After years reporting on foreign conflicts, the journalist died on Feb. 16 in Syria. Anthony Breznican shares his memories of the inspiring author of a new memoir

By Anthony Breznican
Updated March 16, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The premise of the memoir House of Stone is intriguing enough: After more than a decade covering war and bloodshed in the Middle East, an American journalist with a crushed spirit returns to his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in Lebanon, hoping to rebuild both. But I’d be lying to say it was the only reason I preordered the book a few months ago. The author had been a friend and mentor. We’d lost touch, but something he said has never left me: ”The trick is to always come back with a story.”

This was Anthony Shadid circa 1999, when he was the Los Angeles news editor of the Associated Press and a former Cairo-based reporter, offering advice to a young reporter — me, a nobody, a clerk eager to replace fewer printer cartridges and write more articles.

An assignment I’d been given didn’t pan out as expected, but in my zeal for a byline I’d written up what I could. As an editor with space to fill, Shadid was pleased. He knew that if you looked hard and thought around the edges, a reporter could always find something worth writing about.

Implicit in Shadid’s advice to ”always come back with a story,” of course, was the idea that you would always come back. In his case, that turned out not to be true.

Shadid left the AP to write for The Boston Globe, then The Washington Post, and finally The New York Times, returning to the Middle East again and again over the coming decade and winning two Pulitzers for his work. He went to the deadliest war-torn regions and wrote about the people who suffered the worst. He was threatened, shot, beaten, and held captive, but his life was ultimately taken by an apparent asthma attack on Feb. 16 after he smuggled himself into Syria to cover an uprising. Shadid was only 43, leaving behind a wife, two young children, and a too-short lifetime full of friends and readers who will mourn and miss him.

Part of what made him an extraordinary reporter was his intense and cheerful curiosity. He knew how to make the differences between people feel like a kind of bond instead of an obstacle. How else could a Christian-born Lebanese-American dentist’s son from Oklahoma City connect on such an intimate level with Turkish foreign ministers, Afghan tribesmen, frightened Iraqi citizens, and Libyan resistance fighters — all of whom told him their stories?

Shadid was charmed by idiosyncrasy, and not awed by power. He disdained those in our profession who use their status to belittle others, telling me once about an esteemed senior journalist who briefly visited Cairo and treated him like an errand boy. As a clerk, I really was the errand boy, but he treated me like a reporter. Thanks to him, I became a better one.

When I preordered House of Stone, I imagined a chance to reconnect, maybe at a book signing, just to say hello — and thank you. I wish now I hadn’t waited. Others knew him better, and knew him longer. I was proud to know him at all. Though Anthony Shadid won’t be coming back, House of Stone still delivers one more story. No one wanted it this way, but he saved his own for last.