Robert R. Tim­berg

Sun re­porter and Ma­rine wrote about fel­low Naval Academy grad­u­ates in Viet­nam in ‘The Nightin­gale’s Song’

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Fred­er­ick N. Ras­mussen They be­lieved in Amer­ica.” Bal­ti­more Sun re­searcher Paul McCardell con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle. fras­mussen@balt­sun.com

Robert R. “Bob” Tim­berg, a for­mer Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter and Ma­rine whose 1995 book “The Nightin­gale’s Song,” about five Naval Academy grad­u­ates who served in the Viet­nam War, earned him wide ac­claim, died Tues­day of res­pi­ra­tory fail­ure at Anne Arun­del Med­i­cal Cen­ter. The An­napo­lis res­i­dent was 76. “Bob Tim­berg was a gen­uine Amer­i­can hero who con­tin­ues to in­spire me ev­ery day,” said Sen. John S. McCain III of Ari­zona, whose ex­pe­ri­ences in Viet­nam were de­tailed in “The Nightin­gale’s Song.”

The book fol­lowed five U.S. Naval Academy grad­u­ates in the war: Se­na­tor McCain, for­mer Vir­ginia Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Ma­rine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor John M. Poin­dex­ter and for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Robert C. “Bud McFar­lane.

“Bob was a great, great re­porter and a very good friend,” said Se­na­tor Webb. “We had a very good friend­ship. I first met him when he was cov­er­ing the Hill for The Sun. He was such a metic­u­lous re­porter.”

“Bal­ti­more has lost a leg­endary jour­nal­ist and a true Amer­i­can hero,” Paul West, for­mer White House cor­re­spon­dent for The Sun and later na­tional po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent in the Chicago Tri­bune’s Wash­ing­ton bureau, wrote in an email. “We all knew Bob as an ex­em­plary hu­man be­ing and a fair-minded news­pa­per­man with a re­lent­less work ethic.”

Mr. Tim­berg served in Viet­nam and suf­fered wounds that re­quired dozens of surg­eries.

“He was grievously wounded, as we all know, but there was al­ways a kind­ness about him,” said Se­na­tor McCain. “He had a spirit and an ac­com­mo­da­tion to the vis­i­ble wound that he bore with pride and en­durance.

“He loved life, and was proud of the sac­ri­fice he made for our na­tion,” he said.

Robert Richard Tim­berg was born June 16, 1940 in Mi­ami, the son of Sammy Tim­berg, a com­poser of mu­sic for Fleis­cher Stu­dios car­toons, and Rose­marie Sin­nott Tim­berg, a Ziegfeld Girl who danced in Broad­way mu­si­cals.

He was raised in New York City and grad­u­ated in 1958 from Stuyvesant High School.

He spent a year at St. John’s Univer­sity be­fore en­ter­ing the Naval Academy in 1960. Upon grad­u­a­tion in 1964, he be­gan ser­vice with the Ma­rine Corps and in 1966 was sent to Viet­nam, join­ing the 1st Ma­rine Divi­sion.

In Jan­uary1967 the young lieu­tenant — 13 days from go­ing home — was rid­ing atop an Am­trac, an am­phibi­ous trac­tor, loaded with 465 gal­lons of fuel, near Da Nang. The ve­hi­cle struck a land mine.

“I felt my­self lifted from the top of the Am­trac, as if in the eye of a hur­ri­cane, ex­cept in place of wind and rain, I was be­ing car­ried aloft by flames,” Mr. Tim­berg wrote in his mem­oir, “Blue-Eyed Boy.”

“In a split sec­ond my life had changed,” he wrote.

What fol­lowed were 35 op­er­a­tions — in­clud­ing one without anes­the­sia — to help re­con­struct his se­verely burned face.

“De­spite small vic­to­ries, my de­pres­sion rarely eased, at times dip­ping into the sui­ci­dal, though never long enough for me to act on it,” he wrote in his mem­oir. “I fi­nally ac­cepted re­al­ity: I had been hor­ri­bly dis­fig­ured and plas­tic surgery could only do so much.”

“To come back from what he suf­fered was a true pro­file in courage,” said Joseph M. Coale III, a writer, his­to­rian and a for­mer aide to Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

“Bob was an Amer­i­can pa­triot who never for­got where he came from. He loved the Naval Academy and the af­fec­tion for the men he served with only grew over the years,” Se­na­tor McCain said.

After leav­ing the Ma­rine Corps as a cap­tain, Mr. Tim­berg stud­ied jour­nal­ism and earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in 1969.

It was his then-wife, Janie Benson, who sug­gested he con­sider be­com­ing a news­pa­per­man.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kid­ding, you know I’ve never had a word in print in my life, not even kinder­garten or high school — nowhere,’ ” Mr. Tim­berg told NPR in­ter­viewer Dave Davies in a 2014 in­ter­view. “She said, ‘Yeah, but you wrote good let­ters to me’ ” while in Viet­nam.

He be­gan his ca­reer at The Evening Cap­i­tal in An­napo­lis, where he worked as a gen­eral as­sign­ment re­porter un­til be­ing hired by The Evening Sun in 1973.

“He came to re­port­ing rather late, and I ad­mired him for that, and I was struck by how strong his writ­ing was by read­ing his Evening Cap­i­tal clips,” said Ernest F. Imhoff, a long­time ed­i­tor of The Evening Sun and The Sun. “I rec­om­mended him to Phil Heisler [then ed­i­tor of the Evening Sun], and we hired him.”

