During journalism classes Jonathan Klarfeld taught at Boston University, he staged mock news conferences so students could pry information from a reluctant official: Jonathan Klarfeld himself, portraying a police officer, a fire chief, or a flack who delighted in keeping reporters in the dark.
“It turned out to be remarkably effective. He made us aware of the details we needed to get right, and the importance of that information,” said Neil Shea, a former student of Mr. Klarfeld’s who has taught at BU and written for National Geographic.
“We had to learn to ask questions — to figure out that there are things you don’t know, and to figure out how to get to them,” Shea added.
A professor for more than 40 years, Mr. Klarfeld could have been justly accused of teaching what he knew. Before leading classes, he had been a reporter and editor for publications including the Globe, and he even was one of those flacks he so ably portrayed as he gave students fits.
Mr. Klarfeld, who lived in Newton, was 80 and in failing health when he died of cardiac arrest Jan. 8 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He had stayed in the classroom as long as possible. “Jon was teaching kids last May,” said his wife, Patricia.
At the Globe, where he was a reporter in the mid-1960s, Mr. Klarfeld explored all manner of news nooks and crannies. Reporting from Hyannisport after Robert F. Kennedy was shot in June 1968 while campaigning for president, Mr. Klarfeld sounded the family’s name over and over, like a resonating chord. “Richard Cardinal Cushing stood in the bright sunlight at the rear of Robert Kennedy’s house Wednesday and talked about Kennedy courage – a trait the Kennedy family has had to show too many times,” Mr. Klarfeld wrote.
He also was in court day after day during the trial of Albert DeSalvo, who ultimately confessed to the Boston Strangler murders, and he caught the defendant’s demeanor as psychiatrists paraded to the stand: “Almost like a bit player in a grand extravaganza, there was Albert H. DeSalvo — seated at the rear of the defense counsels’ desk, hawk-nosed, sallow, wincing briefly during testimony by the last psychiatrist called by the prosecution.”
Mr. Klarfeld could also write operatic sentences. In a Sunday Globe Magazine profile, he tucked a chunk of Tom Eisenstadt’s resume into an anecdote about the Suffolk County sheriff opening Harvard University’s commencement exercises:
“It was Tom Eisenstadt — the man who had been elected to the Boston School Committee at age 26, overwhelming all his opponents, the man who was in the center of the storm over racial balance in the public schools, the man who had moved on to cope with the labyrinthian problems of the office of sheriff — it was Tom Eisenstadt, caped, sworded, top-hatted, formally garbed; looking ever so slightly like a gentle Dracula; calling the commencement to order with the immortal: ‘I declare these proceedings open.’”
Mr. Klarfeld didn’t need to stand in a classroom to offer lessons. “He was a teacher before he was a teacher, really, and he taught me a great deal,” said Diane White, a former Globe reporter and columnist.
“I first met Jon when I went to work for the Globe in the mid-1960s,” she recalled. “I had no idea what I was doing and he was very helpful to me. He was the kind of person if you asked him for help, and I did, he would gladly give it to you.”
Those who sought his opinion, however, were wise to brace for a frank critique. “He would look over what I had written and tell me where I had gone wrong,” White said. “It was always valid criticism, even when you didn’t want to hear it.”
That was also the case in the classroom. “Jon was sort of like this throwback, a hunter-gatherer of news,” Shea said. “He was gruff. He was clearly of the old school. You know: ‘You don’t know anything until you’ve been around a few times.’ ”
Born in Springfield, Jonathan Michael Klarfeld grew up in Holyoke, the older of two sons. His father, David Klarfeld, was a lawyer. His mother, the former Gloria Belsky, was a manufacturing executive and later a family therapist.
He graduated from Suffield Academy in Suffield, Conn., and received a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., where he played hockey. “He was a goalie on the Colgate hockey team and he had the scars to prove it,” his wife said. “Those were in the days before hockey masks.”
Mr. Klarfeld briefly attended Boston College Law School before straying from his father’s footsteps onto journalism’s inviting path. He was a reporter and editor at the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram and then worked for United Press International, serving as Springfield bureau chief. At the Globe, Mr. Klarfeld was a reporter, an assistant city editor, and as an editor on what was then the rewrite desk.
“He was very proud of his ability as a rewrite man,” White said. “He was very fast. He would become upset when someone would suggest anyone was faster than he was.”
Before joining the BU faculty in the early 1970s, he also was a press secretary for city departments, worked in public relations for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and wrote for the Boston Record-American. Along with having taught at BU and directed its print and online journalism program, he had served stints as a media critic at the Boston Herald and a restaurant critic for the Boston Phoenix.
He met Patricia Holland when they both worked for Blue Cross. They married in 1974. “He had tremendous joie de vivre,” she said. “His idea of heaven was trading good stories with good friends over a good dinner — and if a glass or two was lifted while you did that, that made it even better. He loved a good story well-told.”
The family held a private service for Mr. Klarfeld, who in addition to his wife leaves a daughter, Victoria Capehart of Kensington, Md.; a son, Alexander of Newton; and a brother, Peter of Falls Church, Va.
Mr. Klarfeld didn’t mind being the subject of those well-told good stories, particularly if it involved his indefatigable presence on any field of play — the rewrite desk, the squash court, or a rugby match. “He was competitive, but always appropriate, an honorable competitor,” said Dr. Martin Kelly a longtime squash partner who is a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
In the late-1960s, Mr. Klarfeld helped found the Beacon Hill Rugby Club, which met in any weather. “I remember one game that was played in the wind and snow. Every player on the field looked like a Vermont fence post: snow on one side, dry on the other,” he told the Globe in 1973.
“You may be limping when you go back to work on Monday morning,” he said of the inevitable injuries, “but isn’t it a lot more satisfying knowing you’re limping because some 250-pound guy has jumped on your leg, rather than because you bent over too fast while working in the garden?”
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