A Life: Geoff Pond, 1931 — 2012; ‘Geoff Had Reliably Good Instincts About What Was News’
Veteran journalist Geoff Pond in an undated photograph, while he worked at NBC. (Courtesy photograph)
Geoff Pond while he was an editor at the Valley News in a Jan. 2006 photograph.
Geoff Pond, second from left, works at the New York Times, circa 1950s. (Courtesy photograph)
Back row: Correspondent Robert Hager, correspondent Gerald Harrington, and producer Bill Theodore. Middle row: Northeast Bureau Chief Geoff Pond, correspondent Betty Rollin, correspondent Richard Hunt, producer Ellen McKeefe, producer Nancy Kirk. Seated at front is Bureau coodinator Bob McCarthy. (Courtesy photograph)
Plainfield — You might not have noticed him, a frail man, stooped by age, pushing a grocery cart around Price Chopper or keenly perusing the shelves at Encore Books.
Even some of his colleagues at the Valley News, where he worked as an editor for more than 16 years, didn’t know much about the crusty curmudgeon’s background — that when he was young, bright and charming, he’d been at the top of the world news scene, had interviewed some of the biggest names of the last century and had covered events that altered history.
Geoff Pond, a hard-boiled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking newsman who cut his teeth as a reporter at The New York Times and honed his craft in the salad years of television news at NBC, didn’t tell you about his past — unless you asked. And if you did, then a certain brightness would enter his eyes, and he might let you in on a tale or two.
Pond, who died at 81 on Christmas Day after a period of declining health, “wasn’t the kind of guy who lived in the past, and he certainly wasn’t the sort of person to be big-footing anybody (about what he’d done or accomplished). That didn’t fit his personality,” said Valley News Editor-at-Large Jim Fox, who hired Pond in February 1995.
In his 42 years as a newsman, Pond covered U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Ford and world leaders from Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev to Charles de Gaulle and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He was on the bus for the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. He interviewed Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Rev. Billy Graham and a long list of other news makers. He was friends with Muhammad Ali, was kicked out of the Beatles’ hotel room and suffered the pain of Elizabeth Taylor’s spiked heel driven into his foot after he asked her an uncomfortable question. He reported on the riots in North Miami during the 1968 Republican Convention and was tear-gassed during the Democratic Convention in Chicago that same summer. He almost died when volcano Irazu in Costa Rica erupted while he and a crew were filming at the lip of the crater, and he challenged authority in an investigative piece for NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report on CIA training camps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
“He had a ton of war stories,” Fox said, noting that when a famous person would come up in the news, Pond very often would have some sort of story about an encounter with them.
“Geoff had reliably good instincts about what was news … exceedingly good judgment of what was important and a good sense of when people were prevaricating.”
Pond left the Times during the 114-day New York City newspaper strike in 1962 and joined NBC. He was on the air with the network in the early days of field reporting, when television news organizations first had reporters on the scene of events, said Woodstock resident and former NBC correspondent Robert Hager, who worked with Pond in the 1970s.
After a decade of on-air reporting, Pond became the Northeast Bureau chief of NBC, overseeing the coverage of news in the United Nations, New York, New England and eastern Canada.
“It was a tough job because his every move was under the eye of the big bosses upstairs in the NBC building. But he was a very good boss and easy to work for,” Hager said.
Pond also had a sense of humor.
One morning when Hager arrived at the bureau at 8:30, Pond was very excited and told him he’d heard that Margaret Trudeau (wife of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, who were rumored to be having an affair and were hot entertainment news at the time, were going to show up at the tiny, dark bar across the street from the NBC building. Hager was dispatched to see if he could get an interview.
Before long, NBC correspondent Betty Rollin showed up and then another correspondent from the bureau, all sent by Pond.
“Almost all the correspondents in the bureau were there for this one story. We couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Hager said.
About 9:30, Pond turned up and ordered a round of Bloody Marys on the NBC tab. It was an April Fool’s Day joke.
