Raphael Sugarman was proud of his Canadian heritage. He sported a jaunty Kangol hat emblazoned with a red maple leaf and Canada in capital letters across the front. But from the time he joined The Riverdale Press as a reporter and sports editor in 1988, until his demise at the age of 56 on Feb. 14, he was passionate about his adopted northwest Bronx home.
Raphy, as he was known to his colleagues at The Press, quickly developed a reputation for seeing things and thinking about them from a different angle. That was a trait that endeared him to the people he covered — from little leaguers to college coaches. He brought to life stories of offbeat sports like water polo and fencing, profiled characters like Manhattan College’s Freddy the Fan, focused on the ways that cheerleading uplifted a young girl at the John F. Kennedy High School or the poignancy of three sisters coaching third- and fourth-grade basketball.
“The most recent crop of Riverdale Press reporters who Raphy touched will remember not only the gifts he’d bring us — hot sauce from New Orleans, Mardi Gras king cake to share at news meetings, CDs in the era of Spotify — but also the generosity with which he shared his years of knowledge about reporting.” said Kate Pastor, his former editor.
“We all learned from his dedication to the craft and were all protected by a guy who would gladly put himself between a young reporter and a fly ball, actual or metaphorical, any day of the week,” she added.
His love of the different and unusual led him to embrace some schemes that others might have shied away from. Before he made his life-long commitment to journalism, he tried his hand at sales, and he never tired of describing his stint marketing neckties made of fish skins.
And later, after leaving The Press and signing on with The Daily News, he and a partner brought a scheme back to The Press’ typographic subsidiary, We’re Your Type. They planned to go to Paris and collect dozens of menus from the city’s best restaurants, translate them and create graphically perfect reproductions in English for American tourists.
At The Daily News, he distinguished himself as a reporter covering the Bronx as well as citywide education issues. He gained recognition for his coverage of corrupt South Bronx school boards and for a series he worked on about asthma, which won him awards from the National Institute for Health Care Management and the Public Health Association of New York City. He ended his career at the paper as a member of its editorial board, specializing in education. Raphy wasn’t afraid to tangle with his publisher, Mort Zuckerman, when he was asked to write an editorial he did not fundamentally agree with.
After leaving the News, the entrepreneur in Raphy and his interest in education led him to start an unusual consulting business, Blackboard Press, teaching teachers how to develop student newspapers at high schools and middle schools, often at last chance programs for children who had dropped out or been forced out of other schools.
He developed a special bond with the faculty he worked with and acted like a mother hen, controlling every aspect of each paper as it was produced. The assignments he came up with for the students often elicited moving accounts of the trials of their own lives.
It wasn’t Raphy’s first encounter with teaching or with recalcitrant teenagers. As a young man, he volunteered as a Hebrew School teacher and Bar Mitzvah coach at Riverdale Temple, good-naturedly enduring the jibes of his rambunctious charges.
Unfortunately, his career as a publisher was cut short when he developed epilepsy, the disease that, ultimately, took his life. He was forced to curtail his activities and returned to The Press, part-time, to cover sports. He continued to produce feature stories that won first place awards in the New York Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.
Even after returning to Alberta last year, to care for his aging parents — his father died about a year ago — he continued for a time to file stories for The Press.
Raphael Sugarman was born on Nov. 5, 1958 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His father, Norman, was a Holocaust survivor. He grew up in Calgary and an obituary placed in the Calgary Herald by his family recalled that he went to New York City “on a whim” when he was just 20 years old, after studying political science at the University of British Columbia.
He is survived by his mother, Edith Sugarman, his sister, Shelley Sugarman, nephew Joseph Sugarman, sister-in-law Michelle Perley and his parrot, Moxie.
Friends and colleagues are invited to gather on Saturday, Feb. 28 at 4 p.m. at An Beal Bocht, 445 West 238 St., in Raphy’s memory.
The family is planning to established a fund in his name to offer scholarship help to students at the schools where Blackboard Press had a presence.