Neal Conan and I were once briefly roommates in Neal’s apartment in a fifth floor walkup on 101st Street in New York. There was a window about the size of a cereal box over a sink that opened onto a gray gravel roof upholstered with pigeon poop.
“That’s the balcony,” said Neal.
We both became war correspondents, a New Yorker and a Chicagoan who didn’t have driver’s licenses, so we hitched rides: with other reporters, soldiers moving to the front, and civilians fleeing towns. Of course, it was when Neal hitched a ride with Chris Hedges (then of The New York Times) near the end of the 1991 Gulf War that Neal was held by the Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard for nearly a week.
In those times, reporters didn’t take hostile environment training to cover wars nor counseling thereafter. We just returned to work and got memos asking, “Where’s your expense report?”
But Neal was utterly open about how that week, and all he’d covered, had reached in to remind him of the fragility and fleetingness of life. It was one of the reasons he took a year away from journalism to be a baseball announcer in the lowest rung of the minor leagues, and wrote a fine book, “Play by Play,” about the dreams and disappointments of people in the summer of their lives.
Neal presided over NPR’s Talk of the Nation for 11 years, with immaculate knowledge, and exquisite courtesy with callers and guests.
Neal and Liane Hansen had two fine children, Connor and Casey Hansen Conan, who wrote us this week that, “My father’s job, in part, was to comfort the world. To tell people that it’s ok. Someone smart is talking about complicated things. That there’s, for lack of a better term, a dad here. On 9-11, when nobody could reach home, all I had to do was turn on the radio. And there he was. There he will always be.
“A father,” wrote Casey, “who taught me about horse racing, baseball, fishing, and space flight. A man who was nowhere near perfect, but who had almost too much in his head to share, and an unquenchable desire to share it all at once, with everyone and anyone who would listen.”
And then Casey closed with what may be exactly the words those of us who loved Neal Conan are pretty sure he’d choose to be heard now:
“Thank you for listening.”