When he was working at the Times in the early 1960s, Pond was in charge of writing the nightly news summary that ran in the next day’s paper, said Chris Brown, a longtime friend, who worked with Pond at the Times and at NBC. Pond was divorced and dating Mildred Murphy, a former reporter at the newspaper who eventually became his second wife.
One night, Pond, who liked puzzles, arranged the news so that the first letter of each paragraph of the summary that appeared in the newspaper the next morning spelled out “I Love Mildred.”
“I was working with him, and I didn’t know he was doing it, and of course, if the bosses had found out, he would have been out on his ear,” Brown said.
While he was between marriages, Pond lived in a downtown hotel and had gotten to know a young man with an entourage who also was living there. They played pool regularly and chatted, but Pond didn’t know the man’s name, said his daughter Jennifer Pond Muckerman.
A few weeks later, he was assigned to cover a news conference before the heavyweight fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Listen. “When he got there, he discovered to his great surprise the guy he’d been playing pool with was Cassius Clay. They stayed friends for many years,” Muckerman said. “He admired Muhammad Ali a great deal.”
During the Vietnam War, Pond was quick to pick up that President Lyndon Johnson was misleading the American public to gain support for his war policies, Mildred Pond said.
“He was very astute about that sort of thing. He knew it all along, before it came out in the news, that they were lying,” she said.
Before many white people were paying attention, Pond believed strongly in racial equality and admired such black leaders as Adam Clayton Powell for the work they were doing, Mildred Pond said. She recalled a cold December evening on their way home from a restaurant near Harlem when Pond had helped rescue a man who had fallen in a manhole and couldn’t get out when others just walked past, not wanting to waste time on “a black fellow.”
A native of Darien, Conn., Geoff Pond graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Columbia University, where he won the history prize and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
His home life when he was growing up was somewhat dysfunctional. There were constant money problems and lots of different extended family members living in the house, his daughter Jamie Pond Renning said.
“They had money, and they belonged to the country club set. Then they wouldn’t have money, but they still lived the lifestyle. There was always financial panicking. He became very good at taking care of himself. He got himself into Andover, and he took charge of his own life,” Renning said.
Before the Korean War started, he met Middlebury College student Margaret Williams on a ship to Europe. When they got back to the States, they started dating and eventually were married, Renning said, noting that during the war, Pond served as a second lieutenant in the field artillery unit stationed in Augsburg, West Germany, where their first child, Jennifer, was born. Renning was born a few years later.
In 1963, some time after his first marriage ended in divorce, Pond was married to Mildred Murphy. They had a son, Greg, and after they later divorced, Pond was married to Jean Freas, a former television reporter and former wife of sculptor David Smith. That marriage also ended in divorce.
“He was a great womanizer all his life, but I think his marriages were close, and they ended incredibly civilly,” Renning said.
In spite of his demanding work schedule and three failed marriages, Pond was a loving father who spent a lot of time with his three children and remained friendly with his ex-wives, said his son, Greg Pond.
“He was from a different era — it was that Mad Men era. Things were just different then.
“When I was with him, he didn’t do anything special for me. We’d go to the movies when I was little, but he’d take me to something that he wanted to see. We saw things like Lawrence of Arabia and M.A.S.H. Then we’d go to the bar (the Dublin House on 79th Street). He’d have a drink, and I’d have a Shirley Temple. That’s just sort of the way it was back then. Parents didn’t do anything special for their kids,” Greg Pond said.
When he was living outside the city, in Tarrytown, N.Y., Pond commuted by train, Greg Pond said.
“We’d get to Grand Central Station, and there’d be a wait for the train, so we’d go to the bar. There were never any seats left, but Geoff had a little stool that he’d keep in his briefcase. He’d take the little folding stool out, sit down and use his briefcase on his lap as a table for his martinis,” Greg Pond. “He’d say something like ‘why stand when you can sit down?’ ”
Pond always arranged his vacation to allow the month of August to be off with the family. They’d rent a cottage on lakes in Adirondacks and other New York mountains, Squam Lake in New Hampshire or Lake Waramaug in Connecticut. Sometimes, they’d go to Fire Island, Greg Pond said.
