Charles Eisendrath, MA’65, retires in July, three decades after becoming director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships at U-M and transforming it into one of journalism’s most prestigious programs. The 75-year-old was himself a fellow in 1974-75 after spending years as a Time magazine correspondent and then a U-M journalism professor.
KWF brings around 20 mid-career journalists to campus each year for a paid sabbatical. Fellows audit classes of interest, travel abroad as a group, and attend twice-weekly seminars in a house donated by late “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace, ’39, HLLD’87. Eisendrath is also the founding director of the Livingston Awards, the largest all-media, general reporting prize for journalists under 35.
Michigan Alumnus gleaned the following in a recent conversation.
OVER DRINKS IN WALLACE’S NEW YORK DUPLEX in the early 1990s, Eisendrath persuaded him to buy and donate what became the Wallace House. “He called his wife, Mary, and said, ‘Hey Mar, Charlie wants to buy a clubhouse for a bunch of journalists at Michigan. I think we ought to do it.’ She said, ‘What do you mean we? It’s your money. You want to do it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I do.’”
AMONG THE JOURNALISM STARS who accompanied the Knight-Wallace fellows on international travel was Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times. Eisendrath was astonished at how game she was to stay in the “fleabag hotel” that, he said, could have doubled as a brothel in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Abramson also gave a seminar in a bathing suit while she and the rest of the journalists waded in a swimming pool.
EISENDRATH COLD-CALLED DAVID CARR, The New York Times media columnist, to ask him to come to Ann Arbor for a seminar in 2010. (Carr’s daughter, Meagan, was about to graduate from U-M.) Carr agreed, and his seminar then became a yearly event. Carr appeared for the last time at Wallace House a month before he died from cancer complications.
EISENDRATH SOMETIMES WENT TO EXTREME lengths to manage seminar speakers. When one talk with a water expert in Istanbul turned into an endless, river-by-river accounting of every Turkish dam, Eisendrath asked the janitor to invent a reason to shut the building down.
IN 2000, ALONG WITH HIS WIFE, TWO SONS, AND DAUGHTER-IN-LAW, Eisendrath survived a plane crash in Costa Rica. He later wrote in The New York Times a happy ending to an otherwise traumatic story. “Our vacation had included someone else … someone who had also survived the crash. Someone conceived in Costa Rica who would join us in September.”
ALSO AN INVENTOR, EISENDRATH built the Argentine-style, open-fire, wood-burning Grillery, which chef James Beard would later acquire and use in his summer cooking school. One of his sons now runs a company that sells them.
PERHAPS THE TENSEST MOMENT of Eisendrath’s KWF years was immediately after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when the newly arrived fellows and their antsy editors begged him to give them leave to cover the aftermath. Eisendrath refused. “I told the fellows what I believe, which is, this is the most important year of your working lives.”
LIKE MANY IN THE WORLD OF JOURNALISM, Eisendrath struggled to adapt to the changing times and the new approaches to reporting and disseminating information. The biggest leap was accepting graphic artist Josh Neufeld in 2012. Neufeld wrote a graphic, nonfiction book about New Orleans based on his time there after Hurricane Katrina. It became a best-seller. “If anyone else decided to go down and write a piece about it, we’d say that it was journalism.”
Steve Friess, an Ann Arbor-based freelance journalist, was a Knight-Wallace fellow in 2011-12.