To Denver and back: David Von Drehle’s varied career includes several stops at DU
At 17, David Von Drehle sat in an office at the Denver Post, hoping to become an agate clerk in the athletic department. Along with writing and editing tests, he had answered a battery of bizarre questions unrelated to athletics or journalism.
Von Drehle had received a list of names and asked to identify each person. After he finished, he interviewed the editor.
“He only had one question for me,” says Von Drehle. “He said, ‘What did you put on for Charles Russell? I told him that Charles Russell is an American artist, a painter of mostly western cowboy scenes.
“Seated across the room was my hero at the time, Dick Connor, 11-time Colorado sportswriter of the year. The editor clearly shouted across the room, ‘Hey Connor, the kid got it.” Then he told me to be here Friday at 4 p.m. Knowing who Charles Russell was launched my career.
Von Drehle’s profession began at the Denver Post from 1978 to 1983, where he worked while attending the University of Denver as a Boettcher Scholar (BA ’83). At the same time, he was editor-in-chief of the DU Clarion.
Now, Von Drehle returns to DU as the keynote speaker at 9:30 a.m. on June 11 at Magness Arena for undergraduates.
He has already returned to campus, speaking at alumni events and journalism classes. But one of the highlights of his career was returning to the University of Denver for TIME magazine.
After graduating from DU, he attended Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar, earning his MA in Literature. Returning to the United States in 1985, he started with The Miami Herald as a New York correspondent. While there, he won a Livingston Award, recognizing excellence in journalism for people under 35.
In 1991, he joined the Washington Post, where he remained for 15 years. He went from bureau chief in New York to politics, then arts, then style. Eventually he left to join TIME as an editor.
Between 60 cover stories, on everything from Glenn Beck to Osama bin Laden, Von Drehle was back on the UA campus for the 2012 presidential candidates’ debate between American aces Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
It was their first debate and drew 67.2 million viewers as the candidates battled it out in a packed Magness Arena. It was the most-watched debate of the cycle and a far cry from DU’s profile in Von Drehle’s day.
He said his years at university were invaluable because of the connections he made with students and faculty. It was a great education, he says, and a wonderful experience.
But DU in the 1980s was on the verge of bankruptcy. Enrollment was down, the endowment was small, and a recession rocked Denver. Then-Chancellor Dan Ritchie set DU on the prestigious path it travels today, Von Drehle said.
“So I was basically 30 years later, back on campus, and there were so many new buildings, facilities, and Denver had become the kind of place with the profile and prestige that it could attract a presidential debate.
“He had the bandwidth to be able to pull this off and do it very well. Pride was my first feeling, then excitement to be back where 30 years earlier I had dreamed of things like this – covering presidential elections or huge stories, flying on planes and filing on time . There I was back home doing it. It really represented, to me, how far the University of Denver has come since I was there.
Von Drehle left TIME to return to The Washington Post, where he remains a bi-weekly opinion columnist from Kansas City. He says his ability to constantly reinvent himself, to move easily between sections and topics, dates back to his time at DU.
He had “four or five different majors at one time” and classified himself as a generalist more than a specialist. He finally opted for English and philosophy, the latter “a training in how to think and learn”.
Gathering information, distinguishing truth from fiction, and educating himself quickly on unfamiliar subjects were at the forefront of his philosophical education.
These skills were used in the profiles of personal favourites, such as Willie Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. He pushed himself through tough interviews, including a series on Ruth Bader Ginsberg when she was named to the United States Supreme Court in 1993. He says he developed a deep appreciation from her pioneering legal career .
He was also one of the only journalists to board Donald Trump’s jet during the 2016 campaign. He says the interaction was odd, as most politicians have grown cautious over the past 40 years. Not Trump.
“He was on fire as a candidate in March 2016,” Von Drehle said. “He is – as we all know by now – addicted to cable news. As soon as the plane took off and they turned on the satellite, he turned on his widescreen TV and for the rest of the flight he just clicked from one news channel to the next. .
“Every station in the whole flight was about him. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie or something, with the bad guy who is going to destroy the world flying around in a private jet while everyone is talking about him.
Between and during the stops in his journalistic career, Von Drehle wrote three books.
His first, “Among the Lowest of Deaths,” shed light and analysis on Florida’s death penalty system. The Chicago Tribune called it “perhaps the best book ever written on capital punishment”, and it received an Honorable Mention Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association in 1996.
In 2012 he wrote “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year”. In between, he wrote his most beloved work, “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”
It was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 2003 and won a Christopher Award and the Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Award.
The book documents the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the spring of 1911 in New York City, then tracks changes in the political landscape, safety standards, and evolving work practices.
“If I had known how little information there was when I started this project, I probably never would have done it,” he laughs. “I pitched this idea, found a very enthusiastic publisher and took some of their money, all before realizing the historical record had been grossly neglected. It became a complex challenge and I had to dig a lot deeper provided that.
“Fortunately, I had met a great editor, teacher and friend along the way, a journalist named Gene Weingarten. Gene is the only journalist to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Film twice. So he is one of our great feature film editors.
“Gene talks about the existence of a god of journalism. Gene is not a religious man, but he believes in the god of journalism. The way the god of journalism works is that a journalist who does an extra interview or looks in another place or knocks on another door after knowing he has everything he needs, that journalist will always be blessed with something extraordinary.
“I had almost given up on finding a transcript of the trial of the factory owners whose factory had caught fire. I picked up another flyer, made another phone call, and discovered a copy of this transcript. Even the library that had it didn’t know it had it. But they found this document in their basement where it had been for over 30 years.
“It’s basically a journalistic miracle. Before that, I wasn’t sure if I could complete the book successfully. Yet that’s the lesson I learned: you’ll never reach the point where you can stop working hard if you want to be good.
To learn more about this year’s launch ceremonies, please click here.