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Column: The brilliant oddball

In most ways, he was the least likely newspaper impresario. In most ways, he was a most absent-minded professor. But for the group who worked for him, it was the combination that made him deeply admired and, it has to be said, beloved.

Gene Roberts, a distinguished New York Times reporter who covered the civil rights movement and Vietnam, was named executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1972. At the time, the Inquirer was widely regarded as one of, if not the worst newspaper in the country. Fish wrap, in journalism parlance.

I didn’t get there until 1980, but in the early months of his arrival there are myriad stories of his wandering around the newsroom, observing but making only gnomic mutterings.

As the newsroom tried to figure out what this Roberts character was like and what he would do with the paper, it became clear that he was regarded by his previous colleagues as brilliant but equally odd in his mannerisms and approach to the processing of daily life.

The bottom line seemed to be: He will meander about intellectually and then start doing some important stuff.

That important stuff included hiring some of the best editors and writers in the business, pushing them (without any sensation of being pushed) to put out an excellent newspaper that, by the time he got the newsroom fully humming, was, along with the Times and the Washington Post, on any given day, the best newspaper in the country.

He took it from fish wrap to 18 Pulitzer Prizes in 17 years before he went back to the Times on the masthead for his final go-round. It was an unparalleled journalistic achievement and one we celebrated recently with a 50th anniversary reunion at Columbia University to honor Gene on his 90th birthday.

The Inquirer newsroom of those days (it has long since fallen into financial extremis and is now owned by a nonprofit entity) always had a jocular undercurrent swirling amid the deadly serious business of covering the news.

And sure enough, the evening’s program included a wacky skit poking fun at the Inquirer’s penchant for undertaking massive investigative projects (often Pulitzer Prize winners) that took many months if not years to complete.

The year before I got there the Three Mile Island nuclear plant calamity began to unfold, and the Inquirer sent a small army of reporters to the scene, foreshadowing the kind of flood-the-zone tactics that the paper became known for.

After the skit, Steve Lopez, a former Inquirer columnist, uncorked a hilarious reminiscence of some of Gene’s most notable goofiness. One of the best known was Gene’s coming out of his office and asking his devoted assistant if he had had lunch that day. She said yes and he said what did I have and she said the same thing you have every day: a chicken salad sandwich.

This was the sort of absent-mindedness that endeared Gene to his troops. Although it must be said that, to me, it is hard to square this kind of looniness with his assembling and orchestrating such a fabulous newspaper. It’s too harsh, but it’s almost like an inmate running the asylum.

But that’s precisely why 150 alums traveled to New York City to praise him and his legendary exploits.

Lopez, who was on a roll, told a Gene story I had not heard. Carol, his assistant, was on vacation, and Gene was left to his own devices for lunch. It is assumed that Gene had never before been to the cafeteria on his own. It is further assumed that he managed to get his chicken salad sandwich.

But getting a beverage proved daunting. As Lopez told it, Gene, after watching several lunch-goers, managed to find the cup dispenser and saw how to push a button to get his choice of beverage flowing. Gene filled his cup to the brim.

But he needed ice. Tapping into the sublime goofy lobe of his brain, Gene punched the button for ice, unleashing a torrent of ice into the totally filled cup and creating an avalanche (Lopez’s term) of soda and ice spilling on the floor. There’s that disconnect between brilliance and oddball-ness that is our Gene.

He gave a short, sweet speech in a quavery voice and the night was over.

Left publicly unsaid were dozens of Gene stories circulating in the room, including one of my favorites.

Somehow a bunch of newsroom pranksters managed to get a camel into his office. Journalism at its finest.