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Former editorial page writer Greenberg dies

Pulitzer Prize winner left his mark by Bill Bowden | April 8, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page editor Paul Greenberg is shown in this May 3, 2012 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL)

In the pages of this newspaper, Paul Greenberg had been preparing for his death.

Referred to home hospice in 2015, he had plenty of time to ruminate on the subject.

"The whole household is in turmoil," he wrote in a Dec. 30, 2015, column titled "As I lay dying." "But is it the turmoil of approaching Death, or of a Return to Life?"

One hour, Greenberg was talking to his lawyers, approving his last will and testament, saying goodbye to family and friends, arranging for a kosher shroud. And the next he was making plans, writing editorials and columns, entertaining visitors and carrying on as if nothing had changed or ever would.

"Only the Lord knows what'll happen," wrote Greenberg, "and perhaps even He is as confused and undecided as I am."

Greenberg lived for another five years and cranked out a lot of columns for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette during that time.

He died Tuesday at age 84, said his wife, Brooke Green­­berg.

[MORE: Read a selection of Paul Greenberg’s columns » arkansasonline.com/greenberg]

"In 2015, there was a somewhat pessimistic evaluation of his long-term health prospects," said Greenberg's son, Daniel Greenberg of Alexandria, Va.

Some diet changes helped, he said.

Daniel Greenberg said a graveside service will be held at 10 a.m. today at Oakland Jewish Cemetery in Little Rock. Masks are suggested.

It's a newspaper policy of sorts to include the cause of death with obituaries, but Paul Greenberg considered that an "invasion of privacy."

"After all, what should our full-coverage obits say? ... 'Hugo O. Snively, 58, died of a gunshot wound after being hit by a jealous husband,'" Greenberg wrote in a Dec. 20, 2015, column. "Really, now. There's no need to go into such detail."

A better question, Greenberg wrote, would be "Why did the subject of the obit choose to live?"

For more than half a century, Paul Greenberg chronicled Arkansas politics and culture, with a sharp pen and a literary mind. In 1969, he won a Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in the profession of journalism.

Greenberg was born in Shreveport on Jan. 21, 1937, the son of Ben and Sarah Greenberg.

The family lived above his father's store on Texas Street in Shreveport.

Gallery: Paul Greenberg 1937 - 2021

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/greenbergphotos/]

Ben Greenberg was a shoe repairman, a trade he learned from his father, Chaim Klitsky, who changed his name to Greenberg when he moved from Poland to the U.S. and settled in Chicago.

"My dad was in several businesses, but always at the same location," Paul Greenberg said in a 1996 interview with C-SPAN. "He started off selling second-hand shoes and fixing them; went on into the pawn business, hated that; went into the furniture business; but always at the same location."

Greenberg worked on the high school newspaper in Shreveport.

"I grew up on the editorials in The Shreveport Times," he said in 1996. "I think that's one of the reasons I take seriously the job of an editorial writer."

Greenberg attended Centenary College in Shreveport for two years before going to the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1958 and a master's in history the next year.

Greenberg then did some postgraduate work in American history at Columbia University in New York City.

Greenberg said he twice failed the oral exams to get his Ph.D., so it was time for a change.

Although he had taught history at Hunter College while in graduate school, Greenberg said his first job after college was with the Pine Bluff Commercial, where he was hired in 1962 at age 25. It was a chance to move back to the South, a region he loved as much as his hometown of Shreveport.

The newspaper was looking for someone to replace Patrick J. Owens, who was leaving for a year to study at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship.

"I just thought I would take a year out for this job," Greenberg said in a 2007 interview. "It really sounded good, writing editorials for a year."

Greenberg stayed at the Commercial for 30 years, minus a few months in 1963 and a year at the Chicago Daily News beginning in 1966. He also served as the Pine Bluff paper's editorial page editor.

At the Commercial, Greenberg won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for editorials about civil rights written during 1968.

"Most of the editorials dealt with the integration of Pine Bluff schools and society," Greenberg said in the 2007 interview. "It was pro-integration, pro-civil rights, anti-Wallace, against massive resistance, against the Southern Manifesto."

Alabama Gov. George Wallace was running for president in 1968.

Edmond Freeman of Little Rock, who was publisher of the Commercial, said after Greenberg learned that he had won the Pulitzer Prize, he went by Freeman's office and stuck his head in the door. But Freeman was talking with an advertiser, so Greenberg decided not to disturb them.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were alone," Greenberg told Freeman. "He came back later and said, 'Ed I just wanted to notify you that I won the Pulitzer Prize.'"

Freeman thought that the news justified interrupting his conversation with the advertiser.

Greenberg wrote the editorials, and Freeman edited them. Freeman said besides being a gifted writer, Greenberg had a strong work ethic.

"When Paul went on vacation during those days, he very frequently submitted editorials by telephone," Freeman said. "He stayed abreast of the news wherever he was. He would call and dictate an editorial."

Greenberg made an indelible mark on the Pine Bluff newspaper, which is often touted as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper because of Greenberg's efforts. Besides winning a Pulitzer Prize while there in 1969, Greenberg was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1978 and 1986.

Gene Foreman of Charlottesville, Va., said Greenberg and Freeman worked very well together.

"There was a certain irreverence that they enjoyed, along with Paul's eloquence," said Foreman, who was managing editor of the Commercial from 1963-68 before moving on to similar jobs at the Arkansas Democrat and Philadelphia Inquirer. The Arkansas Democrat became the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1991, after the Arkansas Gazette ceased publication.

