Herb Kamm: A wonderful life

Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle donated $50 to the charity aspect of the BPP All-Time Dream Project. As such, he’s entitled to 1,000 words written by me on a topic of his choice, and I invite anyone who’d like a guaranteed post to donate a similar amount. In this case, Peter asked me to write something on a professor of his at Cal Poly, former newspaperman Herb Kamm. Here goes.


I never knew Herb Kamm, but if I were to make a list of people I’d liked to have met, Kamm would rank somewhere near the top. I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing I could have known my great-grandfather Elmer Danielson who became a factory owner through fifteen years of night school and who had a sense of humor family members still talk about nearly 40 years after his death. I’d have liked to have met Sacramento native and former big league outfielder Joe Marty who got favorably compared to Joe DiMaggio when they were teammates in the Pacific Coast League and who I started researching a book on two years ago. After them, Kamm might rank third on my personal list.

Outwardly, there would appear to be nothing hugely special or unusual about the circumstances of Kamm’s life, same as Marty or my great-grandfather. I don’t think that’s anything to bemoan. When all is said and done in life, I think most of us are lucky if we’re remembered by anyone beyond the people who love us or the handful of lives we might touch. In Herb Kamm’s case, he probably influenced more people than most, first as a newspaper editor then as a senior citizen professor of journalism in California. By the time our paths could have conceivably crossed, he was teaching a sports journalism class at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where I attended college. In fact, if I had my act together, I could have taken that class the spring of 2002, the end of my freshman year.

But, as it goes with lots of kids away from home for the first time, my freshman year of college was more about binge drinking, finding new and creative ways to fail at life, and making a rough go of it in my studies. I did very little writing, nearly failed out of school, and if I could, I’d take a mulligan on that whole abysmal year. By the time I had improved academically, Kamm was dead. He died at the beginning of my sophomore year at 85, and I at least made it to his memorial service on campus, getting to hear nice stories about a sweet man. I really missed out on at least one awesome opportunity Kamm could have provided me. One of the sports journalism students told me that on the last day of class the preceding spring, Kamm’s students got to conduct a phone interview with Bob Costas.

I’m lucky that I’ve had a lot of fine mentors in writing and life already. I knew I wanted to write from the time I was eight years old thanks to my dad working diligently with me on it that year after I brought home a D for a report on the sun. In college, I had professors who won Pulitzer Prizes, were working on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and in the case of one professor who had an odd affinity for serial killers, played a few of my peers and I an interview she did with Charles Manson. The day Michael Jackson got arrested, I remember her telling us with a grin, “This is my kind of story.” In recent years, writing this blog has brought me in contact with a lot of cool current and former sports scribes from Joe Posnanski to Josh Wilker to Robert Creamer, among others. I’m lucky to have the life I do and get to interact with a lot of interesting people. But I’d have liked to have known Kamm.

Thanks to the magic of Google, though, there’s more I can say about Kamm here. First off,  there’s a journalism scholarship in his name at Cal Poly today, and rightfully so. Kamm accomplished a lot, providing a blueprint for any aspiring journalist. He got his first reporting job as a 17-year-old in Asbury Park, New Jersey, about the same time that another 17-year-old Frank Sinatra was readying for his first professional singing gig in nearby Hoboken. One forum says Kamm covered both a World Series and the 1945 funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kamm also served as executive editor of the New York World Tribune from 1966 until its folding in 1967, having a front row seat for the demise of a legendary outlet. It’s nothing to celebrate, but I imagine it at least yielded some interesting stories for Kamm. And I’d loved to know what it was like presiding over a staff that featured writers the likes of Tom Wolfe and Red Smith.

Kamm’s death even earned a mention in the New York Times on September 27, 2002. Here’s the full text of Kamm’s obituary:

Herb Kamm, executive editor of The World Journal Tribune in New York in 1966 and 1967, died on Wednesday at home here. He was 85.

He learned he had leukemia eight days ago, his family said.

In 1943, Mr. Kamm joined The New York World-Telegram & The Sun, where he became managing editor in 1963. That paper merged with The New York Herald Tribune and The Journal-American to become The World Journal Tribune. After The World Journal Tribune closed, in 1967, he became an editorial consultant for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

He was at The Cleveland Press from 1969 until it closed in 1982. He later was editorial director at WJKW-TV, a CBS affiliate in Cleveland. He then taught at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Mr. Kamm was born in Long Branch, N.J., and early in his career he worked for The Asbury Park Press in New Jersey and The Associated Press.

He is survived by his wife, Phyllis; their three sons; six grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Perhaps we touch more lives and have a broader footprint than we sometimes know. At his memorial service, one of Kamm’s sons offered a toast and a proposed headline for his dad’s life, telling those of us in attendance, “With respect to Frank Capra, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.'” Indeed. Nearly a decade after his death, the legacy of Herb Kamm lives on.

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