Ward Just: ‘A gentleman to the end’

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I count myself as among the very fortunate to have been a close friend of Ward Just. He was a lot of things: astute, observant, wry, witty, and self-deprecating. He was also a gentleman to the end, which came all too soon on December 19. 

Ward Just was an acclaimed journalist whose work covering the Vietnam War helped change the nation’s understanding of what was happening on the ground in that war. He sustained shrapnel injuries in Vietnam, and returned to the States where he went from war correspondent to editorial writer for the Washington Post. He did not find that work to be satisfying or meaningful, so he changed career paths and became a novelist. 

Ward went on to write 19 novels, numerous short stories and a play, yet he told me years ago, over a quiet dinner, that he would never write a bestseller. His works, he said, were not page turners. They were important works, critically acclaimed, and he was nominated for — and received — many prestigious awards. Ward continued to examine politics and Washington in his fiction. He was a keen observer of the political scene.

I distinctly remember the day (June 17, 1993) when O.J. Simpson was being followed by a helicopter as he drove that iconic white Bronco down an LA highway. I was with Ward at his house, and we briefly watched the coverage on television. Ward — who had no interest whatsoever in O.J. Simpson — commented: “This is a very bad day for journalism. This type of journalism is going to be part of our future.” He was right.

Ward was a lover of scotch and Camel cigarettes, which were omnipresent in his writing studio. He wrote his novels on a manual typewriter — a typewriter Nis Kildegaard of Edgartown kept in repair for a number of years. Years ago we were together right after he finished one of his novels. I knew that Ward had no use for a computer, never turned one on, but I was concerned that he did not have a copy of his manuscript and offered to have it copied at my office. “Why should I do that?” he asked. And I said, “What if it got lost in the mail?” Then Ward said, “Would you actually do that for me?” I said, “Bring it in.” There was a catch though, he didn’t want anyone to read a word while making the copy. 

When Bernie Grossman, longtime Steamship Authority governor from Nantucket, died in 1996, I was asked to give a eulogy. I was the Steamship Authority representative from Martha’s Vineyard at the time (Ward loved to tease me about that, to the end referring to me as “Governor”). Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and acclaimed New York Times columnist Russell Baker were the other speakers. I called Ward and asked if he would mind reviewing a draft of my comments. He said he would be glad to, but that he didn’t need to. “I’m just going to give you three pieces of advice,” he said. Number one, keep it short. Number two, throw some element of humor in there. And number three — and most importantly — don’t talk about yourself.” 

I sent him my draft and he said that it would work. He especially liked the introduction, when I said, “I am a native Islander. I am from Martha’s Vineyard.” Predictably, the Nantucket crowd laughed. My comments were then brief; I only talked about the deceased. 

Ward was a midwesterner, from Illinois. His father owned newspapers. His mother, who lived to 102, kept a pistol in her bedside drawer. Ward said she didn’t approve of his decision to become a novelist, except when she thought he had penned the anonymous novel Primary Colors. She called him after that book came out in 1996. Ward recounted the conversation: “I know it’s you,” she said. “I know you wrote Primary Colors. After all these years attempting to write novels, at last you’ve had a bestseller.” And Ward said, “It’s not me. I didn’t write it.” But she just wouldn’t accept that. “No, I know it’s you.” (It wasn’t Ward. Eventually it became public knowledge that the novel was written by Joe Klein.) 

In the decades of our friendship, my wife Jane and I were fortunate to regularly have dinner with Ward and his wife Sarah Catchpole. He was a wonderful dinner companion. Conversation was sure to be droll and wise, but we always made sure to serve “Ward food,” which consisted of steak or roast beef, mashed potatoes, and red wine (the latter in abundance). We also occasionally played golf together — he had a beautiful swing and could have been a really good golfer if he’d played more. I have fond memories of games played at Mink Meadows, which Ward termed “the people’s course,” and Farm Neck, with Ward and his son Ian. 

Ward was observant, and he was wise. He loved the Vineyard. We were fortunate to have him here. He will be missed. 

 

Ronald Rappaport is an Island attorney who was born in Oak Bluffs and now lives in Chilmark.