Don Williams, of Canyon, Texas, a former managing editor and executive editor at the Commercial, said he remembers how seriously Greenberg took his job.

"He would shut the door to his glass-paned office, and nobody would dare open it," Williams said.

In 1992, Greenberg was hired by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be its editorial page editor. He also wrote editorials and a column.

Greenberg stepped down as editorial page editor at the end of July 2015, but continued to write columns and editorials for the paper. He was replaced as editorial page editor by David Barham, who had been an editorial writer at the Democrat-Gazette for 13 years.

Under Greenberg's leadership, the editorial page of the Democrat-Gazette won several awards on state and national levels, including a first-place win in 2013 for editorial writing in the 79th National Headliner Awards. Greenberg and Barham shared the award.

Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Democrat-Gazette and chairman of WEHCO Media, said Greenberg's death will reverberate beyond Arkansas' borders.

"It's a tremendous loss, not just for the Democrat-Gazette but for the state of Arkansas and for journalism in America," Hussman said. "Paul Greenberg was just unparalleled and unique as far as editorial witters go. He was one of the finest if not the finest in America. I've often told people the best part of my job is to review the editorials. I love to read beautiful writing, and he wrote beautifully."

Hussman said he always took pride in the newspaper's editorial page with Greenberg at the helm.

"It is so literate, so well-written and well-reasoned," he said. "And because it takes definite positions."

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and WEHCO Newspapers Inc. acquired the Pine Bluff Commercial last year. The Commercial is now included as part of the Democrat-Gazette newspaper.

If he had passed the oral exams for his doctorate, Greenberg said in the 1996 interview, he might have been a history professor instead of an editorial writer.

"I would like to think that I would have enjoyed the study and teaching of history, but I can't really imagine anything as much fun as I have had writing editorials and writing columns," Greenberg said.

The 1996 interview was primarily about a book that contained 146 columns Greenberg had written about Bill and Hillary Clinton. The title was "No Surprises: Two Decades of Clinton Watching." The former Arkansas governor was president when the book was published.

Greenberg was the author of two other books: "Resonant Lives: Fifty Figures of Consequence" in 1991 and "Entirely Personal" in 1992.

Greenberg's first wife, Carolyn Levy Greenberg, died in 1995. They had two children, Daniel and Ruth.

In March of 2015, Paul Greenberg married Sarah Brooke Malloy of Little Rock.

"I think that the world knew one kind of Paul Greenberg, who was occasionally something of a sharp critic of the powers that be and was sort of a skilled portraitist of many public officials and gave us fascinating perspectives of the values that underlay Arkansas politics and government," said Daniel Greenberg.

"And there's also the private Paul Greenberg, who maybe not as many people knew about, and the private Paul Greenberg was a loving father who taught me many lessons about being a good family man and carrying out a life of ethics and principles."

In his free time, Paul Greenberg liked to read books and listen to music, everything from classical to Patsy Cline.

"It brings back memories of my youth and driving around Louisiana and east Texas, and listening to Patsy Cline on jukeboxes, in addition to which Patsy has a great voice," Greenberg said in 1996. "I don't think anyone can listen to 'Crazy' or 'I Go to Pieces' without feeling that the singer is speaking and singing directly to you."

Letter writers who challenged Greenberg often found themselves on the other end of a pen lashing.

Greenberg often began his retort with, "It was wholly a pleasure" to receive your letter.

Greenberg would sign the published responses "Inky Wretch." Readers from northern climes might have thought he was giving them a compliment when the pseudonym was preceded by "Bless your heart."

In a Sept. 23, 2018, column titled "The last column (I promise!)," Greenberg wrote: "Old age can be a blessing if taken easily instead of rushing into it. And for all we know, death itself may be an even greater blessing. The angel of death can be more than welcome when he brings welcome relief, like sleep at the end of a busy day. Blessed are those who know his healing touch and merciful embrace, the way a child knows his parents' love and that he can trust it no matter what. Call it unearned grace. ...

"So long, y'all, and keep fighting. Me, I'm going, going and I hope gone by the time this final farewell address makes it into print. Enjoy the game. I won't miss the roar of the crowd and the smell of greasepaint a bit, not now. Y'all enjoy. I'm calling it. -30-."

For 20th century American journalists, "-30-" signified the end of the story.

Walter E. Hussman Jr. introduces Paul Greenberg as the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s editorial page editor on March 27, 1992. Hussman, publisher of the Democrat-Gazette and chairman of WEHCO Media, Inc., said Wednesday that Greenberg’s death will reverberate beyond Arkansas’ borders.
(Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Walter E. Hussman Jr. introduces Paul Greenberg as the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s editorial page editor on March 27, 1992. Hussman, publisher of the Democrat-Gazette and chairman of WEHCO Media, Inc., said Wednesday that Greenberg’s death will reverberate beyond Arkansas’ borders. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Paul Greenberg said his first job away from college was with the Pine Bluff Commercial. Hired in 1962 at age 25, he said he thought he would spend a year at the job. He stayed on for decades, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for editorials about civil rights. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Paul Greenberg said his first job away from college was with the Pine Bluff Commercial. Hired in 1962 at age 25, he said he thought he would spend a year at the job. He stayed on for decades, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for editorials about civil rights. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
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