Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist who covered New York City and New Jersey for four decades, passed away on October 8th at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center from complications of lung cancer. He was 63 years old.  

Like all great newspaper columnists, Dwyer had a kind of X-ray vision that allowed him to see through charlatans of all stripes, no matter their fancy credentials or filigreed lines of bullshit. It didn’t make him dour – he had the eye-shine of a person who enjoyed his life a lot – but it did lend him an air of impatience with frivolity. He didn’t suffer foolishness, and his personal warmth was tinged with a bit of Irish Catholic reserve.

I think that’s why, the last time I saw him in public, I impulsively grabbed his hand and kissed it.

I knew it would annoy him (and it did), but I couldn’t resist. I was at a New York Press Club awards dinner in Manhattan when I spotted him at a table ringed with New York Times editors and reporters, each of them there to collect another nod to their accomplishments. I walked over, said hello, and asked if Dwyer had taken to renting a storehouse in Long Island City to hold his nearly four decades of awards. He said, “Yeah, but I won’t be sending tonight’s award to the warehouse.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because how prestigious could it be if you won one, too?”

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Not only had I made it into a roomful of journalists that included Jim Dwyer, he was giving me lip.

You have to understand, I’ve been looking up to Dwyer not only for the whole of my professional life but since freshman year at Fordham University in the Bronx. It was 1978 and I was a newbie reporter on The Ram, the school’s student newspaper, when he was its barrel-chested, confidence-oozing editor-in-chief.

Listen to Jim O'Grady discuss the late Jim Dwyer on WNYC:

Back then, the paper was assembled by hand, which meant a typesetting machine would spit out strips of copy that were tacked to a corkboard before being laid out on a page. Each strip was a different story. You could read the stories as they hung there side by side and compare the various styles of the writers. All of us were novices so the styles didn’t vary much: they ranged from passably competent to florid, pseudo-literary self-display (my specialty).

And then you’d get to a strip of copy written by Jim Dwyer: taut sentences that moved down the page like a bicycle messenger beelining down a street, pulling crisp descriptions and apt facts from his shoulder bag and tossing them at the reader before delivering an invariably satisfying conclusion. Less floridly, Dwyer’s writing was clean and vivid and possessed of a rare authority for a guy barely more than 20 years old.

He had the early talent, that much was clear. The question was, would he put in the work over decades to fulfill it? Spoiler: He did.

Dwyer’s proving ground in the early 1980s was at the kind of community newspaper that is either fast disappearing or long gone: the Hudson Dispatch, the Elizabeth Daily Journal, and The Record of Hackensack. The first two folded in the early 1990s and the last has been swallowed up by the website, northjersey.com. He gained a reputation for exposing corruption, which, in New Jersey, flowed through the halls of government like water from a hydrant on a hot summer day. Dwyer’s reporting helped stanch that flow – somewhat, and no doubt temporarily, but still.

In 1984, Dwyer made the leap into the world of the big city tabloid, when New York Newsday hired him to cover the courts in Queens. It’s what his straight-ahead voice was made for, and he took full advantage.

A little context: this was in the final leg of the pre-internet age, when the news was fit only for print and the goal was scooping competitors on colorful local stories. The New York Times was mostly focused on national and global affairs but would gesture at its hometown beat by recording the doings of city officials, leavened by the uber-twee subplots of Metropolitan Diary. It seldom dove into the ruck and scrum of life (and death) in the outer boroughs – nary a headless body was to be found in the Grey Lady’s pages, in any kind of bar.

That left the field wide open for the tabs. Every day, the three heavyweights – The Post, The News, and Newsday -- lay shoulder to shoulder in stacks on the racks of the city’s sidewalk newsstands, all shouting at readers to pick them up via headlines like this one on the Senate’s failed impeachment of the president for implement-aided hijinks with an intern in the Oval: “Close But No Cigar.” Credit to The Daily News for that one. (Young people: do a Google at your peril.)

Dwyer appreciated the energy and irreverence of the tabs as much as the next hardboiled New Yorker but sensationalism was not at all his thing. When New York Newsday assigned him next to cover the subways, he delved into the small print of MTA documents, walked the tracks with workers, and established relationships with bureaucrats who passed him the crucial detail when it counted. Dwyer was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the 1991 Union Square subway derailment that killed five people. His colleague Tom Maier told Fordham News that Dwyer’s legwork helped them determine the cause of the crash.

“It was Jim who had the sources and found out that the motorman had been drunk,” Maier said.

Around that time, I was taking the subway when I came across a billboard promoting what Newsday was calling its very own “transit authority” – Jim Dwyer. (Get it?) Someone had posed him in a trench coat for the photo and stood him in the doorway of a C train, looking all serious and determined to get to the bottom of the latest goddamn thing, whatever it was. The ad was corny, which made me wonder what he thought of it. Dwyer wasn’t much for cultivating a theatrical persona -- like, say, Jimmy Breslin, who fully filled whatever spotlight he could find. Self-effacement in service to the story was Dwyer’s approach. He let others shine, first and foremost the underdogs who featured in his reporting.

For example: Three of the Newsday columns he submitted to the Pulitzer Prize committee in 1995 were about a misguided law that prevented New York City hospital staff from telling a mother her newborn child had HIV, which of course meant the mother did, too. Dwyer explained that the ten-year-old law was passed at a time when HIV/AIDS was considered “a disease of gay men who, many agreed, needed steel-door confidentiality on their tests.” He argued for ending the mandatory silence by marshalling an array of damning stats, including one about a boy whose diagnosis had been hidden until too late and who was buried in “a coffin 24 inches long that could be carried under your arm.” The rules were reformed and Dwyer won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

When Dwyer moved to The New York Times in 2001, he kept raising the cases of the marginalized and mistreated. In his column, About New York, he consistently spoke up for immigrants “from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador and China and El Salvador and Korea.” These are the people, as he says in this video, who are forever renewing the city by “doing a lot of tough jobs for ten, twelve, fifteen dollars an hour. It’s like splitting the atom, the energy that’s released by the act of immigration -- it’s just carried us through.”

Dwyer himself was the son of immigrants from Ireland, and never forgot it. In his final column this past May, he drew parallels between his family’s experience of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic and three hospital kitchen workers who rose early to feed patients during the earliest, darkest days of coronavirus in New York.

He compared the devotion shown by these women to that of his great-grandmother, Julia Neill Sullivan, who in her 70s saved nine lives by marching “pots of food from her hearth across a stony field on a remote peninsula along the west coast of Ireland.” Her works of mercy kept her family fed when they were too sick to catch fish or even fetch water for themselves. This allowed their offspring to later come into existence -- and, ultimately, Jim Dwyer.

“In times to come,” he wrote, “when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and to comfort.”

Now put yourself in that room at the New York Press Club awards dinner. There’s Dwyer at the table. Knowing what you know about him now, which is merely a taste of his greatness, don’t you kinda wanna kiss his hand? Maybe not. But I did. Because he seemed in that moment to be a bonafide prince of the great ongoing enterprise of journalism that illuminates the lives of common people and holds power to account. For the record, let it be known that his eyes would roll in his head like an Atlantic City slot machine if he heard himself called such a thing as a prince. But sorry, Jim, you were.