“Bob’s work was al­ways solid. Like most re­porters, he was opin­ion­ated about a lot of things, but be­ing that way is not a bad thing,” said Mr. Imhoff. “He was a straight re­porter who al­ways got the facts and nu­ances of a story.”

Mr. Tim­berg cov­ered City Hall and the Mary­land State House un­til join­ing The Evening Sun’s bureau in Wash­ing­ton. He came to The Sun in 1981.

“The first word that de­scribes Bob is courage,” said Ernest B. “Pat” Fur­gur­son, for­mer Wash­ing­ton bureau chief of The Sun. “The fact that after all he had been through as a Ma­rine, scarred as he was, he chose to be a street re­porter — meet­ing new peo­ple ev­ery day — tells all about him as a man and jour­nal­ist.”

Mr. Tim­berg be­came a White House cor­re­spon­dent cov­er­ing Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan and later served as deputy bureau chief.

“He was just a su­perb re­porter. He would never take ‘ no’ for an an­swer from any­one,” Mr. Fur­gur­son said.

He re­called one in­stance when he, Mr. Tim­berg and an­other Sun col­league in­ter­viewed Pres­i­dent Rea­gan in the Oval Of­fice.

“When all the di­a­logue about high strat­egy ran down, Bob signed off by ask­ing, ‘Mr. Pres­i­dent, do you ever send out for Chi­nese food?’ Sadly, Rea­gan an­swered, ‘ No, I just eat what they put down in front of me,’ ” Mr. Fur­gur­son said.

From 1979 to 1980, Mr. Tim­berg was a Nie­man Fel­low at Har­vard and had also been a fel­low at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars in Wash­ing­ton. In 1986, the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion pre­sented him with its an­nual Aldo Beck­man Award.

Mr. Tim­berg re­tired from The Sun in 2005, be­com­ing ed­i­tor-in-chief of Pro­ceed­ings, an An­napo­lis-based magazine for Navy and Ma­rine Corps of­fi­cers. He re­tired a sec­ond time in 2008.

In “The Nightin­gale’s Song,” Mr. Tim­berg “brought John McCain’s Viet­nam ex­pe­ri­ence to a wider pub­lic at­ten­tion for the first time,” said Mr. West.

“As fel­low Navy Academy grad­u­ates who suf­fered for their ser­vice as Marines in Viet­nam, they shared an ob­vi­ous per­sonal bond,” he said. “McCain opened up to Bob in a way that he never had be­fore, and the char­ac­ter of McCain’s hero­ism as a pris­oner of war, laid out in metic­u­lous de­tail in Bob’s book, be­came the foun­da­tion of McCain’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.”

In his 1995 New York Times’ re­view of “The Nightin­gale’s Song,” Christo­pher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that Mr. Tim­berg had worked to “dra­ma­tize the sense of be­trayal these men felt when Amer­ica turned against the Viet­nam War and spell out the tragic con­se­quences of their feel­ings.”

“They are se­cret shar­ers,” Mr. Tim­berg wrote, “men whose ex­pe­ri­ences at An­napo­lis and dur­ing the Viet­nam War and its af­ter­math il­lu­mi­nate a gen­er­a­tion, or a por­tion of a gen­er­a­tion — those who went. They shared a seem­ingly unas­sail­able cer­tainty.

Mr. Tim­berg also wrote “John McCain: An Amer­i­can Odyssey,” and in ad­di­tion to “Blue-Eyed Boy,” an­other mem­oir, “State of Grace.”

“Work was his hobby,” said a son, Craig Tim­berg of Wash­ing­ton. “He loved be­ing a jour­nal­ist, and when the time came he was no longer a jour­nal­ist, he was still look­ing for a writ­ing project.”

Per­haps the last thing Mr. Tim­berg wrote was a con­tri­bu­tion to the book “The Life of Kings: The Bal­ti­more Sun and the Golden Age of the Amer­i­can News­pa­per,” edited by Frederic B. Hill and Stephens Broen­ing, for­mer Sun re­porters and for­eign cor­re­spon­dents.

“What Bob brought to ev­ery­thing was a to­tal com­mit­ment to it, and hard work,” Mr. Broen­ing said. “He was in­de­fati­ga­ble and would chase sources to the end of the earth.

“He loved what he was do­ing and ev­ery­one ad­mired him,” he said. “His death is a ter­rific loss.”

A memo­rial ser­vice will be held at 3 p.m. Sun­day at the Hardesty Funeral Home, 12 Ridgely Ave., in An­napo­lis. Plans for an­other pub­lic memo­rial ser­vice to be held in Septem­ber are in­com­plete.

In ad­di­tion to his son, Mr. Tim­berg is sur­vived by two other sons, Scott Tim­berg of Los An­ge­les and Sa­muel Tim­berg of Wilm­ing­ton, Del.; a daugh­ter, Amanda Tim­berg of Lon­don; two sis­ters, Rose­marie Shaw of Eu­gene, Ore., and Pa­tri­cia Tim­berg of Capi­tola, Calif.; and four grand­chil­dren. Mar­riages to Janie Benson and the for­mer Kel­ley An­drews ended in di­vorce. Robert Tim­berg was se­verely wounded in a mine ex­plo­sion while serv­ing in Viet­nam.

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