Dave Perlman is no more, long may he be remembered

David Perlman, a newspaper reporter since before World War II, a science writer since 1957, and a vital factor in CASW’s growth as an organization, died at his San Francisco home June 19 at 101.

Although a blood cancer, myelodysplastic syndrome, had recently forced him into a wheelchair, Perlman—a living legend in his trade who’d taken an “early retirement” from reporting at 98—remained cheerful, lucid and alert until the end. He welcomed streams of visitors until pandemic strictures arose. He read the newspapers every day and many fat books.

“Dave had a majesty to him, plus generosity and wisdom,” recalled CASW Executive Director Emeritus Ben Patrusky, who served CASW during most of Dave’s tenure as a board member, vice president and board president. “Having his respect made my life meaningful.”

Perlman still at work in his Chronicle corner office in 2015. Photo: Rosalind Reid

Current executive director Rosalind Reid, who served with Dave on the board 2007-11, added, “He was incredibly selfless and also, don’t forget, funny.”

“It is a sad day, and one of the sad things for me is that his experience here was so long and I got to see so little of it,” said current CASW President Alan Boyle. “He taught me a lot about our profession. We will miss him.”

Dave served on the CASW board for nearly four decades—including a term as president 1976-80—before retiring in 2011 at age 92, costing CASW its most solid source of advice when sticky issues arose. Among his legacies are CASW’s enhanced graduate fellowships, which grew from $2,000 to $5,000 apiece after Dave introduced Chicago philanthropist Gary Brinson to CASW in 2006.

Upon his retirement from the board, Dave’s CASW colleagues fashioned a new distinction, naming him the first Fellow of CASW. In retirement he continued to open doors in support of science writing, helping raise substantial funds to support the 2017 World Conference of Science Journalists. His colleagues honored his unique generosity to generations of science writers by donating $40,000 to CASW to create David Perlman travel grants to bring science writers from around the world to San Francisco.

He did not retire from his longtime employer, the San Francisco Chronicle, until August 2017 at age 98. Reputedly, he was then the oldest working reporter in American journalism. He was still driving himself to work every day after reading the newspapers. He felt that good reporters don’t show up until they’ve already caught up on the news.

Dave elbow-bumping Steve Rubenstein, a former Chronicle colleague, in December 2019. Photo: Charlie Petit

Dave was widely if unofficially recognized as the dean of US science journalists. He had wanted to be a reporter since he was 12 or so and saw the play Front Page in his native New York City. He got his first job at 18 straight out of high school as a summer reporter at the Schenectady Sun. As a student at Columbia College, he wrote for The Spectator school newspaper. He went to work as a copy boy at the Chronicle in 1940. After Army service and time spent as a magazine writer and radio reporter in Europe, in 1952 he rejoined the Chronicle.

In 1957, while Perlman was recuperating in the hospital from a broken leg, a friend visited and gave him a book on the universe by astronomer Fred Hoyle. Dave objected. He had never much cared about science. But after reading that book he made science his beat and never looked back.

I worked with Dave for 26 years as the Chronicle’s other science writer. He was my mentor and, before long, my closest friend.  One day in the mid-1970s when Dave was in his 50s and I had just started at the paper, he and I were chatting outside the Chronicle building. A small old man with a cane passed by after leaving the neighboring SF Examiner. “See him?” Dave said. “That’s Gobind Behari Lal. He’s almost 90 years old. He won a Pulitzer Prize!”

I later learned that in the 1930s Behari Lal had helped found the National Association of Science Writers, an organization that Dave had also served as president 1970-71. Dave went on, “I’ll tell you what. You won’t find me around here when I’m 90.” But decades later,  when Dave really was 90 and was about as small as was Gobind Behari Lal, there at Fifth and Mission he could be frequently seen—with cane—heading for his third-floor corner office or off to cover a story.

For more information on his rich life, including his devotion to helping young science writers, see:

San Francisco Chronicle ObituaryScientific American RIP David Perlman, The Dean of American Science Writing by Cristine Russell (CASW’s immediate past president); CASW website “David Perlman hailed…” with tributes and more links.

Donations in Dave’s memory

The Perlman family asks that memorial donations be directed to CASW, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, or the American Geophysical Union. Information about giving to CASW may be found here.