Several weeks ago, Steve Isaacs passed away. The Washington Post’s obituary led with the fact that he was the Post’s metro editor while he was still in his 20s. But he was also a teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, teaching two famous classes: a huge lecture-hall class on ethics (co-taught with the late Professor James W. Carey) and a tiny seminar class on reporting and writing, or “RW1.” I had the good fortune to have him for both, back in 1999. To me, Steve Isaacs was the best thing about Columbia.
He was a physically imposing man, who walked with a limp and spoke in a rasp. When he liked what we wrote, he called it “poetry,” and when he really liked it, he called it “f—– poetry.” When he didn’t like it, he’d slap a copy on an overhead projector and read it out loud while marking it with a red pen and glaring at us between the edits, offended that we’d committed such egregious sins against journalism.
He taught us how to generate story ideas, and he taught us not to be afraid if the ideas were bad. You only need one good one, right? He was famous for making students generate 100 story ideas from a can of Tab, but after someone mouthed off, he made our class come up with 100 story ideas about dryer lint. (Yes, the cottony stuff you pull out of the basket in the clothes dryer.)
He had a way of saying things so they stuck with you. When he didn’t like the verbs we chose, he’d bark out fiercely, “The verb drives the sentence.” Then he’d glare and say in a voice dripping with derision: “Not ‘The verb is the main part of the sentence.’ ”
If you went to his office hours and told him you were in over your head and didn’t know if you’d make it to graduation, he’d huff and puff and glare and dismiss your concerns as if they were totally irrelevant, and you’d leave his office feeling strangely better and thinking maybe you would make it. And by the end of the year, you had.
Thank you, thank you, Steve Isaacs. RIP.