The Incomparable Earl
~ An appreciation ~
A man of quality." The phrase might have been invented to describe Earl Foell in his many key roles at The Christian Science Monitor. But he would know the quote went back to Shakespeare. Or he might make that most flattering of phone calls as if only you could help him recall the source. Then, out of the blue, he'd mention some long-ago shared moment of fun that was in his prodigious memory bank.
Earl's quality was not in the Shakespearean sense of rank or degree, though he rose through all the Monitor ranks. This man's quality defined a life as not just what you do but what you are. And it's what he was that enabled the journalistic achievements now being celebrated anew after his passing July 10.
Here was a global thinker before it became fashionable. An intellectual explorer questing beyond humanity's problems to humanity's problem-solvers. An interviewer of world leaders from China's Deng Xiaoping to the Czechs'
Vclav Havel, including three chancellors of Germany and every American president since Eisenhower.
Switch to Earl the gardener analyzing Japanese plots or growing sorrel for soup. The tennis player. The musician (an off-the-record violinist) finding common ground with German statesman Helmut Schmidt (a recorded pianist). The discerning lover of art and architecture and books. The mathematics graduate (with honors from Principia College in Illinois). The conservationist eager to know how changing a light bulb can save oil. The maker of maple-sugar candy. The fosterer of diversity and human rights. The family man (wife Cordelia, three sons, three grandchildren).
This is part of what lies behind the byline Earl W. Foell and one of the friendliest smiles on the planet.
The copy boy arrived at the Monitor from Houston, Texas, in 1949, went off to the service, and came back to be reporter, editorial writer, foreign correspondent, and United Nations bureau chief, president of the 250-member UN Correspondents Association, winner of a Sigma Delta Chi award for best UN coverage in 1963. After a couple of years away with the Los Angeles Times, he returned to be the Monitor's managing editor, editor, and editor in chief.
In the latter role, Earl presided over an unprecedented Monitor initiative, the Peace 2010 essay competition on how to bring peace to the world, with an international panel of independent judges. More than 1,200 scenarios for peace came in. Earl quoted one that epitomized the bedrock hope he shared: "For every potential war one can find dozens of solid ideas for avoiding it. There are always more constructive solutions for an impasse than destructive ones."
Earl went beyond the printed page and service with US and international press organizations to act on his convictions as a trustee of the World Peace Foundation.
In 1988 he became editor in chief of World Monitor: The Christian Science Monitor Monthly, a five-year venture bringing together articles not only by international journalists, but by major players in various fields - from Zbigniew Brzezinski on geopolitics and Sir John Templeton on investing, to Julie Harris on acting and Harold Prince on taking a Broadway show abroad.
Earl's column, "Making Sense of the World," bespoke his approach in every assignment. For almost any topic he had a range of personal reference and expert contacts (including those problem-solvers) to involve general readers in a painless, exhilarating seminar.
Once in his column he led into a package of economic analyses by confessing what he and fellow journalist Bill Moyers had discovered over bagels one morning - that they both had often felt like economic illiterates and kept racing to catch up. A little like "American tourists afraid of someday being found unable to read a French menu." Who would not understand?
France and food were two more of Earl's favorite things. The casual-clothes workdays of the '90s may not have come so naturally. Then the man in the impeccable suits dressed down to about the Noel Coward level.
Like Antaeus touching the earth, he used common humanity to connect needed knowledge of the world to people where they are.
As in E.B. White's advice to writers who see readers floundering in a swamp, he was always throwing ropes of clarity. He suffered puns gladly but no clich except to turn it on its head. He refined the art of the bulleted list to make a difficult concept bite-size.
He praised a story by saying, "It's like eating peanuts, you want another and another."
If Earl enjoyed the British essayist Max Beerbohm, dubbed the incomparable Max by Bernard Shaw, he was to several Monitor generations the incomparable Earl. Nothing sanctimonious about him; rather, his work seemed an unspoken reflection of what the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote: "The habitual struggle to be always good is unceasing prayer."
As Monitor editor David Cook said yesterday, "Earl was a consummate journalist, an inspiring teacher, and an unfailing gentleman. His deft, unselfish contributions to our paper spanned half a century and blessed countless readers and co-workers. His intelligence, grace, and wit made him an example to generations of aspiring journalists and a treasured member of the Monitor family."
For the past several years, Earl appeared on the Monitor's masthead as chief editorial writer, a post where the wit, warmth, and scope of his writing poured out unsigned.
In July he assumed the new Monitor position of contributing editor.
Just last fall, when the Monitor celebrated its first 90 years - half of them tenanted by Earl - he hailed a better world that was helped into being by unswerving qualities like his, though he never would have said so:
"By mid-century, French philosopher Raymond Aron glimpsed what he called the dawn of universal history. That means all of mankind at last starting to write on - and read off - the same page.
"By century's end, the dawn of universal history had edged toward noon. (But not without casting heavy shadows.) The human race - with all its distinct ethnic tongues, foods, costumes, customs, and prejudices - moved perceptibly closer to one address. Call it www.earth."
*Roderick Nordell joined the Monitor staff in 1948 and served for 50 years as a writer, critic, and editor. He was executive editor of World Monitor magazine.