I Called My First Northwestern Professor Last Night to Try to Make Sense of James Foley's Death

He went to my alma mater and represented what a true journalist really is: fearless and bold.
Publish date:
August 20, 2014
tragedy, northwestern, James Foley

"Hello?" the woman on the other end of the phone answered. She sounded groggy.

"Hi Pam, it's Mandy Stadtmiller."

"Mandy," she repeated bewildered. "Is everything OK? Are you OK?"

Pam Cytrynbaum, my first journalism professor at Northwestern University, answered the phone late last night as I called from New York at my time, half past midnight. I could tell immediately from the sound of her voice she no longer lived on the West Coast, and it was way, way too late to call someone I had not spoken to in several years, since first hearing about the birth of her beautiful daughter and telling her all about my beautiful divorce. New beginnings for us both. But she was kind, always.

"Oh God," I stuttered apologetically at hearing her tired but friendly tone. I was immediately mortified by realizing what I had done, calling her at this ungodly, beyond inappropriate hour for a former student reaching out to her first professor of journalism who taught her to know better but to go ahead and call anyway. "I'm so sorry, Pam. For some reason I was thinking you still lived in Oregon. It's not 9:30 where you are, is it?"

Pam's voice sounded soft, concerned, maybe even amused, just like she was when I walked into her classroom for "Basic Writing," the very first journalism course that every student at Northwestern has to take, a required class to learn the basics of writing and the basics of the reporting life: where there are no shades of gray, but rather there is right and there is a printed correction in the paper the next day. A course, where if you have one factual error in what you turn in, no matter how small it is, you are branded with a big red "F" on your paper. It is a class meant to scare any overachieving, paralyzed by perfectionism, tightly wound 18-year-old into something resembling competence.

"No I don't think it's 9:30," she said gently, not completely berating me, even though she would have well been in her right to do so. "No, I think it's...let's see, it's 11:30. I'm in Chicago. But that's OK. Are you OK? What's going on, Mandy?"

"I'm fine," I said stupidly but there was no turning back on this phone call now. "It's just -- I was calling because I was trying to figure out what I should write for tomorrow, and I keep reading these stories about James Foley's death. It really made me want to do something to honor him. And he went to Northwestern. And I want to write something, but I don't know what, and..."

"Oh no," she said when I said "James Foley" and "death" so close together. "I was just trying to believe it wasn't true. Is it true? Is it definitely confirmed? Are you sure?"

Her voice now sounded a whole lot less tired and a whole lot more heartbroken.

"It's confirmed," I said. "I'm sorry, Pam. Did you know him?"

"No, I didn't know James personally," she said. "But I know many people who did. Other professors and students. I just remember the first time he was taken from Libya, and I can't believe this is true. When people spoke about him, you just really could tell you were hearing about somebody rare, somebody special."

"I guess that's why I wanted to talk to you," I said, stumbling.

"Yes," she said. "I'm glad you did."

I don't think you ever quite lose the deference of a student-teacher relationship even when decades have past. I wanted a professor's guidance to deal with this mind-boggling atrocity, this stupefyingly grotesque execution of an alum who represented the best of what journalism has to offer.

So I turned to Pam.

My Basic Writing teacher Pam Cytrynbaum was Mike Royko's assistant at The Chicago Tribune, for many, many years, before she became my first journalism professor at Northwestern. It was there she brought in to the classroom as a guest lecturer the then-editor of The Daily Northwestern who not only taught me how silence opens people up far more than any question ever will but who also later hired me at The New York Post, completely resuscitating my entire career, all predicated on a fleeting introduction a teacher once made. It was there she forced all of us to read "Writing Down the Bones" and Carl Sandburg and the daily newspaper every day. It was there she encouraged us to visit her after-hours in her cozy and grown-up plant-strewn apartment near Lincoln Park, where she served us coffee and cakes and photographed us all together and later used the picture in a published book we couldn't believe we were all actually in. It was there she had us write a daily journal about what was happening in our lives (I wrote tortured pages and pages on the death of Kurt Cobain) and it was there she took us out onto the campus in the pouring rain, and she showed us how when the pens dried up and the ink stopped flowing, that's why you always carried a pencil with you so you could take notes. It would come in handy at a police officer press conference, she said, during those times when we had to cover a murder scene.