“He loved to fish, and he loved to read. He loved being with his family, and he particularly liked getting away from New York. We were under strict instructions to never answer the phone. He was afraid that NBC would call, and he’d have to return to the city.”
His emphasis on family over work could have jeopardized his job at NBC. On Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Pond was set to go out on an assignment when he got the call that his daughter Jamie was bitten in the face by a German shepherd and was on the way to a hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y. He dropped everything and drove to be by her side — a trip that in those days took nine hours.
“He got there and stayed two hours to make sure I was OK, then he drove back to New York,” Renning said. “That’s the way he was.”
Fortunately, his bosses were understanding, and Pond’s career at NBC prospered until the late 1970s, when the network’s management changed from, as he put it, “newsmen to bean counters.” In 1978, Pond was put in charge of a project to convert NBC News to computers. The job lacked the thrill of gathering and presenting the news, and two years later, he left the network to spend seven years in advertising and consulting.
By 1987, he’d had enough of New York City. He was “burned out” on the media business, and so he left, spending the next six years on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and in the Lake George region, tending bar, riding his motorcycle, reading, and writing the novel he never finished.
Long, lonely Lake George winters with their lack of intellectually stimulating company prompted Pond to relocate to Hanover in 1993. A couple of years later, he joined the Valley News, bringing a superficially gruff demeanor and a sophisticated news perspective to the newspaper.
After editing the local and regional news for a number of years, Pond became the world and national editor, a role well suited for a man with his vast knowledge of history and understanding of global events. During the nightly news meetings to map out the next day’s newspaper, Pond would present a synopsis of breaking events, taking great pride in pronouncing, with a clear broadcaster’s voice, the names of all the characters and countries with the cadence and precision of a network news anchor.
Pond also showed his softer side on occasion, most notably by establishing a regular spot on the World/Nation pages for photographs of cute animals. In the newsroom, the item became jokingly known as “Animal Corner” and sometimes featured pictures from the life of Flocke, the charming polar bear cub born in the Nuremberg Zoo in 2007. Pond would insist that Flocke was a celebrity and deserved to have such important events as her birthday, first step or first public appearance recorded. We laughed, but Time magazine apparently agreed with Pond and carried a full series on the bear.
Pond was well read and had a cultural background that served him well. On one occasion at the Valley News, he wrote a headline for a weather story that was drawn from the first line of the 13th-century Cuckoo Song. He wrote: “Sumer Is Icumen In — and Igoin.”
“The headline was a little obscure,” Fox said. “I said something to him the next day about it and that some of our readers may not have gotten the meaning. He said, ‘F--- ’em. They should look it up.’ He came from a time when things in a newsroom were not as warm and fuzzy as they are now, when you sort of said what you thought. He added a colorful element to our newsroom.”
After his health deteriorated, Pond left the Valley News in June 2011, and as he began to deal with his mortality, he penned his own obituary, which showed a bit of his wry wit.
“In recent years, Geoff spent much of his free time writing a novel (unfinished at the time of death), tending his flower garden, generally failing to catch trout and coping with his headstrong cats. … He told friends that among his proudest achievements were never having gone to Disneyland, Graceland, Myrtle Beach or the Basketball Hall of Fame,” the obit says.
When he left the Valley News, Pond begged off the customary farewell party, sending an email to the news staff instead:
“I valued my 16 years at the (Valley News) as the best time in my news career, and I enjoyed some great ones. … I’m proudest that I worked hard, carefully, loyally and, I hope, effectively, sometimes successfully. We never lived for pats on the back. It was enough to leave work believing you’d done the job properly and to the best of your skill. … Thank you all for these good years. Geoff.”
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.