Award-winning journalist comes home

Alumnus returns for input on book


New York Times columnist Tom Friedman speaks to students and administrators Jan. 8 in the old print shop. Friedman said the input from students during the talk will play into his new book.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman walked into the old print shop, filled with 30 high school students, faculty members and administrators. He opened his laptop and asked the room a question: “What makes this place an inclusive community?”

It was Jan. 8, and Friedman, a Park alumnus and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and journalist, said he visited his old high school to conduct a discussion with current students.

Friedman began by explaining how he went to elementary, middle and high school in Park. He started as the Echo’s business manager, selling ads to Beek’s Pizza, and then the deputy features editor. He said the newspaper adviser at the time, Hattie Steinberg, taught him so well that he never needed to take another journalism course.

“She just really pounded in the fundamentals — how you write a lead, how you structure a story, how you lay out a paper. Everything was done in this strict, proper way and that really stayed with me,” Friedman said. “She was the opposite of cool, but it was the ’60s, a time of great change, and she was an anchor of stability.”

However, Friedman said nostalgia was not the only reason he wanted to visit the high school. Recently, he had an experience with the attendant at a parking lot. The man recognized him and asked if Friedman would read his blog, which he did.

Afterward, Friedman said he offered the man a deal: if the attendant would share his life story, Friedman would teach him how to write a column. Friedman said he realized his lessons for the garage attendant might make a good book.

“It really started with that (garage attendant). As I explained to him where a column came from, it forced me to sit down and think about it,” Friedman said. “I’d never really thought about it that much before — how do I do what I do?”

Superintendent Rob Metz said he spent time with Friedman throughout the day, and enjoyed speaking with him about his upcoming book and life experiences.

Friedman said he came back to St. Louis Park to revisit the place that not only introduced him to journalism, but profoundly affected his worldview.”

“It was really fun to talk to him, first of all, such an interesting person — also one of our alumni which we’re proud of,” Metz said. “It’ll be fun to see what he says about St. Louis Park in the book. I think it’s going to be good.”

Friedman said he came back to St. Louis Park to revisit the place that not only introduced him to journalism, but profoundly affected his worldview. Living in a community of people who successfully coexisted, he said, changed his global perspective.

“(Writing a column is) a little bit how you lean into the world, and it’s a little bit how you think the world works, and it’s a little bit how you think it’s affecting people and cultures,” Friedman said. “As I did that breakdown, it made me think, ‘well, where do my politics come from?’’”

As he reflected on his career and accomplishments, he said he wondered if the small, first-ring suburb contained something magical — and if it still does. Friedman said his discussion with students intended to explore that idea.

Senior Lesly Hernandez, who attended the meeting, said she liked the discussion with Friedman because she knew the open environment meant she could speak her mind.

“I thought the discussion went really well,” Hernandez said. “I especially liked how there was so many people of all different types of backgrounds and how comfortable and trusting it was to speak about anything we wanted.”

Hernandez also said Friedman’s familiarity with the community helped establish a foundation for students to feel at ease with him.

“I liked how he seemed to agree and understand to what most of us were saying, and how he compared certain things we said to how it was when he went to Park,” Hernandez said.

Friedman said the aim of the new book, “Thank You for Being Late,” centers around teaching others how to write a column, especially as so many writers around the world want to contribute to the conversation.

Anyone can reach others with their ideas, he said, just like the garage attendant who started a blog and shared himself with the world.

“My parking attendant is now my competitor,” Friedman said. “He’s now a global columnist, in a way.”

Friedman writes a column once a week on Wednesdays for the op-ed page of the New York Times. His new book is scheduled for release in October 2016, according to Macmillan Publishers.