Ask just about any journalist — any person, really — who knew David Corcoran, and they will have a story. Each story will be different, but certain words will inevitably surface. Among the most common will be “mentor,” “supportive,” “happy,” and “friend.”
David, a 27-year veteran of The New York Times, a nurturing editor and career guide to countless young journalists, and most recently the Associate Director of the Knight Science Journalism Program here at MIT, died Sunday evening at his home in New Mexico. He was 72.
He had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, “an aggressive form of the disease that requires aggressive treatment,” he told us in an email message last September, shortly after retiring from KSJ. He delivered word of his illness as matter-of-factly as one might expect from the former editor of the Science Times. “Hope to be able to share better news with you soon,” he added.
He did share better news. Those who knew him well knew that David was not just a New York Times science editor; he was a food critic, a lover of good wine and classical music, a devoted fan of baseball and literature, and a published poet who understood the connections between language and our shared humanity. And so he spent the last year eloquently updating us on his gauntlet of chemotherapy, on his waves of weakness and strength, and on his relentless, upbeat certainty that just beyond this setback or that downturn, hope lingered, and that there was little reason for any of us to focus on anything else.
In these updates he almost always included a wry joke or a play on words. As his wife Bonnie put it recently, “Throughout this whole difficult year, David’s attitude has always been that he is a happy man, and a huge part of this is how cherished and supported he felt and feels by all of you.”
He was just like that — and he imparted his generosity of spirit to the numerous journalists who worked alongside or under him over the years. “David was kind and supportive like a good dad,” wrote science journalist Christie Aschwanden in a touching tribute posted online. “His tenor let me know that he trusted my judgment, and his confidence spilled over to me as I set out to report a story. His edits were always gentle and affirming. He never failed to leave a story better than it was before, and he always worked in service of the story, not his own ego. I’ve never met an editor with a more adept touch. I can’t ever recall getting an edit back from him that didn’t make me happy. Ask any writer — that’s a very rare thing!”
Writing from abroad, KSJ’s director Deborah Blum recalled the air of support and conviviality that David established on moving from New York to Cambridge, where he spent two years spearheading Undark’s podcast, playing friend and confidant to KSJ’s research fellows, mentoring interns from MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, and standing ready to remind you that life was too short to wallow in worry or conflict. “We were so lucky to have David join us here at KSJ after he left The Times,” Blum wrote. “His talent, intelligence, kindness, and warmth defined the job — and his relations with both staff and fellows. He is already so deeply missed.”
Many former KSJ fellows who were lucky enough to have met and spent their nine months in Cambridge alongside David have expressed similar sentiments, including this from Joshua Hatch, a 2016-’17 fellow and the director of digital products at The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“My year as a KSJ fellow in 2017 is marked with many memories, nearly all of which include David Corcoran,” Hatch writes. “He was one of the first people to reach out to me (about going to a baseball game, naturally), and one of the last to say goodbye once the fellowship ended — though we continued to stay in touch as his illness progressed. He became a friend and confidant — someone with whom I could share a laugh as well as my fears and anxieties. His equanimity was a steadying presence during a time of turmoil and uncertainty. His curiosity reminded me that learning is a lifelong endeavor that never needs to fade. David was an example of the kind of person I hope to be: compassionate, funny, and interested in everything. I didn’t have the luxury of knowing or working with David for decades, but I consider myself lucky to have been befriended by him for the past two years. He has made my life better, and for that, I will always be grateful.”
Of course, David would never have wanted anyone to mourn him for too long — though maybe just for a little while, he might have said with a wink. One friend and former colleague shared that he’d asked David, many years ago, long before he was sick, if the march of years and the ever-closer promise of death unnerved him. David’s deadpan reply: “No, it just means I have a shorter time to live than I used to.” In another email message — one in a long thread now percolating with tributes and remembrances — longtime science journalist Marc Kaufman recalled “that [David] often seemed to be walking on air, so I watched him cross the room more carefully to see how he did it. The trick was walking, to some extent, on his toes,” Kauffman noted. “It might have seemed odd in someone else, but with David it seemed very much like a pleasure and excitement to be moving through the world — and the newsroom.”
I know what Kaufman means. I first met David over 20 years ago. It was the spring of 1999, I was 29, and less than a year into my tenure at The New York Times — hired the summer before as a news assistant on the graphics desk. My duties were those of a glorified clerk: answering phones, gathering data for the graphics editors, and otherwise paying my dues. But of course, I wanted to write — though even there inside that hallowed newsroom, it seemed wildly out of reach. I was an early college drop-out who only dropped back in at 25; who had never had a byline in anything but a college newspaper; and who felt every bit the impostor, having slipped into the Gray Lady through a side door.
David had just taken over as editor of the Education desk at The Times, and having watched him deftly edit copy on the assortment of maps and charts that passed through our desk, I approached him, rather sheepishly, about doing some writing for him on the side, now that he had this new role. With precisely none of the solemnity, self-importance, or distracted indifference that typified many other editors, he surprised me with his good-natured reply: “I’d love to have you write for me,” he declared, seeming for all the world to mean it. “What do you have in mind?”
I’d had in mind a story about computer technology entering the classroom — a quaint notion now, but the crest of a wave back then. It became my first byline in The New York Times, and as I’ve told others, that likely set the course for the rest of my career. I’d eventually leave the graphics desk, spending long stints as a reporter, a columnist, and even sometimes an editor myself at the paper.
I owe many people many debts for their help and guidance on that journey. But David cracked that crucial door for me, just as I know he’s done for countless others. I can only hope to pay it forward with the same grace and good cheer.
My last direct correspondence with David came at the end of June. He’d reached another setback in his illness, and I’d sent him a note telling him that I was thinking of him, that it all seemed unfair, and that I was sure a turn in fortunes was coming. He wrote back with thanks, but also to make clear that he was keeping his chin up. “I’m actually feeling better,” he wrote, “and getting no end of enjoyment (if that’s the word) from each day’s NYT.”
A devoted reader to the end, he was.
He also said something in that last exchange that reminds me a bit of what Marc Kaufman noted – about how David seemed to float across a room. It was true, but David probably would have said that he gained lift not from some inward quality, but from his interactions with others. Whether he was offering advice or a well-placed quip; whether he was watching a young journalist land a big story, or helping personally to push that story into the world, David seemed to take genuine pleasure in other people. They put a spring in his step, and he had a way of making you know it, even thanking you gently for it — never realizing, probably, that he was teaching all of us how to face life’s challenges, including the biggest challenge of them all.
“These good vibes seem to lift me,” he wrote in his final sign-off, “so I’m always an inch or two off the ground.”
Tom Zeller Jr. was a 2013-’14 Knight Science Journalism Fellow. He is currently the editor in chief of Undark magazine.
We welcome your own thoughts and remembrances of David in the comments below.