By: Joe Strupp
During his 38 years at The Washington Post, Leonard Shapiro has covered numerous major events, from Super Bowls to championship pro golf, for the sports pages. But in all of his years at the paper, he has likely never encountered the kind of assignment his son, Taylor, has been following for the past week.
The younger Shapiro, a sophomore at Virginia Tech, is among the student journalists for the university’s Collegiate Times, who have garnered national attention since Monday for breaking stories, offering complete Web and print coverage, and rivaling even major national outlets in their reporting on the deadly shooting.
“I have seen their stuff and they have been doing great,” said Leonard Shapiro, who spoke Friday via cell near his home in Middleburg, Va. “It certainly is a defining moment in all of those kids lives.”
For the elder Shapiro, watching his son cover the tragedy has meant a mix of pride in his offspring’s journalistic prowess, and the concern that any parent would feel after their child came so close to such a shooting. “It was a very strange thing, you always have great concern about your child,” the father said, recalling his first conversation with Taylor on Monday, when his son mentioned he wanted to stay and cover the story. “I just told him to go where the story is, and he has done it all on his own.”
Taylor Shapiro, 20, who joined the student paper just two months ago, said he has mostly covered sports and individual student stories until this week. He said when the shooting occurred, he first sought to contact his father, then jumped on the news. “Personally, I feel like the people need to know more about this, it affects our community,” he said about why he wanted to work the story. “This is like nothing I have ever done.”
Having worked a late shift Sunday night into Monday morning at a local sandwich shop, the younger Shapiro said he woke up in his dorm room by about 10 a.m. Monday, checked e-mail, and saw a note that the first shooting had occurred. “Then I heard about the next one, first that it was seven dead, then 17, and random numbers until the final list of the dead,” he said, deciding to go to the newsroom soon after.
He was immediately put on a story about how tributes to the students were already appearing at facebook.com. That led to the first interview with Erin Sheehan, a student who had witnessed her professor and several others shot to death by the gunman in a German class. He has since written at least 15 stories for the paper’s Web site and daily print editions.
“The experience of talking to people has not been fun, but it has been exciting,” said Shapiro, an English major. “It has been exciting to keep up with it.”
An only child, Taylor transferred to Virginia Tech after a year at Colorado State University, his father said, adding that he played polo out west, with little news involvement. “He had talked about joining the paper, and we said, ‘go for it,” Leonard Shapiro said. “He had wanted to maybe become a horse surgeon, but he might wind up being Dan Rather.”
The older Shapiro said he and his wife, former Post writer and current author Vicky Moon, never pushed their son into news. “He just got byline fever about two months ago and it is something he likes to do,” the father said. “It didn’t surprise me that he has done very well, I think it has helped him keep his mind off of other things.”
Taylor said, during his first few months of news coverage on the paper, he would ask his father to review stories and offer tips, often reading stories to him over the phone. “Before this entire event, my dad was my editor-in-chief,” the college student recalled. “This week, he has been checking the Internet to look at what I put up.”
The younger Shapiro said he has used much of his father’s news influence in covering the shooting aftermath. “I have inherently soaked in what he’s taught me,” Taylor said. “I have learned how he covered these types of things.” Specifically, Taylor praised his father’s resourcefulness, which he has tried to emulate this week. “He has always been good at getting into contact with people who are not usually wiling to speak,” Taylor said.
His father said he has only worried slightly about the effects of the tragedy on his son, adding that he believes Taylor’s hard work and ability are helping him through. “I offered for him to come home the first day if he wanted,” Shapiro said. “But he said this is what he wanted to do.” Leonard Shapiro recalled a phone conversation on Tuesday during which he believes the tragedy hit home for his son. He said Taylor mentioned he had counted some 32 people on his dorm floor that morning, realizing that the number of dead were the same. “He said, ‘Dad, it would have wiped out my whole floor’,” his father recalls.
Shapiro said he could relate somewhat to his son’s news experience, having covered Vietnam war protests and other student uprisings during his college days at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s. “I know what it is like to cover a campus in turmoil,” he said. Still, he noted nothing he has covered offered nearly the same death toll as this. “I hope they learn from it, I suspect they will recover well from it.”
Finally, the duo were reuniting Friday near Middleburg, with plans to spend time together before Taylor heads back to classes when they resume Monday. His father said he is not concerned about his son retuning to the school. “He loves the place,” Leonard Shapiro said. “I want him to do whatever makes him happy.”
Taylor said he also wants to return, but remains uncertain if he wants to make news a career after this experience. “I am keeping my options open,” he said. “This whole event has affected me.”