Kurt Succeeded When So Many Others Might Have Quit
By Dean Rotbart
It‚s been 15 years since Kurt mustered the courage to reveal his frightening secret in the well-thumbed pages of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Back then, he was a cherubic 25-year-old reporter who some seasoned Times editor had shoved in the general direction of the financial pages. Kurt went.
When his 4,000-word magazine article appeared, in January 1987, even the Times didn‚t know how to describe young Kurt‚s editorial responsibilities, so the short bio appended to the article noted only that Kurt „is on the staff.š
In „Braving Epilepsy‚s Storm,š Kurt offered a first-hand account of the medical and emotional upheaval that followed his diagnosis, at age 18, with the seizure disorder.
„As the electrical firestorm sweeps across my brain, I lose consciousness and fall to the ground,š Kurt wrote in describing a typical seizure, of which he had had hundreds. „The muscles in my body tighten up and my jaw clenches, the teeth possibly biting and bloodying my lips, tongue or cheek. My body jerks for a period, usually for less than a minute. During that time, I often get excessive amounts of saliva in my mouth, creating a froth. My breathing becomes irregular, sometimes even stopping. I also can become incontinent.š
Challenging as it was for the 18-year-old Kurt to face the physical manifestations of his illness, it was perhaps even more daunting to come to terms with the social stigma and misunderstanding attached to his condition.
His doctor and members of his family cautioned Kurt to keep his epilepsy a secret, lest he become a social and workplace pariah. Even Kurt‚s father, a noted pediatrician, went through a long period of denial.
Early in his junior year at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Kurt was making progress in managing and reducing the frequency of his seizures. After a series of revolving door doctors, Kurt found one who really knew his stuff and the doctor put Kurt on a far more effective medication.
Kurt allowed himself a little extra leeway, which resulted in experiencing two seizures outdoors on campus. In the aftermath of those events, the Swarthmore College administration dismissed Kurt from school, citing his health problems.
Kurt was filled with a rage so intense that he and his family worried for his sanity. Kurt never expected to see his college graduation. He didn‚t think he‚d live that long.
Kurt was back in the New York Times this past Sunday; this time on the front page. His subject matter was not epilepsy, but Enron. In a lengthy article, Kurt traces the roots and ramifications of the giant energy and finance company‚s spectacular collapse. If not for the terrorist attacks on September 11th and their aftermath, no doubt Enron would have been the biggest business story of 2001.
Today Kurt is one of the best business investigative reporters in the country.
As with the Enron story, he has the ability to probe complex stories and make them understandable and compelling. He‚s explored the funding for Osama bin Laden‚s terrorist network; he‚s examined the last minute pardons President Bill Clinton made of businessmen and others; he wrote at length about mismanagement at the Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. and about blunders at Prudential Bache & Co.
It was Kurt who broke the story about discriminatory employment practices at Texaco Corp. and who detailed the racially charged conversations at the highest executive levels of the petroleum giant.
Kurt‚s extensive reporting on the price-fixing case against Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) was the foundation for his most recent book, The Informant: A True Story, which has been both a critical and popular success.
For his various reporting efforts, Kurt has won more than his fair share of recognition. My company, TJFR Group, has repeatedly honored him as one of the 100 most influential business journalists in the country and as a „Blue Chipš investigative reporter.
Kurt was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2000, a finalist for the prestigious Goldsmith Prize in 1998 and a two-time winner of the George Polk award.
This past August, Kurt and his family relocated from the New York area to Dallas, where he grew up and where his parents still reside. So valuable is he to the Times, the paper doesn‚t really care much where Kurt lives or works, just so that his byline resides in The New York Times.
Kurt‚s climb from the depths of despair after being expelled from college to the pinnacle of the business journalism profession is a story of unbelievable perserverence and determination. A lesser person would have quit many times and rightfully blamed his illness for his failures.
But while Kurt despaired a great deal, he never quit. With the help of his family, college roommates and, eventually, a savvy doctor, Kurt found the correct medication to control his seizures and eventually put an end to them all together. It‚s been nine years now that Kurt is seizure free.
With help he received from the government‚s Health and Human Services, lawyers and his family, Kurt persuaded Swarthmore College to readmit him in the second semester of his junior year. He graduated with distinction in June 1983 and has gone on to be a great source of pride to his alma mater.
For all his professional success and recognition, Kurt continues to be both warm and humble. In a recent phone conversation, he told me of his investigative method: „I think the only talent I have is the ability to recognize that there are a lot of things that I don‚t know.
„I‚m willing to say that őI don‚t know.š‚ Kurt says. „The process of learning is always the same. You go to the people who know what they are talking about. You throw your ignorance out there as completely as you can and try to figure out what you‚re dealing with.š
Kurt adds that „he was been very lucky over the years because most of the time I‚ve been able to figure things out.š
Reflecting on his New York Times Magazine article 15 years ago, Kurt says that he felt he had no choice but to write about his epilepsy. „I had the opportunity and platform to talk about something that affects a lot of people and to talk about it in a way that I wish someone had talked about it when I was going through it. To know that and do nothing about it really wasn‚t an option.š
While Kurt has never since hidden his epilepsy, he also didn‚t make it a centerpiece of his life. After writing his story, Kurt‚s mission was clear and it was not to become a poster boy for the illness.
„My whole life from the time I got sick was focused on making sure that I was a student, a journalist, a husband and a father,š Kurt tells me. „Not that I was someone with this condition.š
Well he succeeded quite spectacularly. And that is why Kurt Eichenwald, investigative business reporter for The New York Times, is the first entry on my „Dean‚s Listš of the most unforgettable journalists I know.
January 14, 2002
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