What Is Our Generation’s Legacy?

On the rooftop at Jonathan Edwards, 1973; courtesy Ron Claiborne

By Ron E. Claiborne ·

We were going to be different. Remember? I don’t know about you but I sure thought that. I imagined that we were going to eschew the conventional values and hypocrisies of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. We would learn from their mistakes. The world we would create would be fairer, freer, less judgmental, more honest. We would value meaning over money, equality of opportunity over the inherited benefits of privilege, doing what’s right over the crass motivations of personal advancement. We had lived through and been shaped by the epic movements. Civil Rights. Women’s Rights. Anti-war. The Sexual Revolution. Sure, we went to an elite college, but Yale wouldn’t change us. We would change Yale and then we’d change the world.

I remember being in an Afro-American Studies seminar. The professor remarked casually that if we weren’t already from the upper-middle class, we were destined to be. To me and the other Black students, that was an insult.

When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1970, just a month past my 17th birthday, I had the vague notion of being pre-med. I took Calculus, Biology and Organic Chemistry. None of them excited me, but so what? Medicine was a noble profession. My father was a doctor. It was an easy decision. Easy until until a grievous error on the final exam of my organic chemistry class forced me to reconsider my career ambition. It was an easier decision to drop being pre-med.

I came to journalism by accident. In 1972, our sophomore year, the presidential race was shaping up to be the Democrat, Senator George McGovern against the incumbent president, Richard Nixon. I despised Nixon. I admired McGovern and went to New Hampshire to volunteer for him.

When James Brown, whose music I’d always loved, endorsed Nixon, I was enraged. I offered to write an opinion piece for the Yale Daily News denouncing Brown for what I considered treason against Black America. I proposed that Brown be replaced as “Soul Brother No. 1,” his nickname, as if it were an official title that could be passed to someone else. They published it, which led to other assignments. I was becoming a journalist. I believed in the power of journalism.

I had a conventionally successful career ... even achieved a small measure of public recognition. I changed nothing.

Then came Watergate, My new faith was confirmed. The Washington Post coverage of the scandal, especially the dogged reporting by Bob  Woodward and Carl Bernstein, thrilled me. I watched the Watergate hearings for hours each day during the summer of 1973. I became convinced that there was no greater public service than journalism. Righting wrongs. Exposing corruption. Speaking truth to power. Even bringing down the powerful when they betrayed the public trust.

After graduating Yale, I went to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A year later, I was working for a small newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area, writing four paragraph stories about liquor store robberies, cars being vandalized and two-alarm apartment fires. It wasn’t quite speaking truth to power, but it was a start.

In 1977, I moved to New York City without a job, slept on a friend’s couch and scoured the Help Wanted ads in the Times. I eventually landed a job with the United Press International wire service. I learned my trade covering literally every kind of story under intense deadline pressure. I made $233 a week. On that salary, my Tuition Postponement Option payments for the $5,000 in loans that I took out from Yale were miniscule, confirmation of my ascetic life.

After two years, I moved on from UPI to the New York Daily News. But soon the Daily News was in dire financial trouble. The Tribune Company, which owned it, threatened to close it if they couldn’t find a buyer. I panicked. I gritted my teeth and somehow made the giant leap to television news. I spent four years at a local station in New York City, then was hired by ABC Network News, the major leagues.

I would spend 32 years at ABC, based in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and New York again. I covered thousands of stories, interviewed tens of thousands of people. I traveled the country and the world. I did plenty of stories of no importance or consequence, but I also reported on events that shaped history. I had a conventionally successful career. When I became the newsreader for the weekend “Good Morning America” program, I even achieved a small measure of public recognition.

I changed nothing.

I was just a kid, maybe 10, the first time I saw the movie classic, The Bridge On The River Kwai. I  re-watch it every few years. With each viewing, I saw in it a message or meaning or nuance that had somehow escaped my attention before. Even as a child, I was intrigued by the haunting soliloquy of the British Colonel Nicholson as he inspected the bridge after its completion. I didn’t understand it as a child or even really understand it as a young adult. I could sense that it was profound, but its deeper meaning eluded me.

“There are times,” the colonel muses, “when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything.”

Above and right: Volunteering in Ipalamwa, Tanzania, 2018; courtesy Ron Claiborne

I retired in 2018. I had just turned 65. Barring a miracle, I was certainly a lot closer to the end than the beginning. I wondered what I would do. I decided to go around the world. I had traveled extensively for work. I would travel for me. Not just to see sights. I had spent my career as an observer. Now I wanted to do something.

I went to Tanzania with a non-profit called Global Volunteers. In Ipalamwa, a remote village in the mountains, I helped install very basic hand-washing devices and taught English to teenagers. I felt almost purified by the tough physical labor. I loved teaching. To my astonishment, I was a good teacher.

Over the next few years, I plunged into a variety of volunteer projects. I worked with high school seniors in Cambodia, helping them write their college application essays. I worked with the animal caretakers at a zoo in Uganda. I became a substitute teacher in the Norwalk, Connecticut school system. I worked with Black and Hispanic high school students at an after-school academic enrichment program in Harlem. I helped elementary school kids with their homework in East Harlem. I was an English tutor to new immigrants in New York. I volunteered on a Native American reservation in Montana and in Texas with migrants who’d just crossed the border seeking asylum.

These experiences were truly more fulfilling than anything I did in my career. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my career. I did, immensely. But now I was engaged in doing things for the purity of effort. There was no personal gain or advancement in it except the gratification of doing something for someone else. 

Reporting for ABC News in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina 2005; courtesy Ron Claiborne

Teaching English to young monks at Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal 2019; courtesy Ron Claiborne

When you work with young people especially, you make the effort, maybe you plant a seed and, if you’re lucky, you might influence an individual life like the teachers whose guidance, patience and wisdom had opened my eyes and influenced the course of my life. And if you don’t, then, as Randall McMurphy says in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest after he tried to and failed to lift that block in the insane asylum shower, “At least I tried.”

A few years after I retired, I was in Nepal to teach English to young monks at a monastery at the foot of a mountain on the edge of Kathmandu. At lunch one day with the head monk, he asked about my life and what had brought me there. I told him my story. When I finished, he smiled serenely — after all, he was a Buddhist monk — and said in a gentle, lilting voice, “Ah. You used to be a journalist. Now you are a teacher.”

At this stage, we members of the Yale Class of 1974 are all at least 70 years old (there may be a few exceptions. To them, I apologize.) Some of us are still working. Some have no intention of not working. I congratulate them. I’m guessing most of us are retired, and many of us have reached what I think of as the “what do I do now?” stage of life. If we are reasonably healthy and not financially insecure, that’s actually a wonderful place to be.

Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Boy, was he wrong. This is our time to write our second or even third acts, freed from the bondage of career, liberated from the illusions of youth, and possessed with at least a modicum of wisdom. Researchers say there is a U shape to happiness over the course of life. You’re happiest when you’re young and again when you’re older.

I’m not entirely sure what the dictionary says legacy is. For once, I won’t bother to Google it. I will make up my own definition. Legacy is what we do, what we leave behind that helps those coming behind us. We can’t change the world. That was never going to happen, I now see. But we can still chip away at it at its edges. That can be our legacy. There’s still time.

Ron Claiborne [JE], a native Californian, was a reporter for more than 40 years, working for the United Press International wire service, the New York Daily News, WNEW-TV in New York and for 32 years at ABC Network News until retiring in 2018. He currently lives in New York City, teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and writes a newsletter for Substack.