Today Pam is the executive director of the Chicago Innocence Project. She is a badass, through and through. She represents to me journalism in any of the glory it has left, before "marketing" ever got stuck into the title of half the journalism curriculum young students are taught. She is and will always be one of the good guys. I knew she was the person to talk to about James Foley.

"I'm sorry to keep saying I can't believe it, but I just can't believe it," she said, shellshocked. "It is tragic. With every newspaper shutting down their foreign bureaus, you really do have to be a maverick to be doing this anymore and to display that kind of coverage nowadays. And they're arresting reporters left and right. You have to look at what this means for someone like him who was willing to do this work. Someone who was willing to risk their life in order to take the pictures that he took and to report on the stories as they were actually happening from the inside. There are certain horrors, I guess, like the Vietnam war where until you see the humanity of it and you fully understand the risks that a journalist like him was willing to take to make these pictures and to write these words, you don't fully understand the impact."

I was typing down her words as they created pictures in my own mind. I didn't really know what to ask. I am not an international reporter by any stretch of the imagination. But we both knew what I was doing. She was my source. I was reporting. I was reporting on what it meant to be a reporter. She was giving me the quotes she knew I needed to write a story about this alum of the journalism school where both of us had an inextricable bond and knew the balance of vulture-dom and pathos, care and detachment that churning out any kind of breaking news cycle story requires. She knew that I was trying my best. She was giving me hers. But she kept repeating the one thing that I knew was her terrible mantra, that I knew anyone with any kind of connection to him must be repeating, too.

"I just keep pretending it isn't true," she said. "I just didn't want to believe it was true."

I didn't know what to say to that. I wanted to comfort her and absorb all of the sadness into me and only let the universal truths stand, shiny and polished, after the horror in her voice subsided. I wanted to ask something meaningful. I wanted to have the intrusion of my phone call mean anything beyond a reporter-turned-blogger waking up her old journalism professor late at night to ask for help on a story that was beyond her reach. I couldn't think of anything to ask so instead I asked what I really wanted to.

"Are we all just f-cked?" I asked as blunt as a midnight phone call. "Is the world just f-cked?"

She didn't laugh at me, though, or make me feel dumb. She responded like a good teacher would.

"I think," my first journalism professor said, "there are cycles of f-cked. I think we're in one. There are a lot of cycles of f-cked. It just depends on how awake you are and how much attention you're paying. It's been bad. It's getting bad. It's going to get worse. It's that now we're old enough to pay attention and now we have kids and our friends have kids and so you pay attention a lot more differently. You feel a lot more deeply f-cked than when you were 18 or 19 and your journalism teacher gives you a current events quiz. Because now your friends are dying."

She had nailed it like I knew she would.

"What do you think I should write?" I begged her. "I just couldn't bring myself to be tone-deaf and ignore this as I read about his life and his beginnings at Medill. I didn't want to pretend like this horrific thing hadn't just happened. That the world isn't reeling and disgusted and without words."

My first journalism teacher made me feel not stupid. That's what a good first journalism teacher does.

"I think your instinct is good," she said. "I think I understand what you are saying because something like this happens and you start to realize that we all only go around once. You can look at choices that someone like James made. Very few people have that kind of fearlessness and that kind of super-human ability to do what so many other people are afraid to do. You can not mythologize him. You can look at your own choices."

You can look at your own choices.

My first journalism teacher was tired. It was late, and she was kind to me always, but she had given me what she knew I needed, and she knew that I had it, that I had understood her quotes, had written them down and I was ready to turn in the assignment.

"Thank you," I said. "Thank you, Pam."

"It's OK," she said blearily, and then, the terrible mantra: "I just feel like I'm still waiting to hear it wasn't really him."

I hung up the phone, and Pam sent me a final text a few minutes before she fell asleep. Because for as many times as she said what she said she did knew it was him and she knew what a death like this means. And she knew what a reporter like him meant to every journalist and every person who lives like there is fear encroaching them all around, like life is meant to be massaged and cajoled, like this is a dress rehearsal.

Her text was short.

She wrote: "Explore more of this. Push harder to engage. You called me for a reason. You want me to tell you, to assign you, to pursue. I love what you write. But we both know you have more to say."

Like any good teacher, she was right.