Former Professor, Columnist William Raspberry Dies

William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post who taught for 13 years at Duke, died on Tuesday. He was 76.

As the Knight Professor of the practice of public policy and journalism at Duke from 1995 to 2008, Raspberry commuted weekly from Washington, D.C., to the Duke campus to teach on subjects that included social policy and politics as well as journalism.

“In more than a decade of teaching at Duke, William Raspberry taught hundreds of students how to think differently about journalism, social policy and race in America,” said James Hamilton, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke.  “He went from reaching millions through his column to reaching hundreds of students and pushing them to have a dialogue about their own assessment on social policy.”

Hamilton said Raspberry’s thinking about social and educational policy while at Duke was part of the inspiration for “Baby Steps,” the early childhood and parent education program for low-income families that Raspberry founded in his Mississippi hometown in 2003.

Several other campus colleagues on Tuesday recalled the impact that Raspberry had on the university and its students.

“He was more interested in the process of knowledge than its product,” said Professor Karla Holloway. “He knew students had opinions. He wanted them to think about how they were crafted and what the other side of their argument might be.”

Holloway said she, along with Duke professors Ebrahim Moosa, William Chafe and James Joseph, accompanied Raspberry on a trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where he was researching a column on the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s liberation from apartheid.

“He was anxious about his visit to the townships, even to wondering what he should wear. (We decided black shirt ... which was his hallmark look anyway.) He came back sober from the encounter,” Holloway said. “We had dined with the ambassador, met with South Africa's most successful citizens and intellectuals, and Bill Raspberry met with those who were still its poorest and least enfranchised. It mattered to him. It was characteristic of his search for the other side of the story.”

Holloway said she also remembers how “Bill was thoughtful, clever, challenging, appropriately humble and appropriately proud. He could be as infuriating as he was inspirational. My memories of him and his legacies will linger -- in our students, his mentees, his professional communities and his family. I am proud that that will include his Duke family.”

Joseph, an emeritus professor of the practice of public policy, said Raspberry “was an outstanding journalist who was also a great teacher. He taught out of his experience as a journalist and brought to the classroom insights from that experience.”

Chafe, a former Trinity Arts & Sciences dean, said, "I loved Bill Raspberry. He was ebullient, surprising, shrewd and provocative. He was also totally unpredictable. You never knew what exactly he would say -- so he was always fresh. That was his most distinctive quality: his freshness."

Paula D. McClain, the dean of the Graduate School, said Raspberry sent her an email of congratulations when McClain decided to accept a faculty position at Duke in 2000. “He wanted to get on my schedule for lunch, which we had shortly after my arrival at Duke,” McClain recalled.  

“Bill was a generous and gracious person always willing to reach out, even when you disagreed with him,” McClain added.  “Despite his tremendous success, he remained grounded and humble never forgetting his Mississippi roots.  Duke was privileged to have him.”

Of his teaching career at Duke, Raspberry said, “What I teach, preach and try to model are certain key ideas: that journalism is vitally important (and no less so in this cyber age where ‘everybody’ is a journalist); that the people have not merely the right but the need to know as much as we can tell of the forces that are driving their world; that warring spinmeisters may be interesting, but that journalist still ought to take seriously the search for the truth; and that all these things can be done with a sense of fairness.”

Duke lowered its flag to half-staff on Tuesday in Raspberry’s honor.


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