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If you like Neil Sheehan's story, you might also like:
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Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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  Neil Sheehan

When you were growing up, were there books or teachers that were important to you?

Neil Sheehan: There were some very important teachers to me at Mount Hermon. My teachers in younger years, they were good teachers. I remember I had a good French teacher in public junior high school, but they weren't outstanding. At Mount Hermon, some of the teachers were truly outstanding.

I had a wonderful English teacher named William Hawley in my senior year. His classes were absolutely unforgettable. Yeats, T.S. Eliot. He had us reading The Waste Land and writing essays. He taught you college-level English at the secondary level. He challenged you. And of course, there was real discipline in the classes. When the teacher came in, you stood up, and then you addressed the teacher as "Sir." "Yes, sir. No, sir," or "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am," and there was no nonsense. You were being prepared to go to college. That was the whole point. He was probably the most outstanding teacher I had.

I had a good Latin teacher, and a very good French teacher who later on became the dean of admissions. I became friends with him when I was an adult. These men were highly motivated, and so were the women. I had a couple of women teachers. One of my first-year Latin teachers was a woman. She was highly motivated, and the whole ethos of the school was you were being prepared to go to college. That was it.

The athletic program was wonderful, because I was a poor athlete, but they had the varsity, they had the junior varsity, and then they had something called the C Team for people who couldn't make either varsity or junior varsity. We got to compete, because when we competed against Andover or Exeter or Deerfield, they also had C Teams. The head of the athletic department was a wonderful man named Axel Forslund. The gym is named after him there now, and he paid just as much attention to you if you were on the C Team as he did if you were on the varsity. He believed in boys. If your boy was motivated to play, it got his attention. We had a great cross-country coach who was also the French teacher. I ran cross-country in the fall, and I played ice hockey -- which is a great, rough, tough, fast, hard sport -- in the winter. I really enjoyed it. So it was a great fullness of life to go to a good private school. You got up in the morning, you had a really good breakfast, and you ran all day long, and when the "lights out" came... Bang! You were off to sleep for another day. I really enjoyed it, and the intellectual challenge was great.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

As a kid, coming from a family of Irish immigrants on a dairy farm, were you intimidated by any of that?

Neil Sheehan: I just rejoiced in it. It was liberation. I wasn't stuck in that dairy every day. Also, I wanted to get away.

Irish-American culture was very constricting in those years. The Catholic Church -- the Irish Catholic Church was very puritanical and pretty much anti-intellectual. The priest had great authority, because Ireland, you must remember, is the only colonized country in western Europe, and English colonization of Ireland was brutal. The Irish were crushed. My name isn't Sheehan, my real name. I don't know what it is in Irish, but Sheehan is an anglicization of my original Irish name in Gaelic. It's true of all Irish names. They're all anglicized, except now they've brought some of them back. So the Irish were looking for security when they came to this country. Get yourself a job as a fireman. Get yourself a job as a policeman. And be a good Catholic.

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
Mount Hermon had been founded by a Protestant evangelist in the 19th century. It was non-denominational when I went there, and it was also very liberal. It was the only private boys' school in New England that had black students and no quota on Jews. The Jewish kids had to listen to "Jesus Christ..." three times a week, unless the chaplain brought a rabbi or a cantor in to lead the service, which he did on frequent occasions. He was a very liberal man from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and so was the headmaster. It was liberation. First of all, you were able to play sports. It wasn't like it was in public school. When I came up to bat, the kids groaned because I was going to strike out. It turns out, I've got a master left eye, and I'm right-handed. They didn't test for those things then. So I didn't know to wink when I was swinging over here and the ball was over there. At Mount Hermon, they had this wonderful rounded life, and it was a joy if you'd come from the background I had, that was so constricted.

All my aunts told me -- my mother's, my father's brothers also, my father's sisters -- all said, "Don't go up there. You're going to end up with the devil, all those Protestants up there." My mother encouraged me to go, and there was a young priest in the parish who also encouraged me to go, but I wanted to get away from my aunts. If my aunts said, "Don't go," that was an encouragement to go. You weren't supposed to look out very far in the world. You were supposed to go to public school. "It was good enough for your cousin. Why didn't you go? What are you doing, going to Harvard? Why don't you go to the University of Massachusetts? It's good enough for your cousin. Why should you want to go to Harvard?" The Irish as a community in that period of time were not upwardly mobile like the Jewish community. They did not have a sense of intellectual achievement built into the community, built into their cultural ethos. My mother was an exception to the rule, much, much an exception to the rule.

So you wanted to get away from that small town. It was a wonderful time to grow up in a place like that, because you got good schools, discipline, no crime and all of that, and a chance to break out. But if you got that chance to break out, you sure as heck wanted to take it.

Did you have heroes growing up?

Neil Sheehan: Not really. I liked baseball, and I liked football, but Ted Williams wasn't a great hero. It was great to go to Fenwick Park once and see him play, but...

My hero, I guess, would have been Gene Krupa when I thought I was going to be a drummer, when I wanted to be a jazz drummer, and the other great jazzmen of the period like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. They used to come to a place called Springfield, Massachusetts, which was a city below us, which had a coliseum, and all of the big bands came through there. I guess if I had heroes as a child in that period, as a teenager when I wanted to be a jazz drummer, they were my heroes. When I went away to boys' school, to Mount Hermon, my heroes became writers. Hemingway was a hero, and T.S. Eliot. These were great intellectual figures, great writers, people I truly admired. So if I had heroes, they were my heroes.

When and how did you figure out what you wanted to do with your life?

Neil Sheehan: It took a long time. I went to Harvard and majored in English. I thought I wanted to be an editor in a publishing house.

I got on to The Harvard Advocate, which was the Harvard literary magazine. We published once every two months. It was hard. The competition was difficult, because the people on there examined you, and you had to be able to talk well about books. If they didn't think you were critical enough or bright enough, they didn't elect you. I was fortunate to get elected my freshman year. All we did on the Advocate -- after we edited the manuscripts that we were going to publish, the poetry and the short stories we were going to publish -- was we discussed literature, everything from Shakespeare through Hemingway.

I discovered I was reading and discussing at Harvard all the courses, all the books I was taking in my English courses. I was also taking French courses, French literature, and kind of a minor in French literature. It really came home to me when I went to the course taught by the great Shakespeare expert at the time called Harry Levin, and I went and I listened to him. His lectures were basically the same as his books. He was regurgitating his books, and I had read all of the books, all of his books of criticism. I had read all of his commentary on the Shakespeare plays, and we talked them all through. That's all we did at the Advocate, in addition to preparing the issues we were going to publish.

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