|Photo Credit: The New York Times/Redux|
Richard F. Shepard
Class of 1948
Midway through his 45-year career with The New York Times, Richard F. Shepard was named cultural news editor. It was in1969 and he did the job for two years. Then he told management he wanted to be a reporter again. He had no desire to be a boss, to sit in an office and work on stories others wrote when he could be out and about in New York City, talking to people, learning things for himself and then reporting what he discovered.
“Journalism is not very complicated,” he once said. “You think about something you imagine other people would find interesting, you learn all about it, and then you write what you found.”
For most of Shepard’s years at The Times, that‘s essentially what he did, exploring the city and its ethnic enclaves, its neighborhoods, its restaurants, its little-known corners, and its cultural attractions, and delighting readers with what he learned in prose that was witty, graceful and, despite his self-effacing demeanor, the product of a highly sophisticated mind. Linguistically, he was a microcosm of the city itself. He said that thanks to his love of ethnic restaurants, he could “manage” in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Yiddish, and even a little Russian and Chinese if necessary. He never professed fluency, but he had, in fact, studied Mandarin, read Chinese newspapers when he rode the subway to work, taught himself Russian and Greek, and carried dictionaries on trips abroad. His knew Yiddish well enough to review plays in that language for The Times. He also wrote about Broadway plays, music, art, dance and books.
A generous colleague who loved to share his knowledge of the city, Shepard was a friend to publisher and porter alike and was often the person to whom seasoned writers and fledgling scribes flocked for words of advice or just to schmooze. Known to his colleagues as “a man who never had lunch at his desk,” he often held court a few blocks from the newsroom in a booth at a restaurant inside the Edison Hotel, a modest eatery known for dishes like matzo ball soup, latkes and blintzes. Its official name was Cafe Edison, but to the cognoscenti, it was the Polish Tea Room. (Unfortunately, it closed in December 2014, leaving generations of noshers bereft.)
Shepard was born in the Bronx on Dec. 31, 1922, and raised in Manhattan and Queens. He attended Townsend Harris High School before entering City College, where he said he “majored in nothing, giving me a broad background.” His college career was interrupted by World War II and service as a radio officer in the Merchant Marine. When the war ended, he returned to City College, joined The Times in 1946 as a copy boy and while working full time, earned his degree in social science in 1948. In addition to reporting duties, Shepard wrote essays that appeared on the editorial page under the rubric “Topics of The Times.” His love for the city and its people shone in his “About New York” and “Stroller” columns, and a mention in his “Going Out Guide” was gold to aspiring performers.
Shepard was the author of “Going Out in New York: A Guide for the Curious” (1974); “Live and Be Well: A Celebration of Yiddish Culture in America” (1982); “Broadway: From the Battery to the Bronx” (1987); and “The Paper’s Papers: A Reporter’s Journey Through the Archives of The New York Times” (1996). He continued to contribute articles to The Times even after he retired in 1991. He died on March 6, 1998 at the age of 75, but his legacy was immortalized on a plaque in the Polish Tea Room. It said, “Richard F. Shepard ate here and, through his marvelous example, inspired generations of New York Times reporters to appreciate good food, good writing, good fellowship and the richness of life in New York.”
Fittingly, he died, said his wife, Trudy, while eating a bowl of chicken soup.