Richard Bergenheim: an appreciation

As editor, he brought spiritual strength, compassion, and an omnivorous appetite for news.

john nordell/the christian science monitor/file
Sharing the good news: Richard Bergenheim led the successful effort to free kidnapped Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll.
Elise Amendola/AP
Richard Bergenheim read a statement from freed hostage Jill Carroll to news media in Boston in April 2006.

Richard Bergenheim, the former editor of The Christian Science Monitor who passed on July 20, significantly increased the newspaper's focus on the Web. He also led the Monitor through one of the most dramatic episodes in its history when a correspondent was taken hostage in Iraq.

Richard, a teacher and practitioner of Christian Science healing and a former member of the church's Board of Directors, had recently left the editorship of the Monitor and was appointed president of the church. He was in Kansas City, Mo., with his wife, Phebe, as part of a six-week tour to encourage support of the Monitor and other Christian Science publications when he passed on unexpectedly and peacefully in his sleep.

"There aren't words to express the gratitude of the Board of Directors and the Board of Trustees of the Christian Science Publishing Society for all that Richard has given over the years to his Church," the directors said in a statement. "Richard has been a friend and mentor to many of us and we will miss him greatly."

Perhaps no episode in his tenure was as trying or ultimately as triumphant as the saga of the kidnapping and eventual release of Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll.

On the sunny morning of April 2, 2006, bomb-sniffing dogs searched Richard's rented limousine and then he was driven through the heavily guarded rear entrance to Boston's Logan airport. The tall, burly Bergenheim was escorted to gate 8A in the international terminal by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, State Department, and US Customs office.

He waited briefly at the end of an open jetway and then a white Lufthansa 747 taxied up to the gate, engines whining. At 12:22 p.m., the aircraft door opened and Jill was met with a hug from Richard, ending the highest-profile story in the Monitor's 100-year history.

Carroll's saga, and the murder of her interpreter, Allan Enwiyah, drew worldwide attention. Covering the tragedy while mounting an unrelenting effort to secure her release tested the Monitor's modest-sized staff as no other story has.

Richard presided over the searing experience with the spiritual strength and practical compassion that characterized his three-year term as editor of the Monitor.

During Jill's captivity, Richard wheedled information out of often-warring US government agencies, negotiated with international celebrity journalists who claimed to know influential Iraqi sheikhs, upgraded the security provided to Monitor correspondents, and dealt with constant media attention.

"He was the steward of the decency and global engagement that the Monitor showed when the whole world was watching," said managing editor Marshall Ingwerson, a key ally in the battle to win Jill's freedom.

"Richard's strength and compassion will be missed," said Monitor editor John Yemma. "I will also miss his advice and counsel, which I had hoped to rely on. I shall try to honor Richard by embracing the qualities that he exemplified."

The Monitor's managing publisher, Jonathan Wells, cited Richard's "example of calm resolve in the face of difficulties, and unwavering expectation of progress."

Richard's contributions to the Monitor went well beyond crisis management.

He brought unstinting enthusiasm to daily operations, driven by an omnivorous appetite for news. He led a redesign of the daily paper. He redefined the feature sections. He demanded that every issue carry at least one story about people making a difference to improve the world, echoing Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy's call that her newspaper "bless all mankind." He helped guide the development of prototypes for a potential weekly print product.

Perhaps most significant, Richard was a relentless evangelist for concentrating on digital content and delivery as the Monitor's future. This Web-first focus was on view in an opinion piece he wrote his first month as editor, calling the 1-to-2 million readers who visited each month "probably the most significant development in the history of the Monitor."

Richard was ideally positioned as a change agent since his credentials as a devoted student of Mrs. Eddy's teachings were beyond question. After a brief stint as a high school English teacher, Richard spent decades as a practitioner and teacher of Christian Science healing.

Richard knew there was considerable skepticism in the newsroom when he was named editor, given his limited hands-on journalism experience.

The newsroom's skepticism gave way to affection and respect. A recent surprise party in his honor was the most elaborate and emotional newsroom farewell for a Monitor editor in more than 40 years. Staffers serenaded him with lyrics about his intensive management style and showed a video of memorable Bergenheim moments. The outgoing editor wiped away tears.

Part of Richard's charm was a wry, impish sense of humor about many things, including his own foibles and career path. Alluding to the extensive travel requirements of his new job, he ended an e-mail last week, "yours with suitcase in hand."

Richard liked travel because he loved humanity. In June, he told a group of college students, "Think of the world as filled with friends. We don't let our friends be in trouble without trying to figure out how to help them. We care. And part of what the Monitor exists to do is increase the caring capacity of our hearts."

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