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Full Circle

Posted by sjbutterfield on September 12, 2008

Sometimes it all boils down to chance.

That’s the moral I can deduce from my encounter with Seymour Topping, former managing editor of the vaunted New York Times and chairman of the Pulitzer Selection Committee, who I caught as he was walking into the dedication of the Reynolds Journalism Institute Friday afternoon. It’s also the lesson that can be derived from the chance meeting we discussed, the time he hired my father as a Times stringer in Taipei in 1962, indirectly leading me here to journalism and, once again, to Seymour Topping.

Topping, himself a 1943 MU School of Journalism alumnus, hired my father, Fox Butterfield, while he was a Fulbright Scholar studying Chinese in Taipei after he completed his master in Chinese from Harvard. Fox had no experience in journalism, but came to Topping on the recommendation of a professor of Chinese he knew at Harvard. Topping was, at the time, foreign editor at the Times, and he recalled Butterfield to New York to serve on the Metro desk, abruptly ending my father’s Fulbright scholarship but setting him on the course he would follow for the rest of his life.

As Topping and I talked on the steps in front of the new Reynolds building, it couldn’t help striking me how fated and serendipitous this meeting was. For one, most everyone in my life who knew my father as a young man tells me how eerily identical our resemblance is. If one looks at a photo of the two of us from the same age we’re nearly indistinguishable, it is a bit strange, and I couldn’t help thinking that Topping must have been baffled to have an embodiment of the man he hired standing next to him.

All I could ponder while we spoke was how weirdly pre-ordained this was, as though it were something of a passing of the gauntlet, but of the burning journalistic gauntlet, as the sole force in our meeting was a passion for covering the news.

Our discussion wasn’t all about familial ties, though, Topping and I also talked about some of his most memorable stories, which are certainly noteworthy and enduringly important. Topping got to cover the fall of Jang Kaishek’s capitol, Nanjing, in January 1949 to Mao’s rebel Communist forces. “I was alone, the only journalist in the field,” he said about his time as an AP stringer given the position of Chief Correspondent in North China.

Topping also had the chance fortune of covering the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trial of U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers in Moscow in the early 1960s, both of which he cited as among his greatest stories. Adding to his litany of credentials, Topping was the first American journalist to cover the French – Indochina War in early 1950. He met John F. Kennedy in Saigon in 1951 and, tragically, would not meet the President again as he recounted another significant moment in his life as a journalist, writing President Kennedy’s obituary.

“I had just come home from Moscow and I was invited for a publisher’s luncheon at the New York Times building in honor of the police commissioner. While he was talking, Clifton Daniel, the managing editor, was called to the phone,” he said. “Daniel came back, and said the president’s been shot, and he was such a young president that we discovered we didn’t even have an obituary on file, so I was assigned to write the obit, and while I’m typing Daniel comes by and says ‘the president’s dead.'”

As Mr. Topping continued to relate watershed stories he’d covered, my thoughts drifted back to fate and how haphazard and dilapidated it often is. How could I be standing beside a man 70 years my senior discussing current events, the same man who had been my father’s boss at perhaps the best newspaper on earth? How had my father even come to be a journalist? Entirely by chance is the answer, as is how he ended up in Vietnam, or in Beijing, or in Hong Kong, or in New York, or in Boston; it was the product of an immeasurably complex series of events unfolding out of any of our hands which somehow plopped us all down at some point in time and gave us meaning, a task. Somehow though, I’m quite content with that, because journalism is the binding force which whisked both my father and Mr. Topping all over the world and behind the scenes of some of the most important historical events of recent history.

Journalism, then, is the reason I am here, to learn the craft and to be prepared to be whisked off to whatever force comes tugging, notebook in hand. It’s to pass along his infinite wisdom on the subject that Mr. Topping is here, and, in all seriousness, it’s journalism that is one of the central forces in my existence, as my parents’ meeting was spurred by my mother, a Los Angeles Times reporter in New York believing my father was out to steal her story. It’s journalism, also, which has often been a unifying force in giving them a cohesive, lasting marriage, as dinner table talks about ledes and blasted editors and tomorrow’s page one and how many columns had been cut and how many rewrites were needed were the norm in the Butterfield house.

It all did come full circle for me today, in a fortuitous way. I had a fruitful, incredibly interesting discussion with a legend in the field who, strangely enough, opened the journalistic door for my father, almost signaling the door slowly creaking open for my partners, Spencer Pearson and Madeline Beyer, and me.

Topping and I did talk a little about his days here in Columbia. He made it exceedingly clear that he will be “eternally grateful,” to the journalism school here, as he explained that upon reaching Nanjing in 1949 as an AP writer he had absolutely no experience other than his time at the Missourian.

Forget fiction, just getting the facts suffices in this story.

One Response to “Full Circle”

  1. Eva Dou said

    The facts do suffice. A remarkable story.

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