George Vecsey Q & A:
What was your favorite class, who was your favorite professor, or what is your fondest memory of Hofstra?
So many names jump right into my head – Sobel, Dykstra, Luke, Lichtenstein, Hull. In my senior year, I took a course on the cavalier poets with Ruth Stauffer. I still refer to that course as the epitome of a liberal education that Hofstra did so well. Marianne and I named our second daughter Corinna after the Herrick poem. How is that for education having a lasting impact?
What was your first job after graduating from Hofstra, and what was the most valuable thing you learned there?
That’s really two different questions. My dad, through his newspaper contacts, got me a student workship with Richard W. Gordon, the sports information director, known as The Fox. I had a great time publicizing the teams – our student-athletes remain my best friends from college. The Fox also got me a part-time job at Newsday, which was becoming a great paper for a good run, and it had room for me. So learning to work was a life-altering gift from Hofstra. But I would separate that from the quality education I received from this growing commuter school east of the city.
What is your field of specialty, and how did you come to work in the industry?
I was already pointing to work in sports, through my dad, and had some experience when I arrived. But Hofstra … and Newsday … and JFK … and the ‘60s … and my mom’s advice to keep growing made me restless to cover other things. I learned to play the game – as ball players say – at Newsday. The New York Times had jobs covering sports, Appalachia, the city, religion, and back to sports, with an international focus. It all started at Hofstra.
What advice would you give current Hofstra students interested in journalism?
Branch out. Double majors. Business. Languages. Pre-law. Arm yourself for other fields. Studying journalism will teach you to recognize reality, organize facts, present information – a lifelong skill. But I don’t see the kind of entry jobs that were around in 1960 – or even 2000. I’m not much into video journalism – what I call show-and-tell. We need print journalists to find facts and trends, to inform us. I expect there will be a New York Times printing news in 10, 20, 30 years. But I look at other papers deteriorating in front of our eyes, no names mentioned. Will there be jobs? Will there be papers? How does somebody get a starting job? That’s why I say, branch out. Learn other skills.
In one word, how would you describe Hofstra?
Hmm. Different? It’s not the same little commuter school on the south side of Hempstead Turnpike. (Old people talk like this.) I’m a city kid, found the suburbs a bit quiet. But now I walk on the old quadrangle (the gardens are so beautiful) and expect to see Francis Ford Coppola or Lainie Kazan or Butch van Breda Kolff or Dick Sullivan or some of the athletes or deans like Hutchins and Hoffman and Mrs. Hochuli … or Dr. John Cranford Adams, that great Shakespearean scholar and builder, walking his little dog. But I do see my wife, Marianne Graham, every day – and her art work – and our three children, and I say, Hofstra did right by me. I have reason to think it is doing right by people today.
What is a typical work day like for a sports columnist?
No such thing. I’m retired now, write an occasional column for the Times, but I had so much wonderful travel that I have no need for the senior cruise-of-a-lifetime. When I was working, sometimes I could type away at home … other days I would be at the ball park … or California or the Tour de France. Every day was different. I thrived on it for decades. I also was compelled to write books, a longer format.
What was a major obstacle you were able to overcome as a journalist?
The supply of talent made it hard to get noticed, easy to be overlooked. That is competition, life in the fast lane, whatever you want to call it. I’ve worked on events, back when I was a news reporter, and colleagues were given the top assignment and I was an extra hand, just in case. Bicentennial Day, 1976 …. I was assigned to cover Henry Kissinger, on a warship in the Hudson. Took a lot of notes, fed them to other reporters, never wrote a word, felt like spare equipment. But I have learned from so many athletes I respected – always be ready, keep in shape, watch the game, your chance will come. And it’s great to be with a winner. But sometimes you don’t play. To me, that’s not an obstacle, because we all know and accept it.
Who was the person who most influenced you, and how?
My parents were journalists and gave me high goals, high ideals. I think of them all the time, how I never gave them enough credit when they were here. Then at Hofstra I worked on two yearbooks with Marianne Graham, and I was touched by her strength, her spirituality, her talent. Wasn’t sure anything would ever happen. Got lucky. I would wish my Hofstra experience for everybody.
George Vecsey (BA ’60, HND ’90) has been a journalist for more than 50 years. From 1982 through 2011, he wrote the sports column for The New York Times and is current a contributing sports columnist for the Times. He has written more than a dozen books, including five best-sellers. His latest book, Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer, will be published by Times Books/Henry Holt & Co. in May 2014. He will appear at the upcoming conference at Hofstra titled Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football's Artistry, Identity & Politics (April 10-12, 2014).
Vecsey says his best gift from Hofstra, beyond a good education and a career, is his wife. He and his co-editor of the Hofstra yearbook, Marianne Graham, an artist and teacher, were married in October of 1960 and have three children and five grandchildren. Marianne Vecsey made 13 trips to India as a volunteer with a childcare agency, and has escorted nearly two dozen children to the United States for adoption, including one grand-daughter.
The son of two journalists, George Spencer Vecsey, attended Jamaica High and enrolled at Hofstra in 1956, working as a student publicist in the Hofstra athletic department, covering memorable Hofstra coaches Butch van Breda Kolff and Howdy Myers. He also began working at Newsday, covering several Yankee games at the age of 20, days before his graduation with a BA in English.
In 1968 Vecsey was hired by the Times, first covering sports, but in 1970 he was recruited to become a national correspondent for the Times, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Later he was a metro reporter from 1973 to 1976 and for the next four years he covered religion, including Pope John Paul II's first trips to Mexico and the United States. He also interviewed the Dalai Lama twice, which he calls the most memorable assignment of his career.
In 1980 Vecsey returned to sports as a feature writer and was named to write the “Sports of the Times” column upon the death of Red Smith in 1982. Leaning toward international sports, Vecsey has covered eight World Cups, most recently in South Africa in 2010, as well as all the Summer Olympic Games beginning with Los Angeles in 1984 through Beijing in 2008.
Among his other books are Stan Musial: An American Life; Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game; and Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter (co-author with Loretta Lynn), which was later made into an Academy Award-winning movie. He is also proud of One Sunset a Week, the story of a radical coal-mining family during the Nixon years, and Five O’clock Comes Early, written with Bob Welch.
George and Marianne Vecsey live in Port Washington, Long Island. Their three children have all worked in journalism. Laura Vecsey has been a sports columnist and political columnist with four papers; Corinna V. Wilson, an attorney, is vice president, programming at Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN); and David Vecsey is a copy-editor for the magazine section of The New York Times.
George Vecsey was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University in 1990.