Let’s shed no tears for our old friend Larry Dupraz, who died the day before Christmas at the age of 87. Larry wouldn’t want it. Larry was a one of a kind guy who worked as the production supervisor of the Daily Princetonian from 1946 until his official retirement in 1987 and then continued on as a consultant and eminence grise right up until the time of his final illness. I had the great pleasure — and occasional pain — of working with Larry in various capacities for the past 41 years. Among many other helpful acts, Larry helped me compose the first issue of this paper back in 1984.
At his funeral at St. Paul’s Church in Princeton he was remembered as a man who gave more than he ever took — on World War II bombing missions, as a volunteer fire fighter who became chief, and as the man who not only worked at the Princetonian but also became its heart and soul and surrogate father to thousands of student journalists who passed through the paper’s doors.
Larry went into the hospital back in mid-October for what everyone hoped would be a routine angioplasty to clear a blockage in a coronary artery. Because I have undergone two such procedures myself, I made a point of visiting with Larry before and after the procedure. For Larry the rehabilitation was anything but routine, leading to a bad roller coaster ride between Princeton Medical Center, Robert Wood Johnson in New Brunswick, the Merwick rehabilitation facility, and back to Princeton Medical Center. Larry was the friend whose hospital experience was described in a column of mine back on December 6. His hospital experiences are a whole ‘nother story, one that made me put modern medicine practitioners into a category I have occasionally placed computers and women: Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
On most of my visits to the hospitals I tried to steer the conversation away from the doctors’ medical progress, or depressing lack thereof. I was helped by an outpouring of E-mails from former Prince staffers, wishing Larry and his wife, Nora, well and reminiscing about the good old college days with Larry and the ‘Prince.’ I took E-mails to Larry from fans of his who are now working at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Boston Globe, People magazine, the Federal Reserve Bank, the New York Stock Exchange, and other prestigious institutions.
The most common sentiment was a deep appreciation for something they did not all appreciate at the time they experienced it: Larry’s insistence on meeting a standard of excellence and his insistence on pointing out slip-ups even when everyone around him wanted to just forget it and move on.
Juliet Eilperin of the Class of ‘92, now an environmental reporter at the Washington Post and author of “Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the House of Representatives,” hit the nail on the head:
“When I think of Larry I think of him yelling at me in the offices of the Prince, putting the paper together late at night. That doesn’t sound warm and fuzzy, I admit, but it actually is one of my warmest journalistic memories. I never resented Larry berating me or the other editors, because I knew it meant that he cared about us doing it right. He wasn’t going to gloss over some mistake: he held us to the same high standards he held himself and he took pride in the paper we produced each day. I’ve always maintained that I worked harder during my one year on the Prince’s editorial board than I ever have since graduation, since I was simultaneously trying to hold down a full-time job while maintaining a full course load and some semblance of a social life.
“Larry, there is no way I could ever express my gratitude to you for teaching me how to be a real journalist. You may have managed to maintain a gruff exterior most of the time but all the while, I knew that you loved us, and that’s why you devoted your heart and soul to mentoring generations of men and women who weren’t half as talented as you are.”
All the praise made Larry uncomfortable. As he told me on one occasion, “this is the stuff people read at your funeral.”
There was no sense trying to fool Larry, so I told him flat-out: “You’re right, Larry, it is. But all those people who read that stuff at funerals wish they had said it earlier, while the person was around to hear it. Like it or not, Larry, you have built a large group of admirers over the years.”
I then took advantage of the moment to ask Larry if there was any message he wanted to get out to anyone in particular. For a moment I dreaded even raising the possibility: I could imagine him directing me to tell the volunteer fire company to get its act together, or the Princetonian to straighten out its delivery problems, or me to “quit working so damn many hours.” For the past two or three years, Larry has given me that order at every opportunity: “You gotta figure out a way to run that paper better.”
But Larry’s answer was a simple “no” — nothing more needed to be said to anyone. As I left the room I realized he was probably right again. In his 87 years Larry had never been shy about telling anyone just what he thought.
On the other hand, I wish I had been able to articulate to Larry the special qualities that I observed over the years:
A remarkable flexibility in the face of changing technology. Back in around 1967, the Princetonian was being printed on a sheet fed hot-type printing press at the Princeton Herald print shop on Chambers Street. Led by Larry and a few other professionals who operated the linotype machines, we created pages in “chases,” which were then carefully carried over to the press. Sheets were fed in one direction, then turned over and fed in the other direction to complete the process. The press dated back to the 19th century.
At that point “cold type” was coming over the horizon. Cold type was the name for the photo-typesetting process that was a precursor to modern desktop publishing and a technology that would soon put all linotype operators out of business. The Prince needed a new press, and it had to choose between one that would work with hot type — Larry’s medium — or the new cold type.
I can vividly recall Todd Simonds and Ted Weidlein, the top two board members on the 1968 board, the class ahead of me, debating the choice. Going with cold type would be a difficult transition, they reasoned, and would mean the end of the Prince’s relationship with Larry, already a Prince institution, and a hot type man. They chose to continue with hot type. I remember thinking they made the right move.
A few years later the Prince made the inevitable move, and rather than being an obstacle Larry led the way. In later years he led the Prince into desktop publishing, with entire pages formatted on the computer screen. The first time I was introduced to DTP was at Larry’s kitchen table, with him relentlessly loading floppy disk after floppy disk into his Apple computer. He was no one’s dinosaur.
