EDITOR’S NOTE: Longtime Orient adviser Sandy Polster died yesterday at his New York home after battling cancer for more than two years. Bill Wheatley, a close friend of Sandy’s and former executive vice president of NBC News, notified friends of Sandy’s death in an email yesterday evening to which the following obituary was attached. “As you know, Sandy loved to write. Accordingly, he composed his own obituary, which he asked be sent to you,” Wheatley wrote. Sandy advised The Orient for 12 years, presiding over a marked increase in the professionalism of the paper. Which is not to say that he was satisfied: “One hundred percent of The Orient is 40 percent overwritten,” he once said. To a student body with a four-year memory, his perspective was invaluable. He is missed, but his guidance steers us still.
WRITER’S NOTE: Greetings from the beyond, wherever it is. While death is life’s only certainty, most don’t know the when and how. I did, and I decided it would be fun if my final writing assignment were my own obituary. —s.
Sandor M. Polster 1942-2013
Sandor M. Polster, who worked closely with Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw as writer and news editor in the 1970s and 1980s, died on March 21 at his apartment in New York. He was 71. The cause was complications from gastric cancer, which he had battled for more than two years.
Polster’s 20-year career in network television news began somewhat serendipitously: The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was looking for a foreign news writer, and Polster had majored in Journalism and Soviet Studies while in college. A graduate school classmate connected Polster and the Evening News, and he spent four days at the broadcast, observing and writing occasional news stories.
When Cronkite hired him on the fourth day, he advised Polster, “Just think of being back on rewrite at a newspaper, except we have only one deadline, and it can’t be slipped.”
Polster, whose family and friends called him Sandy, began his journalism career while a student at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where he was born on February 27, 1942. He originally studied commerce, planning to go into the family business selling commercial restaurant equipment.
But an English professor, Milton Kessler, thought that Polster had a knack for writing, and suggested he try a class. Polster did, and immediately took to reporting.
The journalism students’ first assignment was to conduct simple interviews; Polster, however, decided to find basketball star Jerry Lucas, who was finishing his academic studies but not giving any interviews.
Polster tracked Lucas down at a freshman team practice, and Lucas agreed to talk with him. That interview became Polster’s first byline in the Ohio State Lantern, the student newspaper; he later would be named editor of the The Lantern when he was a junior.
“I had wanted to work on my high school newspaper, The Torch,” Polster recalled recently, “but the adviser, Sara Amos, told me I never would possess the qualities required to be a good journalist.”
While at Ohio State, Polster did freelance work with Billboard Magazine, the now-defunct Dow Jones weekly National Observer, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he had several front-page stories during the turbulent free-speech movement in the mid-1960s. He also worked with the University’s radio station, WOSU.
From Ohio State, Polster attended graduate school at the University of Iowa School of Mass Communications, where he freelanced with the Associated Press. During the summer of 1966, he worked in the AP’s Columbus bureau, and the wire agency recruited him after he graduated from Iowa.
While Polster could have started in New York, he opted for the Portland, Maine, bureau. “I knew I wasn’t ready for the Big City,” he said recently. “I needed to hone my skills.”
After a year in Portland, though, he was ready for New York. He was hired by Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post, and worked as a rewriteman, but quickly was assigned beats, first community services, then labor, then City Hall, where he covered the last two years of Mayor John Lindsay’s tenure.
“My first love always was rewrite,” he said. “There’s an excitement with a breaking story, gathering facts from a lot of street reporters, and putting it all on paper on deadline. There were half-a-dozen deadlines throughout the day, and if stress was a problem, it wasn’t a job for you.”
Polster married Rea Turet in May 1970. “She was the love of my life,” he said. “Of all the things I have done in life, this was the best. The second best thing I did was fathering Rebekah,” he said. “If there can be a perfect daughter, she is it.”
In November 1973, Polster moved to the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. “I was with Walter seven years, and they were the best, most challenging, most fun years of my journalism career,” he said.
Polster, an avid tennis player, helped organize an eight-member lunch-time club twice a week that included Cronkite, Executive Producer Burton Benjamin, Senior Producer John Lane, correspondents Andy Rooney and Charles Osgood and producer Howard Stringer. “It was my job to make sure we had four players each time,” Polster recalled. “I’d call Walter, Bud, Andy, and they’d say, ‘Let me check my schedule.’ When I would call Howard, he’d ask, ‘Who else is playing?’”
Among the stories that Polster worked on at CBS were the Watergate hearings, the Richard M. Nixon resignation, the Sadat visit to Israel, the peace shuttles of President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, the Teheran hostage crisis, and all the political primaries and presidential campaigns and conventions.
