'Forget that I died. Remember that I lived'

Originally published April 15, 1982


EDITOR'S NOTE: This eulogy was originally published on April 15, 1982, and was reprinted as part of the 70th anniversary of The Riverdale Press.

There is a casket here this morning, and mourners, flowers and organ music. And we have heard prayers of many faiths from his friends. So in a formal sense, this is a funeral service.

To me, however, it is a celebration of a consummate pro. David was a professional editor and a successful publisher at a time when they are an endangered species. As a journalist and friend, I am privileged to celebrate David A. Stein, newspaperman.

He would resist the term “eulogy,” but his sharp editor’s pencil might permit the epitaph: “David Stein — Forget that I died. Remember that I lived.” He might add, “in Riverdale.”

One of the most famous editorials in his Press years ago was “Who gives a damn about Riverdale?” David Stein did, and that was contagious —his caring strengthened the glue that holds Riverdale together.

Riverdale is sui generis. It is a blessed habitat without a government of its own, part of a crazy quilt pattern of county, city, state and federal voting constituencies.

What makes Riverdale more than just a fancy mailing address is a weekly “country” newspaper that David and Celia Stein conceived three decades ago. They made a difference. Riverdale, Fieldston, Kingsbridge, Marble Hill, Spuyten Duyvil, often with diverse interests, were stitched together not by some kind of political force, but by a newspaper, The Riverdale Press.

There is something uniquely American about country editors even when their “beat” is part of the greatest city in the world. That sage from Kansas, William Allen White, the quintessential country editor of The Emporia Gazette, believed that “responsibility is a wine press that brings forth strange juices out of men.” In his first editorial, White laid down a credo that could have been David Stein’s: “The new editor hopes to live here until he is the old editor, until some of his visions — which rise above him as he dreams — come true.”

David Stein was a poor boy from Cleveland, educated in Athens, Ohio, who came to Gotham to work for the Associated Press. He had dreams and visions of saving the magnificent, craggy shoreline of the Hudson River, the verdant woods, the playing fields and lakes of Van Cortlandt Park, and the wooded enclaves of one-family homes from being overwhelmed by what he called the developers of “canyons of stone.”

David Stein launched a crusade to rid the Henry Hudson Parkway of “killer curve” as The Riverdale Press headlined it. When the highway engineers straightened out that death trap, that classy dowager Mrs. Cleveland Dodge rewarded the country editor from the Northwest Bronx with a kiss.

My favorite Stein headline — and there were many yeasty ones — was in blazing 72-point type, “Korvettes or the high school?” when that was the burning Riverdale question. The John F. Kennedy High School now endures as a monument to David’s stubborn sense of values.

History has also ratified that decision, for alas, that projected Korvettes store would now stand as a vacant eyesore.

The junior high schools on Independence Avenue and Sedgwick Avenue, P.S. 24, and most of our public schools owe some part of their existence to our country editor and his staff, as does Seton Park where young Dave and Celia Stein used to picnic.

The Riverdale Mental Health Association, unique for a community of this size, also occupied a special place in the Steins’ hearts, and in the pages of The Press, when the elements that comprise mental health were almost dirty words.

You can’t talk about David Stein without talking about Neighborhood House. The birth of The Press is forever linked to the visions of its director, Elizabeth Day, and trustees Kerryn King and Sidney Gamble.

In 1950, when there were only some 3,000 families in “greater” Riverdale, Neighborhood House was experimenting with a monthly official house organ. It was as good as amateurs could make it, but its future was bleak.

Kerryn King recruited Stein to professionalize the Neighborhood News. From this grew the concept to found a regular Riverdale weekly. Originally, Dave thought he could stay at the AP, and as he phrased it, run the paper “with my left hand and the aid of volunteers.”

Well, it didn’t work out quite that way. Riverdale desperately needed its own weekly, and the merchants needed a place to advertise in this burgeoning burg.

The Press soon outgrew the Stein living room with family and friends licking address labels.

Dave was suddenly an ex-AP editor working full-time as a Riverdale editor-publisher.

There’s a marvelous anecdote connected with its birth pains. Some officials at Neighborhood House thought that they should retain financial equity in this new paper as a possible source of revenue — should there be any. Sidney Gamble argued, “If The Press loses money, we should not be involved in any liability. If it’s a success, its profits should go to the Steins, who will be deserving.”

Fortunately, Sidney Gamble’s gamble prevailed. Indeed Dave Stein’s life work was not to be dedicated to the publication of a house organ — even Neighborhood House’s.

Like all independent newspapers worth their ink, The Press had its enemies. A few of the gentry once organized a boycott against the infant newspaper, but the readers stayed loyal, and merchants responded by purchasing more space.

New York magazine and others in the big city media have taken occasional aim at The Riverdale Press, but David Stein always knew who he was and what he and his newspaper stood for. It wasn’t supposed to be The New York Times or The Village Voice, nor was it a vacuous shopping news that so many community newspapers have become.

It had — and has — integrity. It covered its community, its strengths and weaknesses.

David was always proud that The Press had no free list. You had to buy it, or subscribe. The Riverdale Press has won a multitude of prizes, and many of its peers have voted it the premier newspaper of its category in the state.

It pursued excellence, and the Joseph Pulitzer admonition that “newspapers should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

That tradition of excellence and independence is already being carried forward by his sons Bernard and Richard  — what more could a father want? They took over as co-publishers in 1979 when David’s stout heart began to tire.

Celia Stein, the sole contributor whose copy is never edited, is more than just the Julia Child of Riverdale. She continues to be on the masthead, where she has been these 30 years — voice of conscience. Heckler. Partner.

A personal and final note. David Stein was also a gifted teacher of journalists, and his disciples work in newsrooms throughout the country. On Saturday, when one of his proteges, David Friendly of the Newsweek bureau in Los Angeles, heard the news about David, he responded with a sense of pride and sadness.

“You know, Mr. Stein was my first journalism teacher when I worked at The Riverdale Press on Broadway.”

I interrupted David by asking if his first instruction didn’t really begin at home.

David replied, “You taught me what journalism was, Dad. Mr. Stein taught me how to do it. And he was a tough taskmaster.”

So David Stein endures, and if I may be permitted to speak for him now: “Forget that I died. Remember that I lived” — in a newsroom in Riverdale.

EDITOR'S NOTE: At the time he delivered this eulogy, Fred Friendly was the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, named after the journalist he co-created “See It Now” with while president of CBS News. He was portrayed by George Clooney in the 2006 film, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He died in 1998.

David T. Friendly moved on from Newsweek to become a Hollywood producer. His work included 1991’s “My Girl,” 2000’s “Big Momma’s House,” and 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

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Fred Friendly,