A Local Hero
Jonathan Neumann: Truth Telling at Its Best
By Edward Shanahan
They aren’t names in the news nowadays but when Jonathan Neumann was a rookie reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in the early 1970s you would have read scores of stories about Dwight Allen, Russell Daniels and Gerald Penny.
Jonathan was an aggressive reporter, indefatigable, unrelenting when he tripped over a nugget of information that suggested perhaps impropriety, unfairness, wrongdoing.
Dwight Allen, for those who were not around in those free wheeling days at the University of Massachusetts, was dean of the School of Education.
And as a young reporter in 1972, Jonathan began to get tips that what were being called “experimental,” “unconventional” and “unorthodox” practices at the school were more likely questionable, even criminal.
By the time, Jonathan had written some 40 or 50 stories, it became evident that the school was more or less operating a diploma mill, handing out advanced university degrees to certain students in exchange for large grant funds from federal programs.
Ultimately, some members of the school’s staff were indicted. There were convictions and a wholesale upheaval of the school’s administration. It was a huge story, not just locally but in the entire field of higher education.
Meanwhile during Jonathan’s all-too brief tenure at the Gazette, he wrote a series of articles about the case of Russell Daniels, a young retarded black man, who had been tried and convicted of killing an elderly woman in Springfield. For some reason Jonathan had doubts about the case, so he dug into it, and when I say dug, he did not let any impediment, such as official stonewalling, stop him.
Ultimately, after some years of legal
maneuvering Daniels’ conviction was
reversed, prompting Gov. Michael
Dukakis to issue a pardon. Daniels was
set free. Not too many yearsago I saw a
photo of Daniels in the Gazette working at a social service agency in the area.
Which brings us to Gerald Penny, who in 1973 arrived at prestigious Amherst College from a small town in the
rural south. Gerald, like Daniels, was a young black man. Jonathan Neumann
Among his first challenges after he arrived on campus was to take a swimming test in the college pool. Unfortunately, Gerald could not swim, but valiantly tried to take the test anyway. More or less allowed to sink or swim, Gerald sank and drowned.
I recall the day the news broke, and Jonathan headed to Amherst to report the story. But it was not your short, compact news story, it was a detailed, hour by hour, minute by minute chronicle of the tragic accident with interviews with those involved. The story left the very strong impression that the college had acted irresponsibly by forcing Penny to try to swim.
Since then the college has acknowledged its role in Gerald’s untimely death, honoring him with the naming of the Gerald Penny Black Cultural Center at the college,
And why do I revisit these events and news stories? Because last weekend Jonathan Neumann and his wife Helen came for a visit, the first time I had seen him since 1992.
Jonathan had left the Gazette in 1976, going to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where at the age of 29 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles for that paper about abuses of authority by Philadelphia police officers. He later was a reporter at the Washington Post, and then returned to Philadelphia as an editor. He now is an editor for investigative projects for Bloomberg News.
In conversations last weekend, Jonathan admitted that his pursuit of news stories and the passion that drove him, had finally ended in burn-out in 1982. He now understands the need to relax, and to value his surroundings and savor the quieter aspects of life, including the music of Bach. He was especially admiring of the city of Northampton and its many pleasures, visual and cultural.
When I think of the role that newspaper reporting can play, I still return to the very swift decline and fall of the UMass School of Education when the facts became known, along with the eventual pardon of Russell Daniels and the honoring of Gerald Penny. Those stories alone are not a bad legacy for Jonathan Neumann to reflect on if he wants to know whether his work and life have value
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