Eighteen years ago, David Leonhardt ’95 stepped into then-Graduate School Dean Richard Levin’s office to offer his congratulations to Levin’s secretary. Her boss, he said, was slated to become the next University President.
Colleagues of Leonhardt, then editor in chief of the News, had a hunch that Levin had been selected for the job. The secretary expressed excitement about the promotion, and Leonhardt and the rest of the News sprung into action and announced the appointment before the administration could.
After leaving Yale, Leonhardt kept chasing scoops. And on Monday, Leonhardt — who writes a weekly economics column in the New York Times — was one of three Yale alums to win Pulitzer Prizes for their work in journalism.
Ellen Barry ’93, who was Leonhardt’s supervising news desk editor at the News when he was a reporter, shared the international reporting award with Clifford Levy for their coverage of Russia’s struggling judicial system for the Times. Biographer Ron Chernow ’70 won the award for his book about George Washington, “Washington: A Life.”
Fred Strebeigh ’74, a senior lector in English, taught both Leonhardt and Barry in his creative non-fiction course during their time at Yale, and said each set themselves apart from their fellow students, though in different ways.
“David [was] distingished by a deeply masterful knowledge of reporting,” he said, “and Ellen [was] distinguished by a dazzling style.”
Leonhardt, who won the commentary prize for his columns on the federal budget deficit and healthcare reform, also tackled tough analytical questions at Yale, Strebeigh said, recalling a piece Leonhardt wrote about Poor at Yale, an activist group for students from low-income backgrounds.
But Leonhardt was not focused solely on journalism as a student. His work in applied mathematics as an undergraduate informs the writing he has produced since, said Jodi Rudoren ’92, a deputy Metro editor for the Times who was managing editor at the News when Barry was a sophomore and Leonhardt was a freshman.
“He tackles complex issues that are really daunting for people, but he doesn’t do it in a patronizing way,” she said of Leonhardt’s column. “His ability to use numbers and use reason to explain things is extraordinary.”
Lexi Mainland, a social media editor for the Times, said Barry was a hard-working and tenacious reporter, and that his dedication to her work out of the Times’ Moscow bureau has sometimes been extreme: Barry jumped into a dumpster to retrieve documents for her reporting on Russian courts when she was seven months pregnant, she said.
Barry was an editor for the News when Jeff Diamant ’94 was a staff writer covering labor relations. Diamant said Barry was a skilled and patient editor.
“A few years later, when I began reading her work for the Boston Phoenix [where she worked after college], I was absolutely blown away,” Diamant said. “I felt she was among the best writers at any newspaper in the country.”
As a reporter for the News, Barry was at her best when she wrote long, investigative pieces, Rudoren said.
“Ellen is a really different kind of reporter,” she said. “She remains most extraordinary as a feature writer.”
One of the most important stories Leonhardt and Barry covered at the News was the outbreak of the Gulf War, said Ben Zimmer ’92, who writes a column on language for the Times and was a news desk editor for the News.
For the front page of the Jan. 17, 1991 issue of the News — published the morning after the United States launched Operation Desert Storm — Leonhardt wrote two stories, and Barry wrote another.
It was an “intense” time at the News, Rudoren said, because delivery of the Times was disrupted by unrest within the student agency that distributed it to the campus. The editors felt responsible to report the world’s news to the Yale community, she added.
Chernow also has professional experience as a journalist, but he is known more for his historical biographies.
In his Pulitzer citation, “Washington: A Life” is referred to as a “sweeping, authoritative portrait of an iconic leader.” The book was widely praised, and in September, Times writer Andrew Cayton called Chernow “no ordinary writer” in a review.
“Most readers will finish this book feeling as if they have actually spent time with human beings,” Cayton wrote.
“Chernow’s first book, “The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance” published in 1990, won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, which was first awarded in 1917, are awarded $10,000.