in on the idea that if [joining AP] was a good idea before winning the Pulitzer, it was a good idea after,” he said.
But Herman is reminded of the Pulitzer in many other, less tangible ways.
“I guess a lot of people know I won the Pulitzer. But it has been 20 years, and it often happens that I’ll be working with someone and then they will find out ? and they look at me completely differently,” Herman said.
An even more common occurrence, he reports: “I’ve had this happen about a hundred times ? someone saying, ‘This will be your next Pulitzer.’ That’s how they pitch their story.”
And while the news media often beats its breast that it gets no respect, Herman says that it is usually people who do not work in the field who are most impressed by the Pulitzer. By contrast, he says, many journalists tend to regard the Pulitzer jury and its decision process with suspicion.
Herman’s own concerns are more prosaic. And the “kid from Brooklyn” sounds like many another 40something reporter as he muses about marking his 20th anniversary in journalism this summer and a career spent entirely in Texas ? two developments he might not have believed as a 22-year-old just starting out in the business.
“I think even back then I realized this would be a onetime thing,” he said. “I realized that, short of [my] indictment, when I die, the obit is going to kind of write itself.”
Herman lives in Austin with his wife, Sharon Jayson, a general assignment reporter for the Austin American-Statesman ? “Put in that she taught me everything I know,” he asked during the interview ? and with their 12-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son.
As long ago as the Pulitzer was bestowed on Herman, he got a strange little reminder of it once again the other day ? and a reminder of the cyclical nature of journalism itself.
“There was a small AP obit out of San Diego about a Marine who was killed. It was a Texas guy who had a hand grenade go off during training,” Herman said. “I immediately faxed it over to Joe Murray, who is still at the News, with a note that said, ‘Get on this.’
“It just shows you, the opportunities are still there.”
?( “I’ve never gone out, trying to get a second Pulitzer. “I’ve always believed that’s a bad motivation for doing stories.”)[Caption]
?(-Ken Herman, who is now Austin bureau chief for the Houston Post) [Photo & Caption]