Remembering David Corcoran, Veteran Journalist and KSJ Family Member

David Corcoran, center, with the New York Times science writers John Noble Wilford and Natalie Angier.

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.

29 Replies to “Remembering David Corcoran, Veteran Journalist and KSJ Family Member”

  1. Bruce S Rosen

    I worked with him at the Bergen Record and for him and played poker with him and was friends for nearly 40 years and there was not a more talented, erudite, witty, kind and gentle man I’ve run into in journalism. Never saw ego.He was a treasure and I’ll miss knowing he may come to the next card game

  2. David Ropeik

    How sad to think of a world without him. He had an honest sincerity and kindness about him. A shape mind, but gentle way. Sad he’s gone.

  3. Aleszu Bajak

    Supportive for sure, and always genuinely excited about what *you* were doing. Always called me “dude,” though he probably would have edited it as “duuuude.”

  4. Bill Celis

    David was one of my editors on the NYT national desk when I was a reporter there. Smart, gracious, generous. Thank you for your rememberance.

  5. Jeff DelViscio

    I can still see David’s wry grin in my mind. That was part of his joke windup — along with a comic pause and eye twinkle — before he threw one down the middle. His wit was like a well-trained muscle. His generosity was like a bottomless well. And his quiet influence over a generation of science journalists is undeniable.

  6. Rona Kobell

    I worked with him on the one story I wrote for Undark. He was a kind and patient editor, and quite kind about my rough draft. It meant a lot to me to have a Times editor praise my work. The world has clearly lost a dear one, and I’m sorry to all who knew him well.

  7. Nils Bruzelius

    I have often regretted that I had only a passing acquaintance with David, even though we graduated just a year apart from the same college and our careers took nearly parallel tracks at different newspapers. Never heard a negative word about him. Rest in peace.

  8. Will Joyner

    Beautiful job of catching David in words, Tom—not any easy task. Working with, and trying to follow the example of, David at The Record and The Times was a professional blessing for me. Even more of a blessing was having him as a friend….. An extraordinary life to celebrate….

  9. Richard Sime

    I knew David for 15 or so years as a poet, for many years in a class at The New School entitled “Making Poems: A Continuing Workshop” led by Patricia Carlin, and also at various poetry workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown MA. David was/is a superb poet, witty, moving, and adept with his own voice and tone. I knew him, too, as a dear friend whose retirement from the NYT left me feeling somewhat beached without his physical presence. His late love affair with Bonnie was a thing to behold. On my way to meet them at a lovely restaurant in Piermont NY (David had done food reviews for the NYT, with many delicious stories to share), I got out of my car and there the two of them were, sharing an enthusiastic kiss on main street. I’ll miss him terribly.

  10. Greg Ryan

    This is sad news indeed and your description of David is very apt. Sometime in the mid-’80s or the ’90s, I had occasion to fill in for the regular Science Times art director. Each section of the paper has its own idiosyncrasies and editors of practiced indifference you refer to I had, as the alien outsider I was, to navigate my way to achieve their trust. David Corcoran, an assistant editor then provided a bridge by being a generous and sympathetic guide. Later on every time I was assigned to something he was involved in I looked forward to his genuine collaborative spirit.

  11. SAM A GRONNER

    I’m devastated with the news of the death of David Corcoran, a former colleague from the Bergen Record. A journalist par excellence and down to earth Renaissance man whose inquisitiveness led him to explore all facets of life. A tremendous loss, far too soon.

  12. Maryn McKenna

    I knew David very slightly; every year until he retired he would represent the Times at the AHCJ’s Pitchfest, which I help run, and we would have dinner. I found it a marvel that, in a profession that elevates sharp elbows and sharp dealing, he was consistently, rigorously kind. We are diminished by losing him.

  13. Susan Moran

    What a beautiful tribute you wrote, Tom. Such sad news. And what an inspiration, for me, anyway, to help and support others more, and in doing so to experience, as Marc Kaufman observed of David, that lift of the step. I worked with David only once, on a story for Science Times, and I can say that he was the best editor of all: offering a seemingly light touch that resulted in big improvements in quality, and in my confidence and motivation and gratitude.

  14. Harriet Brown

    David was one of my first editors at the Times, and as you point out, he always left a piece better than he found it. He was a mensch and a brilliant editor and he will be missed.

  15. fran schumer

    He was as nice as he was handsome as he was a fine poet as he was a compassionate and brilliant editor. When he cut a piece, it didn’t hurt. I’m glad to be reminded of why we all liked him so much. It reminds me of the kind of human being I want to keep striving to be.

  16. Jonathan Aibel

    I was in a couple of poetry workshops with David; he was charming and so intelligent. I loved working with him.

  17. Carl Zeitz

    As I have said to others tonight, and I worked with David but briefly during my sting on the Record Editorial Board, he was a civil and civilized man as few are and in everything he did.

  18. Dina Kraft

    So sorry to hear this news. I wrote several stories for David when he was at the NYT and was always so moved by his generosity and enthusiastic support. His memory will definitely be a blessing. Thanks for this beautiful tribute.

  19. Carey B Goldberg

    “Rigorously kind” is beautifully put. My one consolation is that I believe his beautiful character was its own reward, and life gave him much pleasure and meaning…….

  20. Mike McGough

    I met David on an editorial writers’ trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Late-night talks in Leningrad, Yerevan and Baku were the beginning of a long (and for me edifying) friendship. David was a graceful writer, an incisive editor and a witty conversationalist, but I was most impressed by his decency and moral imagination.

  21. Wendy Wolfson

    When my kids got to be part of a cool story on play, David Corcoran was very gracious about the opinions of a couple of kindergartners. He treated their concerns with gravity and made them feel important.

  22. Amanda Mascarelli

    I was utterly floored to hear the news about David early this week. When I was a grad student working on my master’s degree in journalism, I mustered the nerve to pitch David a story idea at the Science Times. He rejected it, but did so with kindness and encouragement that left me feeling inspired to keep trying. Soon after, I was in NYC, traveling back from an internship in London, and I asked him if I could stop by to meet him. He not only made time to meet with me, but with a rare generosity of spirit he showed me around the news room, introduced me to other editors, and genuinely showed interest in me and my career. That made anything seem possible.

    A few months later, I landed my first story with him, and I had the good fortune to work with him a few more times after. I have always held him up as my favorite example of a model editor; his edits never ceased to make dramatic improvements, yet his touch was light and he always left my voice and intent intact. That always seemed a magical combination that we all know is far too rare in this business.

    Thank you for capturing him so beautifully, Tom.

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