COLLEGE PARK (10/19/18) — Veteran journalist and teacher Tom Linthicum was just a few months into researching his first book when the project dramatically changed.
Linthicum, who since 1996 has taught at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, met with Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer in late summer 2014 to begin helping Dyer — in his 80s, his cancer in remission — write a memoir.
“This was one of the most influential bishops within the entire Anglican Communion in the latter part of the 20th century,” Linthicum said in a recent interview. Dyer was deeply involved in the church’s debate over whether to ordain women and whether to accept same-sex marriage. His story was worth telling, Linthicum said.
Within two months, Dyer’s multiple myeloma returned. He died soon after.
Linthicum — with support from Dyer’s widow and the dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, where Dyer was a faculty member — shifted into reporter mode. A memoir was no longer possible, but a biography was.
Four years, 104 interviews and some 200 pages later, Linthicum is on a book tour for “A Man Called Mark: The Biography of Bishop Mark Dyer.” His most recent stop was last week in Baltimore, where dozens turned out on a rainy evening to hear Linthicum read a passage from the book and discuss how his journalism career prepared him to write it.
Linthicum, a former reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun, executive editor of The (Maryland) Daily Record and director of the Capital News Service Washington bureau, was initially unsure a career in daily journalism was the right training.
The research and reporting, he said, came naturally. What came after did not.
“The writing was a challenge,” Linthicum said. “I’d never written anything book length.”
Jim Naughton, a former newspaper reporter, offered some reassurance. Naughton was introduced to Linthicum by Thomas Baden (‘80), editor of The Daily Record and member of the Merrill College Board of Visitors.
“He said ‘you can do this,’” Linthicum recalled. “‘Here’s why: You know what a story is. When you hear a quote, you’re going to know instantly if it resonates in such a way that it’s a keeper.
“’You know how to do all these things. You’re just used to telling them in small chunks.’”
Naughton, now a partner in Canticle Communications, had spoken with Dyer regularly after founding Episcopal Cafe, a website that covered church issues. He said reading Linthicum’s book “was not unlike talking” to Dyer — the author effectively captured his subject — but he also praised Linthicum for approaching the story objectively.
“I think it’s not easy when you’re working with people who knew and loved the subject of the book,” Naughton said. “It’s not easy to get enough detachment so your editorial independence and your independent judgment come through, but Tom really did that.
“He did justice to Bishop Dyer … but he also did justice to the various sides of the debate that the bishop was involved in.”
The reporting was fascinating, Linthicum said. The sources were often more forthcoming than what he had grown accustomed to after 40 years in daily journalism.
“There seems to be something about writing a book that’s different,” Linthicum said. “I don’t know if people feel like this is going to be a part of history, or are not thinking in terms of ‘is it going to be in tomorrow’s headlines?’”
An off-in-the-distance deadline may have helped; Linthicum had two years to report and write, giving him the luxury of time.
“If you can sit down with someone for an hour and a half, two hours, you really can build” trust, he said.
Linthicum doesn’t say whether the book is a career capper. Retired from daily journalism since 2012, he’ll conclude his 22-year teaching career at Merrill College this fall.
His enthusiasm for the craft, though, doesn’t appear to have waned.
“It was so much fun — I’ll use that word — to go into reporter mode again,” Linthicum said.