Lessons on Second Chances from My Brother, David Carr

Even in Washington there are things more important than politics. There are losses more profound than an election defeat or the failure of a piece of legislation. When we lose someone who reminds us of what is important and what is not, there are lessons for personal, public and religious life. For me, and apparently many others, my youngest brother, David Carr, was such a person.

On Feb. 12 I got a stunning call that David had collapsed and died at the age of 58 in the newsroom of The New York Times, where he served as a media columnist. As I tried to reach our family, the terrible news was already on our phone and TV screens. I was horrified. But minutes later, we saw the beginning of an outpouring of memories and reflections on the Internet, in the media and later at his wake and funeral.

Advertisement

David’s life was far too short, but it was very full, with so many unbelievable downs and ups that even he had to fact-check it for his book The Night of the Gun, in which he reported his hellish life as a coke addict and his rise to become a loving and loved father, a respected journalist, valued mentor and friend. David did not hide his failings and mistakes; he documented them in his book and acknowledged them in his column. But the overwhelming responses to his passing focused on the good he had done and the lessons we can learn from his unique journey.

There Are Second Chances. We could have lost David decades ago in an alley in Minneapolis or from an earlier bout with cancer. At the wake of a beloved cousin who died of a drug overdose, my dad whispered to David, “Is this what you have planned for us?” With the help of God, and many others, David took a different path. His rise and recovery were made possible by second, third and fourth chances and by his faith, hard work as a reporter, AA partners and good friends, and especially by his wife Jill and three daughters, Erin, Meagan and Madeline. Though he had no distinguished degrees nor an establishment résumé, The Times took a chance on David, and he became, in the words of the publisher, “one of the most gifted journalists who has ever worked at The New York Times.”

Family Comes First. David’s twin daughters saved his life and gave it purpose. He brought his infant twins to the local parish seeking baptism, saying that he could be a bad son, employee, friend, but not a bad father. The pastor simply said “welcome home.” Our parents and family never gave up on David, which made his recovery and achievements sources of enormous relief and gratitude. 

Loyalty Counts. David challenged the media status quo and his own paper, but he was a fierce defender of good reporting in The Times and beyond. David was a demanding, often profane boss, but also a mentor who offered young reporters chances to fail and grow and his enduring loyalty and encouragement. Being his friend or colleague was not always easy, but it was never dull and often rewarding. 

Respect Matters. David was a tough reporter and often a critical columnist, but many of those he covered and worked with recalled the respect and fairness he brought to journalism. He made judgments in his column every Monday, but, given his own failings and wounds, he was rarely judgmental. He treated interns, waiters, taxi drivers and homeless people like they were Pulitzer Prize winners. 

Faith Gives Hope. David was a believer, a product of his strong Irish Catholic family and his reliance on God in recovery. Neither pious nor self-righteous, he found strength and direction from his Catholic faith. He once addressed a group of bishops on the church and addiction: “The unconditional love of the church could possibly mean the difference between somebody living or dying.... By demonstrating a willingness to minister to those afflicted with this disease, the church becomes better.” I’m grateful David lived to see Pope Francis and hear his calls for greater mercy, a humble church and a loving faith. 

In his consoling and challenging homily during the funeral Mass, America’s James Martin, S.J., reminded us that David was not a saint, but he was a miracle—an example of how God’s grace, a family’s love, honest work and loyal friends can lift all of us sinners to live with faith, hope and love and leave our piece of this world a better place.

John Carr is America's Washington Front columnist.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ann Voll
2 years 7 months ago
I hope someone puts together a book of David's columns. I never had a chance to read them.
Carolyn McMurray
2 years 7 months ago
Carolyn McMurray | 2/26/2015 - 12:54pm John, my deep sympathy to you and your family on the death of David. Your reflection on David's life was a wonderful testimony to the virtue of Hope and the gift of forgiveness! God Bless, Gerry McMurray
WILLIAM FOSTER , Sr
2 years 7 months ago
The eulogies of David have been inspiring and have motivated me to read his autobiography, Night of the Gun. If Father Jim Martin would add his eulogy at his mass, many of his readers would be most grateful
WILLIAM FOSTER , Sr
2 years 7 months ago
The eulogies of David have been inspiring and have motivated me to read his autobiography, Night of the Gun. If Father Jim Martin would add his eulogy at his mass, many of his readers would be most grateful

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

John Milton's Paradise Lost (published in 1667) may be more relevant in our time than ever before.
Lisa AmplemanOctober 19, 2017
Released in April 2017, "DAMN." portrays Kendrick Lamar’s internal torment as he struggles with his faith.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2017
iStock photo
The majority of Americans now believe that “God is not a prerequisite for good values and morality.”
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 19, 2017
A neighborhood destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif. The Diocese of Santa Rosa "has been hit hard" and "is in an ongoing state of uncertainty" because of Northern California wildfires that began the night of Oct. 8, said Bishop Robert F. Vasa. (CNS photo/Jim Urquhart, Reuters)
Upward of 3,000 buildings, including the homes of at least 15 parishioners, have been destroyed just in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people.
Jim McDermottOctober 19, 2017