“Being a part of the so-called ‘rough draft of history’ is heady stuff,” he recalled, “but after a while it just became routine.”
When Cronkite left the broadcast in 1981, Polster worked five years with Dan Rather at the Evening News, but their relationship always was rocky. “Dan just couldn’t trust anyone who had worked with Walter,” Polster recalled, and in September 1985, when the two of them had a disagreement over a non-show issue, Polster was fired.
“Dan told me 20 years later that he hadn’t wanted me to leave the Evening News, but that ‘someone’ – he forgot whom – insisted,” Polster said.
In January 1986, the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw hired Polster, with the intention that he would become News Editor of the program.
“Where CBS was very West Side and casual, NBC was very Midtown and suit and tie, but it was a great eight years,” he said. “The people at NBC obviously were of a different personality, but no less professional. I continued to learn a lot, and to grow as a journalist.”
Polster said the favorite story he helped cover while at Nightly was President Ronald Reagan’s unscheduled trip to Reykjavik, to meet with Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. “I clearly did not appreciate how cold it was at the Arctic Circle,” he said. “I grossly under-packed.”
In 1992, Polster decided that 25 years of New York journalism were enough, and a year later his wife and their daughter sold their house in Chelsea and moved to their country residence in Durham, Maine.
“One of my executive producers at CBS told me, ‘Polster, your birth certificate might say Ohio, but you were born in New York.’ He was right, the city and I embraced each other,” Polster said, “but it’s a young person’s business, and it was time to explore all the things that I had wanted to do, but never had the time to do.”
In Maine, Polster began freelance writing, for magazines and Internet blogs. He worked for two years as a columnist with the Bangor Daily News, and for a year as editor of the daily Brunswick Times Record.
But in 1999, when he was asked to be unpaid adviser to the Bowdoin College student newspaper, The Orient, Polster learned his true calling: teaching. He mentored Bowdoin students for 12 years, until being diagnosed with cancer. He also was hired as a visiting lecturer at Colby College, to teach political journalism. “Inspiring students to consider journalism as a career was very fulfilling,” he recalled. “I’m pleased that a lot of those whom I influenced are working in the profession now, and doing well.”
In an effort to get some of his experiences on paper, Polster began a blog, http://newsmediamaven.blogspot.com. “I wish we had just a few of the digital tools back in the 1970s and 1980s that we have now,” he said. “Just think of how much more we could have done.”
In addition to his widow and daughter, a son-in-law, Timothy Hansen, and grandson, Benjamin Miller Hansen, of Brooklyn, survive Polster.
“I’ll miss all of them,” Polster said just before his death, “but I will most miss watching Ben grow up. He is the reason for being.”
A memorial service will be held in New York later this spring at a date to be announced. Polster will be buried following a graveside service at the Beth Israel cemetery in Bath, Maine.
A memorial fund to benefit The Bowdoin Orient and to bring journalists to the campus has been established in Polster’s name. Contributions are tax deductible and should be made to Bowdoin College, with a notation that the gift is for The Sandor M. Polster Fund; they may be sent to Bowdoin College, Office of Development, 4100 College Station, Brunswick, ME 04011-8432.
The Orient Remembers Sandy
“It is impossible to quantify the influence that Sandy had on me. So much of what you absorb throughout life is subconscious. But Sandy was a wonderful mentor who pushed and challenged and always wanted more and better. When you’re young, you don’t necessarily appreciate that. But when you’re older, you look back, and you realize how important that influence was. I know my life would not have been the same without him.”
—Belinda Lovett ’02
“Sandy was the first journalist I feared disappointing. That feeling will persist despite his death. I still often wonder as I write: Where are the holes would he poke in this story if he read it? Is it solid enough, newsy enough, to earn his praise? He knew full well he had that effect on the many Orient alums he mentored. We will always be better reporters, not to mention better people, because we knew him.”
—James Fisher ’02
Senior Editor 2001–02
“I worked on the Orient from 2000–2004, and Sandy was the biggest influence on my journey from wannabe to ‘real’ reporter. He made my writing stronger and pushed me to think big about career opportunities in writing. I'm grateful for all the help he’s provided my craft and my career, but I'm most grateful for his and Rea's friendship in the years since graduating. They put me up twice a year when I came to Brunswick for Alumni Council meetings. They attended my wedding. They were a tireless source of encouragement, as well as sarcastic, fun conversation. Sandy will be sorely missed but I’ll still hear his voice (and occasional biting critiques) in my head, no matter the time or place.”
—Alison McConnell Pierce ’04
Senior Editor 2003–04
“Sandy gave me confidence when I had next to none that I could pursue a career in journalism and take it somewhere interesting. I still remember reading a copy he gave me of a recommendation letter he wrote for my application to the Hearst Newspapers Fellow program, which jump-started my career and led me to where I am now. A note on the envelope that contained it read, simply, ‘Don’t let it get to your head.’ I had a hard enough time believing it.
