Edwin Dobb, an eminent reporter and author who was highly esteemed as a classroom inspiration, died Friday of complications from a heart condition. He was 69.
Ed had taught narrative writing and environmental journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism since 2000.
A former senior editor and acting editor-in-chief of The Sciences, Ed has been published in a broad swath of publications from Reader’s Digest and Vogue to Discover, Audubon, and The New York Times Magazine. For the past several years he’s been writing predominantly for National Geographic Magazine.
From 1998 to 2007, Dobb was a contributing writer at Harper’s Magazine, where he covered everything from mining to cosmology, the legal rights of domestic terrorists and the shortcomings of travel—often through first-person accounts. He continued to publish in Harper’s as recently as last fall, when he wrote a gorgeous treatise on adoption, breaking down in Baja, and “the ecology of indebtedness,” titled “Nothing but Gifts: Finding a home in a world gone awry.”
“I defy anyone to read that memoir and not be touched by Ed’s expressive genius, big heart, and deep humanity,” said UC Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman. “Ed was beloved as a teacher, always at the ready as a mentor and friend when his students and former students needed him. The outpouring on social media is a spontaneous tribute from the many folks in our community whose lives he touched and made better.”
Former student Bonnie Chan (’16) said, “Ed was my mentor, but he was also a beacon—a lifelong practitioner of an old school craft, an ardent defender of print and words and stories that matter. He was a tireless champion for every student who looked to him for advice, reassurance, and/or no-bullshit feedback. And with the greatest kindness and earnestness, he made me feel like I was/am a part of a tribe of storytellers striving always towards some small perfect piece of truth and beauty. He was encouraging, hopeful, respectful, poetic, and funny as hell.”
Said another former student, Wes Enzinna (’10)— himself now with Ed’s former magazine Harper’s: “I used to joke that Ed was my 65-year-old soul mate. He had the enthusiasm and curiosity of a kid—he was a kindred spirit and despite our difference in age, he was a friend as well as a mentor.”
Professor of the Graduate School Cynthia Gorney, a contributing writer for National Geographic who used to teach with him, said, “There was an extraordinary combination of kindness, wisdom, affection and mischief in Ed’s face—it was easy for me to see why students so loved working with him. He had the most wonderful laugh and madly high standards. And his writing was just glorious; I knew and admired his prose before I ever met him. I often thought about how lucky we were to have landed such a beautiful writer who also so loved to teach.”
Fellow lecturer, journalist and historian Adam Hochschild said, “I admired the grace of Ed’s writing, the way he wore his wide knowledge of the world so lightly and unobtrusively, his love of particular writers, like Camus, and the way his face crinkled up in delight when he talked about the successes of one or another of his students. He cared passionately about his teaching, and I heard nothing but enthusiasm about it from students of his who were later in classes of mine. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Alum and lecturer Kara Platoni recalled being Ed’s next-door office neighbor in the downstairs warren that is known in North Gate Hall as “The Cave:” “I got to watch the miracle that happened every day in his office. People would come in sad and anxious and weird, wanting to talk about their homework—purportedly—but really about life and writing and craft and how hard it is to make beautiful things. And they would leave an hour (or sometimes, frankly, two) later with the air of people whose burdens had been lifted, or at least made lighter, because they were now shared with a friend and mentor. And it didn’t stop after work hours, or after graduation.
“One of the most amazing things I’ve heard over the past few days is how many people—near and far, alums from many years ago—had plans to do something with Ed that were just around the corner: to go on a swim, to meet up for a drink, to get advice on a story, to exchange a punk rock mix tape, to talk about the world and everything in it. Here’s my advice for anyone who wants it: Do it anyway. Raise a glass, go out on the water, listen to something loud, write something beautiful for Ed. Rage on.”
Ed was born in Butte, Mont., and became an author to whom writing came naturally. Long-time friend and colleague Mark Dowie, who has taught science, environmental reporting, and foreign correspondence at Berkeley Journalism, told the Montana Standard: “He was one of the best writers, one of the best wordsmiths of the English language. What’s surprising is his education was limited. He’s a self-taught autodidact who became an absolute master of the English language on his own.”
Ed was also a playwright, poet and co-writer and co-producer of a documentary film shot in Super 16mm, called Butte, America on the iron workers, engineers, teachers, priests, miners, and their families who fled to the copper-rich mountains of Montana in the early 1900s. The film aired on Independent Lens in 2009. His most recent non-journalism publications include two fine press books, both collaborations with visual artists and both published in early 2017.
Ed is survived by his partner (and mother of his children) Susan Barnes, his children Ezra Lange and Kate Barnes; sisters Suzanne Dobb, Debbie Dobb, Ellen Simon and Maggie Dobb, and grandchildren Mila Barnes-Bukher, Sydney Lange, Emmylou Lange, Greta Barnes-Bukher and Lincoln Lange.
A memorial service will be held at Berkeley Journalism in the fall.
Donations towards Ed’s memorial may be made via Venmo (@Ezra-Lange) or PayPal (firstname.lastname@example.org).
By Marlena Telvick