Monday, June 29, 2020

Duluth-Born Les Crystal Dies at 85: an Influential Executive Producer for the PBS NewHour

It's well known that Bob Dylan was born here in Duluth. There are many from here who've made an impact, perhaps in part due to the work ethic that seems as pervasive as the red ore of the Northland.

This weekend I heard an interesting story from Craig Grau, retired UMD professor of political science, Dylanologist, and influential member of the Duluth Dylan Fest committee. He shared, “Back in the 1980s, I met a ship captain in Duluth from Italy.

He asked if Duluth had produced anyone famous besides Dylan. I said, ‘Les Crystal.’

“He was the man behind the News Hour. I never met him but I knew his babysitter. She was quite proud. I wish Duluth had been as proud.”

Though most of Crystal’s career took him elsewhere, he wasn’t forgotten where he was from. I asked Louis Kemp, author of his friendship chronicle Dylan and Me, if his family knew the Crystals. Louie sent me this reply: “Yes, his Father and my Father were very close all their lives. His father was very active in the Duluth Jewish Community. In fact, I bought the property at 40th Ave. West where I put my Crab Delights plant in Duluth from Izzy Crystal, Les’ father. His sister Dinah was my age and we all spent time together.”

Louie went on to add, “Izzy had a specialty fine food store on Superior Street for years and later he had a wholesale food distribution company in Duluth. They were a Great Family."

* * * *
I mention all these anecdotes because of the recent passing of Lester Crystal last Wednesday, June
24. His obituary appeared in the New York Times two days later, and many other media outlets as well.

The Times obit begins with this brief summation of his life before sharing a more in depth overview of significant moments in his life: Lester M. Crystal, who after 20 years at NBC News, including two as its president, moved to “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” on PBS and immediately set about transforming it from a half-hour program into “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” a broadcast widely acclaimed for its breadth and depth, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 85.

Born in Duluth, Minnesota, on Sept. 13, 1934, Mr. Crystal went on to acquire two journalism degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School and returned her to work for a spell at KDAL, our local AM radio station. His career serves to underscore the reality that you really don't know how high our local talent can fly till they leave the nest.

The Times obituary is filled with anecdotes that make it a good read. While he was president of NBC one of his tasks was to unseat CBS as the number one evening news provider. With Walter Cronkite as the talking head for CBS, he can't be faulted for failing on that particular mission. With the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour at PBS, he was able to create a new set of rules.

Crystal's most gut wrenching experience during his time at NBC came after sending a news correspondent and cameraman down to Jonestown to see what was going on at the Peoples' Temple in  November 1978. The two were killed as they tried to leave. Hours later Jim Jones' 900+ followers literally "drank the Kool-aid," ending the cult's earthly sojourn.*

Numerous news outlets have written about his passing, including this one at which focuses on his character and begins:
“Gentle.” “Calm.” “Generous.” If you ask someone to describe Lester Crystal, who helmed the PBS NewsHour as executive producer for more than 20 years, you’ll hear those words again and again. He died at age 85 on Wednesday after a battle with brain cancer and pneumonia, but in his long career as a leader in broadcast journalism, he stood out to his colleagues as a font of singular kindness, fortitude and grace in the hectic business of daily news.

Click the links to find the full story, which is really only an introduction to a life with some impressive achievements.

Related Links
Lester Crystal, Guiding Force Behind ‘NewsHour,’ Dies at 85 (NYTimes)
Louis Kemp's Dylan & Me Book Signing: Bringing It All Back Home

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