A remarkable flexibility in the face of a changing student population. Larry continued to connect with undergraduates long after his official retirement. That’s quite an accomplishment when you consider how different the undergraduate body is now compared to my days.
The Daily Princetonian was an early proponent of coeducation at Princeton but when it happened, the fall after my graduation in 1969, some of us wondered how Larry and the new women staffers would relate. It was no problem, as the E-mail from Juliet Eilperin, quoted above, indicates. No problem, but my jaw still dropped the first time I saw a coed rub her hand across Larry’s flat-top haircut for good luck.
An uncanny ability to offer the right amount of help at the right time. In the days of “cold type” newspaper production the single most expensive and complicated piece of equipment was “the camera,” a 400 or 500-pound piece of equipment that transformed photos into “halftones” and assembled pages into negatives in turn could be transformed into plates that were mounted on a printing press.
Around 1987 or so I finally had the $10,000 or so required to buy a camera. It arrived at our office in an old farmhouse on Mapleton Road at Route 1. Professional movers, being paid by the hour, moved the camera up the front door. Larry, who “just happened” to come by to witness the machine’s arrival, and I removed the front door from its hinges to enable it to pass through.
There was just one problem. It wouldn’t fit, even with the door removed. The movers were impatient and announced they would just leave it there if we had no other ideas. But Larry did have an idea: If the camera’s bellows were raised to their highest position, the width the camera would be diminished by several inches. But that required electrical power — a 220-volt outlet, the nearest one of which was inside the office.
Getting that power outside would require a heavy duty extension cord, the kind that the fire company carried on its trucks. Larry put out the call and within a few minutes a fellow volunteer fireman arrived at the scene. The plug didn’t fit the outlet, so we hot-wired it, fed the cord through a window out to the camera, and in the gathering darkness brought it to life. It fit through the door opening with an inch or so to spare.
Singing someone’s praises after their death is an easy game. And some of you may be guessing that my reflections are inflated to thank a man to whom I especially owe a lot. But don’t take my word. Here’s the view of a Yale man, historian James Axtell, in his comprehensive institutional biography, “The Making of Princeton University:”
“Since high school journalists had no experience in producing a daily newspaper, the Prince had to rely on an experienced craftsman to show each new generation the ropes, to do the actual composing on a creaky, temperamental, hot-lead linotype machine, and from midnight to 6 a.m., to print the issues on a hand-fed, flat-bed letterpress, made in 1896.
“From the end of World War II until his retirement in 1987, the gruff, indispensable presence behind the Prince operation was Larry DuPraz, a flat-topped, cigar-smoking townie, high school graduate, and volunteer fireman. In the minds of thousands of his student-fans, this stubby veteran with a bite as sharp as his bark was ‘one of the toughest professors at Princeton.’ At his ink-stained, no-nonsense hands, generations of would-be journalists were educated in ‘craft, fidelity, dedication, perseverance, [and] excellence — qualities that not even an [umpteen]-thousand-dollar education can buy.’ His most serious students thought they had attended — though probably not graduated with any honors from — the ‘Larry DuPraz School of Journalism, one of Princeton’s most successful colleges,’ or ‘the University of DuPraz.’
“In late-night commentaries over layouts or in caustic comments at any juncture, ‘Professor’ DuPraz taught two main lessons. One was absolute quality: he was devastatingly ‘scornful of error and sloppiness,’ to which harried student-editors with undone homework on their minds were often prone. The other lesson was humility. He taught his bookish acolytes not to ‘overestimate degrees and titles,’ but, more pointedly, that ‘snot-nosed college kids were not as smart as they think they are.’
“Although many Princelings never realized it, ‘beneath that gruff exterior,’ testified Thomas Bray ‘63, former Prince chairman and later president of the board of the paper’s corporation, ‘was a gruff interior.’ Yet most learned to love being ‘abused by him — which he did with great precision — partly because Larry was from the real world, outside the Gothic romance of the campus, and his sarcasm punctured our pretensions.’ Their other professors were bred — and taught — in a kinder, gentler school and often had a harder time earning their respect and attention. Few of them hosted their own ‘class’ reunions after each P-rade, at which they recalled, with deadly precision, each name, face, and former foible.”
Last year at Princeton’s Reunions I went to Larry’s annual party behind the Prince offices at 48 University Place with the book in hand. At the high point of the party, I managed to get the crowd’s attention and asked Larry to join me for a brief presentation. He came forward, cursing me under his breath about making a fuss about him at an otherwise fun event. I told him to keep quiet and then read the passage from Axtell’s book out loud. It was the story about Larry’s party, unveiled at Larry’s party.
At the reception after his funeral some Prince alumni recalled that moment and guessed that Larry must have been especially proud of the recognition. I wasn’t sure — I reminded them of how Larry had scoffed at the E-mail tributes sent to him while he was in the hospital.
A few minutes later I ran into Mary Bliss of the Princeton Health Care Ministry, the charity to which donations in Larry’s memory were being directed. “It’s so nice to finally meet you,” said Bliss, who also had been a visitor during Larry’s prolonged hospital stay. “Larry told me all about the E-mails you brought — he was so proud of them.”
So shed no tears for Larry. He wouldn’t want it. Or would he?