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Bob Timberg's storied life [Commentary]

In 1970, American blood was being shed on the killing fields of Vietnam. Congress lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Richard Nixon's Oval Office conversations were being recorded. And in Annapolis, a cub reporter was hired by the Evening Capital. He was nearly 30 years old, borderline ancient for a beginning daily newspaper reporter. Unlike other Capital staffers, he was a Naval Academy graduate with a master's degree in journalism, and he was a Vietnam war combat veteran. And he could not type.

The new reporter was Robert "Bob" Timberg. What made him one of a kind, in addition to the aforementioned litany, was that his face was severely scarred. Thirteen days before Bob was to end his Vietnam tour of duty, he was delivering the payroll to fellow Marines when his vehicle detonated a land mine. The burns he suffered left his face permanently disfigured. Mr. Timberg subsequently endured 35 surgeries before resigning himself to the reality that his mirror would never again reflect the handsome young man pictured in the Academy's Class of 1964 yearbook.

Such injuries would break many a strong man, yet Bob not only kept going through his struggles, he excelled, establishing himself as a skilled journalist and later author, writing several well-received books — including "Blue-Eyed Boy," a memoir released last month. He lives his life bravely and purposely, something we could all stand to do a little more of.

I first noticed Bob's reporting talents from his incisive articles on a legal challenge to compulsory chapel attendance at the U.S. service academies, filed by six Annapolis midshipmen and a West Point cadet.

The highlight of Bob's reporting was an interview with celebrated evangelist Billy Graham, who shockingly characterized the students' lawsuit as a being "part of a planned attack against all chaplains, to force them completely out of all services," and further suggested that the young men were Communist dupes. Though Bob knew now that he had a good story, he still pressed on, asking Graham if an atheist can become a good naval officer. "I can't comment on that," the preacher answered.

I was further impressed by an eye-opening commentary Bob wrote on the notorious My Lai massacre in Vietnam, stressing that "there is still a difference between a soldier and an executioner."

From The Evening Capital, Bob went on to Baltimore's Evening Sun, where he covered local politics, won a coveted Nieman Fellowship and was tapped to open his newspaper's one-man Washington bureau. He later moved over to the morning Baltimore Sun, covering Congress and eventually the White House. He was The Sun's deputy Washington bureau chief when he accepted an offer to become editor-in-chief of Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Meanwhile, Bob augmented his distinguished reputation as a journalist by writing books. His first, titled "The Nightingale's Song," profiled in depth five well-known Naval Academy graduates, masterfully probing the characters and motivations of those who fought a discredited war in Vietnam while others used any and all means to avoid it. The work was honored as a New York Times Notable Book of 1995, and was among Time magazine's five best non-fiction books that year.

Nine years later, Bob's "State of Grace" was published. A story of the special friendships and loyalties that team sports engender, the book recounts the author's sandlot football days in the pre-Vietnam war era before the nation lost its innocence. Sports Illustrated magazine selected it as one of the best sports books of 2004.

Bob's new book, "Blue-Eyed Boy" is a wrenching memoir that unsparingly details the agony of his numerous reconstructive surgeries, and traces Bob's transformation from the man whose disfigurement once caused him to hide indoors into a newspaperman, required to face the public virtually every day.

My friendship with Bob might open legitimate objectivity questions among some readers, thus ruling out my writing a review of "Blue-Eyed Boy." But that's their problem. It's a damn fine book, one that avoids the annoying tendency of memoirs to be exercises in self-glorification. It is a story of courage and determination told with honesty, wit and humor. Courage, determination, honesty, wit and humor are, in fact, the very words that spring to mind whenever I think of Bob Timberg. Anyone who savors a gripping story skillfully rendered should run, not walk, to their nearest bookstore and buy a copy.

There, I've said it, and I stand by every word.

The author, a former Baltimore and Annapolis newspaper reporter, editor and columnist is a founder and the editor of the literary journal, Free State Review. His email is Burdett124@aol.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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