A Writer's Journey
Feb 28, 2020 01:02PM
My friend David O’Reilly was a star writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer for thirty-five years. He traveled the world with Pope Francis, touched foreheads with the Dalai Lama in spiritual communion, walked through the dust in Kenya to tell the story of the poorest of the poor, lunched with James Baldwin in Manhattan, sailed the sloop Clearwater on the Hudson River with folk singer Pete Seeger.
My wife and I are often asked how does Mountain Home find so many talented writers? They come out of the past, like my wife’s Wellsboro music teacher Pat Davis, or out of the woods, like the late “Mountain Man” Roy Kain, or out of law, or medicine, or the church, or even recovery. But Teresa and I have never been so astonished as the day last fall we knocked on a door on our block and there stood David O’Reilly, globe-trotting reporter and new Wellsboro resident.
“Welcome to Wellsboro,” we said, stunned. Thirty years ago when I joined the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer David was my colleague and first friend in Philadelphia. I bought my first house a half-mile from his in Riverton, New Jersey; now, with but a few weeks’ notice, he and his wife Birnie, our dear friend, had moved seven houses down.
“Well, hello,” David said with smile. Now it’s my pleasure to introduce you to my old friend. I’m happy to say that after getting acclimated David jumped in as the author of this month’s fascinating cover story that is a true sign of our times—“The Last Reporter,” the story of Jeff Murray of the Star-Gazette. I hope you’ll be enthralled with the story as I was and with powerful evidence, in stereo, of what a reporter can mean to a community.
When I met him, David was already one of the top writers on one of the best newspapers in the country. Then he got on the religion beat for the Inquirer, his true love, and held it for twenty-two years. “Religion is enormously important in most people’s personal lives,” he says. “It’s a wonderful medium for telling stories.”
David had an audience with Pope John Paul in 2005, and kissed his ring. Keeping his objectivity, his reporting on the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis led to landmark legislation in Harrisburg protecting minors. In 2008, David interviewed the Dalai Lama. “A buoyant, jubilant man,” he recalls. “He pressed his forehead to mine. I felt his peace for days.” He flew with Pope Francis in 2015 from Rome to Havana when the pope met Fidel Castro, then on to the pope’s speeches before Congress and the United Nations. David presented the pontiff with a papal skullcap, or zucchetto, which in the priestly tradition the pope put on his head for a moment and gave back to David (CNN reported on the swap). His work was nominated for a Pulitzer; he twice won the Templeton Award as the best religion reporter in the United States. Even as newspapers lost readers and reporters to smartphones, the Inquirer’s religion writer kept his unsinkable zeal for the profession and the people he wrote about. His colleagues applauded in his honor in 2016 as he walked out of the newsroom in Philadelphia for the last time. He thought he’d retired.
As you’ll see in "The Last Reporter," that’s not quite true.