“I’ll never forget the passion Sandy showed for the Orient, and the drive he had to see all of us who hungered for journalism find a strong path.”
—Mónica Guzmán ’05
Senior Editor 2004–05
“I could go on about Sandy’s character and the impact he has had on my life, but I will leave that to some of the countless others to whom he has been a friend and mentor. I would like, instead, to pass on a short anecdote:
“When I was a freshman at Bowdoin, I made the rookie mistake of showing up at an Orient function without a pen. Sandy got wind of this and set me straight. ‘A journalist should always carry a pen,’ he told me. And while it may seem like a small thing, especially for someone who now uses a camera to make a living, it was the first time I truly understood that being a photojournalist is as much about reporting as taking pictures. It has been almost 12 years since that encounter and I still carry a pen with me every single day. And I still think of Sandy every day.”
—Karsten Moran ’05
Photo Editor 2003–05
“With Sandy Polster’s passing the Orient and the College has lost a great friend and supporter. One always felt the sense that he treated those of us at the Orient no differently than he treated his colleagues in the newsroom at NBC or the Times-Record or any of the other outlets fortunate to benefit from his good work and wisdom—always there to encourage when appropriate, caution when needed, and criticize when warranted. Most importantly, he insisted on the power of journalism at any level to be a force for change and good—a belief he left impressed upon all of us fortunate to work at 12 Cleaveland Street during our time under the pines and his time as our advisor.”
—Adam Baber ’05
“Sandy treated us like grown ups, which, for better or worse, made us take our work at the Orient more seriously. His weekly critique of the paper could be biting, but that meant we always knew the praise was real. I saved the email Sandy sent around after the last issue my senior year, in which he noted the staff’s progress and wrote, ‘Add to the pride that you should feel, the pride that I feel.’ Sandy and I stayed in touch, and he and his wife, Rea, attended my wedding to Karsten Moran (Orient alum ’05) on March 2. Not long before he had gone through a particularly difficult period in his fight against cancer, and we asked if there was anything we could do. Just prepare the nuptials, he instructed. As promised, he didn’t miss the wedding. He was a wonderful mentor and friend.”
—Beth Kowitt ’07
“We were the luckiest of writers. Our newspaper was read every week by a man who once edited the words of Cronkite and Brokaw. He chose to counsel us not with brashness or bluster, but rather with a steady hand that made us feel: We’ve got this. Sandy never once asked to see our story lists in advance, never once told us how to write a story before it was published, and never once demanded a response to his weekly critiques. He expected that we would want to pursue truth, precision, and fairness, and that we would want to be called out when we strayed. His praises and criticisms were always after the fact, and never before; as such, his approach was the ultimate expression of a faith in us as people and as publishers. Sandy put his trust in us, and in doing so, became our most trusted man.”
—Bobby Guerette ’07
“A lot of what I learned from Sandy Polster had to do with reporting stories dispassionately. But the lesson I remember best was about compassion.
“When I was a junior I had a regular column in the Orient. It was a mix of satire and quasi-intellectual posturing—a big of a stage act. I took my swings, but I did so with giant novelty inflatable boxing mitts.
“One week, early in 2007, a local blog screen-capped the MySpace page of a top policy adviser to the governor. The aide essentially had erected a virtual shrine to his love for beer. ‘Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,’ he had written on his profile page, quoting Benjamin Franklin.
“A top aide to the governor of Maine with a MySpace profile that reads like etchings from the Ladd House bathroom? My column pretty much wrote itself.
“Sandy typically did not critique the opinion pages, and he usually didn’t see the paper at all until Friday, after it was published. I forget why he saw the draft of my column that week. All I remember is getting a call from Sandy at one of the editing desks on Thursday night, while we were putting the paper together. He wanted me to think twice about printing the name of the aide.
“I explained blog that broke this ‘story’ already ran the guy’s name.
“That may be so, Sandy said. But the civic value in calling public attention to this policy adviser’s affection for beer has been exhausted, if there was ever any to begin with. I would just be piling on. It wouldn’t be out-of-bounds, strictly speaking. But the guy is probably embarrassed. His family is probably embarrassed. His career might be in jeopardy. And why? Because he liked beer and was careless, in 2007, about social media settings.
“Maybe it was the wine from dinner talking, Sandy said, but there are some things a journalist comes to regret. Like shoveling crap on someone who might not deserve it just because it makes for good reading.
“This sounds like pretty intuitive advice, and I took it, but I was pissed. Sandy had kind of taken the air out of my giant novelty boxing mitts.
