Remembering Robert Pear

My colleague Robert Pear died last night following a stroke. I would like to share a few memories and anecdotes about what it was like to work near and with him for the past 11 years. /1

Robert Pear, Authoritative Times Reporter on Health Care, Dies at 69

Robert had a very unusual personality. Despite being invariably gentle and genial, he was extremely private and incapable of the sort of chit chat and sharing details about one’s life that human bonds are normally forged from. Nevertheless, he made connections in his own way. /2

When I first came to the NYT from the Boston Globe in May 2008, the first story I pitched – about a Bush White House directive to get regulations done by a certain deadline so they’d be harder for the next administration to overturn – turned out to overlap with Robert’s turf. /3

I was afraid I’d gotten off on the wrong foot, because I’d heard the bureau could be viciously turf-protective. Happily, that image was obsolete, as I started to realize when he turned out to be gracious and just happy someone else cared about a nerdy regs legal policy issue. /4

So we ended up joining forces: I shared my first NYT staff-story byline with Robert. /5

From September 2015, when we moved back into the bureau after a renovation, until last August, when I moved desks, my cubicle adjoined Robert’s and we shared a bookcase. I often got in earlier than most reporters due to my family’s schedule, but Robert almost always beat me. /6

And he was almost always there when I went home, even if I worked late. So for a long time my work days typically began with “Good morning Robert” and ended with “Good night Robert.” To which he would smile broadly and nod vigorously, and very quietly return the greeting. /7

But Robert was “sphinxlike,” as his obituary aptly says. Despite sitting next to him for years, I learned only from his obituary that in college he had been on the staff of Harvard Advocate, the undergraduate literary magazine, a quarter century before I did the same. /8

(This place is lousy with alumni of the Harvard Crimson or some equivalent student newspaper at other colleges, as you might expect, so having instead built our extracurricular lives around the lit mag is unusual. With anyone else we would have discussed and bonded over it.) /9

Robert also wasn’t one for nerding out in conversation about issues either. But every few weeks he would hand me a printout of an article he thought would interest me about Gitmo or executive power, or that cited my work. These gifts were his way of forging a connection. /10

Here's a story: Before the renovation, the DC bureau was filled with government reports & binders of official documents dating back years, lining the top of every filing cabinet – a vast govdocs library spilling everywhere. Robert had assembled it over the decades. /11

(We all had to clear out all our stuff for the renovation. I wonder what he did with all that stuff. Was his house overflowing with it? None of us ever saw the inside of it.) /12

Anyway, at first I didn’t understand this all belonged to Robert, and thought it was just a jumble of discarded bureau stuff. I found among it an original copy of the congressional Iran-Contra report which I was interested in because of Cheney’s minority views on exec power. /13

So not understanding that it wasn’t generally available stuff, I moved it to my own shelf and forgot about it. Years later, after the renovation when we were seated next to each other, it ended up on my shelves of the bookcase we shared. /14

At some point it occurred to me that this actually came from his collection, even though he never mentioned it. I was embarrassed and moved it to one of his shelves and apologized. He just smiled – seeming, if anything, just pleased that I had appreciated a doc he preserved. /15

Our reporting did not often overlap but sometimes I would ask him a question when his health care policy expertise overlapped with my exec power stuff e.g. Obamacare enforcement issues, and he would respond with a lengthy, lucid email — essentially an article just for me. /16

Last August, I moved across the bureau to join the cluster of other colleagues who also write regularly about national-security and law-enforcement beats, so we could talk about stuff we were working on together without having to walk across the building. /17

On my last day sitting in my old cubicle next to him, Robert surprised me with a “going away” present – a bundle of large and fancy cookies from Teaism, tied up with a bow – and told me I’d be missed. /18

Our last co-bylined story was in February, over a three-day weekend, when we teamed up to write about a group of states suing Trump over his border wall “emergency” plan. /19

While I didn’t see him as much after moving desks, I made it a point to say hello to him at our Monday morning all-bureau staff meetings. On the morning of his stroke, he walked up to me at that meeting and we greeted each other and stood quietly side by side. /20

After he was taken to the hospital, I was among many NYT reporters and editors who went over to the ICU in shifts to sit with him. He was not in good shape and it was not clear how aware he was, but he seemed to squeeze my hand gently when I greeted him.

Goodbye, Robert. /21

Originally tweeted by Charlie Savage (@charlie_savage) on May 8, 2019.