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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

A Good Man Gone – Full Column

Benjamin Israel made quite a first impression.

I was a cocky 21-year-old editor of my university's student newspaper. He was a grizzled journalism veteran some 25 years my elder - back on campus to further his education.

I needed a news editor. He stepped into my office and laid a portfolio an inch thick on my desk full of clips from civil rights protests and political coverage. The interview lasted about 23 seconds.

To a student editor who was in over his head amid the biggest scandal in his university's history, he was a godsend.

Benjamin died Monday morning after a prolonged illness.

The news brought back a flood of memories of my Benjamin Israel experience. To know Benjamin was to have a Benjamin experience.

That year our student newspaper broke the story that the student body president was a felon on work release. He came to campus Monday through Friday, attended class and was our president, and reported to jail at night and on weekends.

The story made national headlines. My former news editor quit as the story began rolling. I was a sportswriter thrust into the editor's role because of my people skills, not my news skills. I barely knew what libel was.

Benjamin quickly restored sanity - the news department's and my own.

Benjamin trained me as I covered the student president story. He took me to the St. Louis County Courthouse and showed me how to look up court records. He taught me about open records and Sunshine Law.

I still considered myself a sportswriter, destined for a press box, not the courthouse.

Boy, was I wrong.

Once hired by the Courthouse News Service, I went back that county courthouse every day for almost 10 years. I did just what Benjamin had taught me back in 1999 until late last year, when e-filing took over. Now I get my information from a computer terminal instead of actual case files.

Benjamin was full of stories: about playing stickball in the New York City streets in the 1950's, firsthand accounts of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and anti-apartheid protests.

When news of his passing broke, I received a text from another colleague of Benjamin's. The first thing he said after voicing his disbelief was, boy do I have some Benjamin Israel stories.

Facebook was flooded with Benjamin stories. Friends and colleagues shared their memories in a private discussion thread.

One man worked with him on the radio, others at the newspapers Benjamin worked at, still others worked with him on social justice organizations.

His politics leaned as far left as anyone I know, but you could debate with him vigorously and, persuaded or not, leave respecting him even more.

Though he was quite ill, Benjamin was not shy about Ferguson, which is a few miles from his home.

Journalism lost another good one Monday morning. My old college newspaper adviser summed it up: "This is really a shock today. A great journalist, critical thinker, and humanitarian is no longer with us, and I'm sad."

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