Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Witness Co-Founder Robert McCurdy Remembered for Dedication and Respect for Church and Profession

Robert J. McCurdy
Robert J. McCurdy

Journalist Robert McCurdy came to The Catholic Witness when the Diocesan newspaper was a literal blank slate.

A Catholic and seasoned professional, he started in September of 1965, tasked with founding editor Msgr. Leo Beierschmitt and founding managing editor Carl Balcerak in laying the framework for the publication, which rolled out its debut edition in January of 1966.

He possessed a proficiency for the written word, a passion for sharing the Good News and a love for the Catholic faith. He was brought on board to work on a brand-new publication aimed – as Bishop George Leech wrote in introducing the paper – at being of “personal and practical help as we try and keep on trying to be loyal and true witnesses for Christ in our daily living, spiritual and temporal in private and in public.”

McCurdy, who passed away this past October, was a founding father of The Witness, working story ideas, writing and editing, undertaking layouts and leading the staff in discerning the best way to cover news. He served the publication for nearly 29 years – that’s half of its existence.

By all accounts, between the day he was hired in 1965 until he retired in June of 1994, McCurdy had written or edited a swath of articles for more than 1,000 editions, and worked under three popes, four Diocesan bishops and three priest-editors.

“He was a newspaper guy through and through. I think he had a really good sense of what a newspaper should be doing, even from the time he started at The Witness,” said Bernie Shire.

A former newspaper reporter himself, Shire had known McCurdy from their days in secular media, years before the former became Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the latter sat down at a typewriter at The Witness.

“Catholic newspapers have a strong role in terms of what they’re about in sharing the truth about the Church and featuring its people, and Bob knew that,” said Shire, who is now retired and is a member of St. Anne and Our Lady of La Vang Parish in Lancaster. “Bob was able to keep his fingers on the pulse of the Church in the Diocese of Harrisburg and its parishes, but also with news from the Vatican, so that readers knew what was going on in the life of the Catholic Church.”

McCurdy’s articles over this nearly 30 decades included pieces on the first Mass house at the Conewago Chapel, the fallout from the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, features on athletes and clergy and parishioners, and countless editorials.

“He cared so much about journalism and the Church, so it would make sense that he got involved with The Witness and worked there for so many years. That’s a kind of value he had and it guided the kind of stories he did, and made its way into the homes of readers over the years,” Shire said.

McCurdy spoke to that in his own words, in a July 8, 1994, Witness article announcing his retirement.

The article’s author, longtime Witness reporter Paul Cullen, wrote that McCurdy said “although he liked the secular press, he joined The Witness because he wanted ‘something with a value system, something with an essentially moral dimension.’”

Joe Aponick, who served as the Diocese’s Director of Communications for 34 years, recalls McCurdy’s devotion to the Church and to his profession in journalism.

“He was a very fine Catholic gentleman. He had a very charitable nature, and that showed in his management style. He was a man of faith and he lived it. It wasn’t on his sleeve, but it was certainly in his actions and in his temperament,” Aponick said.

McCurdy’s focus was on journalistic integrity in telling stories to help people understand and appreciate the Catholic faith. It was never about sensationalism or fluff, Aponick said.

“I remember him telling me, ‘We could put out a paper where everybody would read every story; but it would be the last one we do.’ He wasn’t about sensationalizing things just to draw readers’ attention,” Aponick said.

He also spoke of McCurdy’s dedication. He was known for upholding the tenets of journalism, staying true to style and grammar guidelines, and meeting deadlines – even when the latter meant delaying dinner with his wife, Jean.

“I don’t think he ever left work early. I remember Jean would come in and say, ‘Ok McCurdy, let’s go. I’m ready to go out to dinner. It’s Friday, time to go home.’ But he would not leave until it was officially the end of the workday,” Aponick said.

“He took pride in that he and Charlie Blahusch helped establish The Witness,” Aponick continued, “and in the fact that he went on to become its editor and later its managing editor” in the footsteps of Msgr. Leo Beierschmitt and Carl Balcerak.

“He was certainly passionate about his work. There was never a time that I heard him talking about moving on to something else. He came in with a suit and tie every day, and that demonstrated respect for what he was doing,” he added. “Bob was influential in the respect he had for the Church and what it meant to work for it. Him marrying his professionalism to his faith was a very unique aspect that I was able to see.”

Bob McCurdy – along with Charlie Blahusch and Paul Cullen – was at the heart of The Witness for the first half of its existence, setting the publication on its trajectory. And while its format may have changed from black-and-white newsprint and paste-up layouts to a full-color design and an all-digital format, its mission is the same as what Bishop Leech penned 58 years ago.

And that mission is in stride with what McCurdy considered the most important story of his career – when he looked back on it in that July 1994 interview – the Diocese’s centennial celebration in 1968.

Through The Witness, “people were able to understand the heritage they have as Catholics in this Diocese and the many sacrifices people made to establish this Diocese and help it grow,” McCurdy said.

“I don’t think I found anything I would like to do better,” he said of his career with The Catholic Witness. “I asked myself often, but never found anything I wanted to do more. This gave me the opportunity to influence others and to promote good things.”

“I like to think I helped people be more of what they want to be and ought to be in the best sense,” he said.

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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