“But he had also reminded me of something really important. A spirit of irreverence and moral vigilantism fuels a lot of good journalism. But it also fuels a lot of bad journalism. Working for the public good means keeping people’s egos in check—including your own.
—Steve Kolowich ’08
“I graduated from Bowdoin in the middle of the Great Recession, in what was perhaps the bleakest time ever for journalism. Sandy, on the other hand, was in the industry at its peak. He told stories about flying back and forth across the Atlantic in the Concorde, and playing tennis with Walter Cronkite on a court hidden atop Grand Central Station. Those are probably experiences out of reach for most Orient alumni these days, but in Sandy, we had at least an opportunity to experience them vicariously, and a reminder of what our profession could be at its romantic best.”
—Nat Herz ’09
Senior News Staff 2007–09
“Sandy Polster may have no idea how many stories were killed over the years and headlines rewritten after somebody on the Orient staff would say, ‘Sandy’s going to hate that.’ It’s true, his criticism could be harsh. But he made us want to be good. Really good. And if you did get one of his prized compliments, it could make your day.
“I was in touch with Sandy while he was dying. In one email, he said that his work with the Orient was a chance to give something back to a profession that had been good to him. He wrote that he had tough times ahead, but, in true Sandy fashion, he added ‘I have set some goals, the most immediate being to outlive my cell phone contract.’
“Journalism has changed a lot since Sandy was at the height of his career. But he taught us the important things—how to write and how to be fair.
“So thank you, Sandy, for your invaluable guidance. And I hope you ended up getting the last laugh with your cell phone provider.”
—Mary Helen Miller ’09
“When it came to being a student journalist, Sandy taught me everything I knew. He was the beating heart of the Orient, an ever-reliable and sharp editor, and a wonderful friend. He taught me to be more diligent when writing and less timid when speaking. I will miss him very much, and I am endlessly grateful to him.”
—Gemma Leghorn ’10
“When I think of Sandy, I can’t help remembering the weekly critique he sent the Orient staff: a blunt and straight-forward guide to all that had gone wrong (and occasionally right) in that week’s paper. As much as I loved the Orient, charging any outsider with reading every article in a single sitting seemed too much to ask. He did it anyway, with a meticulousness and consistency I will always admire. I don’t doubt I will continue to think of him each and every time I carefully dodge what he considered a great sin of language: the sentence adverb usage of ‘hopefully.’”
—Seth Walder ’11
“‘There was a lot wrong with this issue...’ is not the kind of feedback an Orient staffer (particularly a green EIC) wants to wake up to the Friday afternoon after production, but Sandy was right and his critiques were not to be taken lightly. He tempered his high standards with plentiful, self-deprecating ‘back in the day’ anecdotes—at least one featured mobsters. Sandy’s lessons extend beyond journalism and I will remember his uncommon generosity and warmth (and homemade pickles) always. My thoughts are with Rea and the rest of his family.”
—Piper Grosswendt ’11
“Sandy shaped my development as a journalist more than anyone else at Bowdoin, and I will forever admire the generosity with which he mentored me and so many other aspiring writers.”
—Zoë Lescaze ’12
Goodbye to our critic-in-chief
The Orient, it should be noted, has few apologists. The student government is always trying to defund it. The student body is always complaining about its quality. The paper’s own editors are always complaining about the quality of the students who write for it. So Sandy Polster was a rare breed among the Orient’s critics in that he was also the newspaper’s staunchest supporter.
He was a critic, first and foremost, because he wrote the weekly critique of the paper that was emailed to the staff every Friday afternoon. I avoided Friday class throughout my Bowdoin career due to the long nights required by the paper. Yet despite the fact that my final class of every week was on Thursday, I could never breathe easy until Sandy’s critique of the paper arrived in my inbox. He would analyze the reporting of almost every story in each issue, dealing shame and praise with equal pleasure. (“After doing yourselves proud the past two weeks, you sure lowered the bar with this issue,” he wrote of one particularly lackluster edition). Of my very first story for the Orient, he wrote, “This wasn't reporting, it was rewriting a press release.”
And did Sandy ever despise press releases. Frustrated with the tendency of Orient reporters to accept the administration’s narratives as gospel, Sandy vigilantly kept watch for articles casting Bowdoin in too rosy a light. You see, he understood—better than any of us did—that a free-thinking college needs a skeptical newspaper. Determined to see the journalistic values which defined his career prevail in Brunswick, Sandy devoted hours upon hours training us to be proper reporters, editors, and above all, skeptics.
But despite being a curmudgeon, Sandy was quite fond of his small crew of journalists. The feeling, of course, was mutual.
—Nick Daniels ’12