David Wald died of throat and neck cancer on May 27th, after a 9-year battle with the disease. He was only 61 years old.
One of the bravest people I’ve ever known, David was a wonderful colleague and friend. Gentle and smart, David mentored everyone in the Learning Matters office, leading by example and encouragement. Television is a team sport, and David always put the team first. While he often came up with the best ideas for how to tell a particular story or figured out a solution to problems we were wrestling with, he never, ever took credit, preferring to see the team keep its eye on the ball.
Although David was 13 years younger than I am, he taught me so much about television, life, and human relationships. For this, I will always be grateful.
When cancer struck, David expressed his determination to keep on contributing to Learning Matters and our work for the NewsHour. And he did, often editing video and scripts from home. He endured a number of regimens and trials, some of which worked for a while, but inevitably the cancer returned, usually in a new place in his body. He never complained.
At one point about 18 months ago, David came into my office, smiling broadly. His last three CAT scans had been completely clear, and his doctors were saying that his cancer was gone. As his wife, Betsy, said, it was the first time in years that they had gone to sleep without the heavy rock of cancer on their chests, and awakened without that rock still pressing on them. They had a blessed six months of stress-free life, and then the damn cancer returned, as he said “with a vengeance.”
I hired David to help us produce a major film about higher education. Although he’d never dug deeply into education, what mattered was that he knew how to find stories. We had decided to spend a year on four college campuses: Amherst, the University of Arizona, the Community College of Denver, and Western Kentucky University. David was in his element. He found students and faculty eager to reveal their innermost thoughts, which they did on camera. Most remarkably, a senior at Arizona chose to tell–and show–a national audience how he was cheating and drinking his way through college. A (tenured) faculty member admitted–on camera–that she and her students had an unspoken contract: if they didn’t expect too much from her (so she could do research), she would not expect much from them–and they’d get good grades.
The film, Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, caused a stir, to put it mildly.
David was full of energy, a Renaissance man who jumped from airplanes, ran marathons, went to Burning Man, and quoted Plato. He also had a sly sense of humor. Here’s David’s wit at work. He orchestrated this entire piece, under my nose no less. It was a complete surprise at our holiday party in December 2004.
His home town newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran this obituary about the Emmy-winning producer who was in many ways the heart and soul of Learning Matters.
One more point about David. This letter from Lisa Hannah, the assistant principal of a school in Belmar, NJ, arrived after David and our colleague John Tulenko produced a memorable piece about how the school and its staff responded after Hurricane Sandy hit the town of Belmar hard. The segment ran on the NewsHour. In the piece, Ms. Hannah related her conversation with one child — “A little girl, when we opened up the school for lunch today, she’s walking in the dark because the lights were not on. She said, ‘oh, I’m so happy to be back at school. I feel so safe.”
The kids got books too because, as Ms. Hannah told David and John, she was always looking for ways to “sneak in a little bit of education.” Watching those teachers and the assistant principal delivering food and blankets to stricken families, and later welcoming them into the school (still without power) and feeding them is deeply moving.
I reprint the letter because it demonstrates David’s commitment to reporting that makes a difference. David wasn’t content to simply tell the story. He wanted to move our audience, and he often did.
In the wake of one of the most devastating natural disasters the small shore town of Belmar, New Jersey had suffered in decades, school administrators knew that the school community of 577 students would suffer tremendous challenges in recovering and restoring a sense of normalcy and order in school. The population of students included more than 50% from economically disadvantaged homes, many of whom hailed from non-native English speaking backgrounds. These families were financially fragile even prior to the storm, and the wrath wrought by Superstorm Sandy shifted the imbalance into even more dire circumstances for many families.
When approached by Learning Matters producers David Wald and John Tulenko about following school administrators during the early days after the storm in coordinating relief efforts for our families, we had no idea what to expect. The resulting piece, which featured the plight of our district in identifying and meeting the needs of our families without the the aid of electricity or phone communication, produced a powerful response from around the country.
Immediately following the airing of the segment on November 12th, we were inundated with phone calls, emails, and donations of school supplies, clothing, and financial gifts from other school districts, community members, businesses, and private citizens. These donations were immediately channeled to students, families, and staff members most in need, including 43 displaced students and several staff members unable to return to their destroyed homes.
Some of the most poignant outreach efforts included a school district from Olney, Maryland who traveled in caravan up to Belmar one cold Saturday afternoon with hundreds of new toys for the holidays, school supplies for students and teachers, and gift bags for school leaders who were working continually to meet the needs of the students. As the NewsHour piece gained momentum in social networking circles and the Internet, thousands of dollars in gift cards and donations arrived each day offering continual relief and support to families as they tried to provide a semblance of the holiday season for their families. Young students from other schools around the country traveled to the school to personally present checks resulting from the hard work of lemonade stands and other industrious efforts designed to raise funds for the students of our school.
The stories go on and on and on…..folks stopping by saying they had seen the segment and wished to anonymously drop off hundreds of warm blankets, book bags, or other helpful donations, warm words of encouragement received via email, phone messages and in the mail.
As a result of the response from the News Hour, we were invited to share our story with the local and national media, as well as to testify before the State Assembly Education Committee to describe the impact of the storm upon our district and in our community. And each time, the same thing would be heard…”We saw that incredible piece on PBS NewsHour and we were so moved….”
As we look toward the upcoming months of this challenging school year, we look forward to a very special day that will be a direct result of the generous donations to our school, much of which was in response to viewers seeing the segment…. a day of healing called “Belmar Strong” beach celebration. On this special day in May 2013, our students will walk in numbers the few blocks to the beach wearing Belmar Strong t-shirts to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with food and music that will mark the official opening of one of the most treasured and memorable landmarks in our town, the beach! The Mayor and Council will join us in welcoming not only the students of Belmar, but the many students and staff members of other schools who stood by us during this difficult time and provided hope, inspiration, and a bit of comfort and fellowship.
Thank you again for the beautiful piece you produced for our district and the dignified manner in which you portrayed our families and their plight. We have all benefited from the outpouring of generosity, compassion, and unity so many others have shown as a result of watching.
Assistant Principal/Director of Curriculum
Belmar School District
Thank you, David, for sharing your gifts with us. Rest in peace, my friend.