I didn’t know Chris Allen LPS’13, the subject of this issue’s cover story, “A Death in South Sudan,” except through the article he wrote for us about his experiences in a conflict zone in Ukraine. Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes commissioned it, and worked on the edit with Allen, whom he had known as a childhood friend of his own sons. The piece—published under the title “With the Donbas Battalion” in our Nov|Dec 2014 issue—helped launch Allen on the freelance journalism career he was pursuing until he was killed a little more than a year ago covering a skirmish in the civil war in South Sudan.
Besides devastating his parents and brother, and the young woman with whom he’d fallen in love and who loved him, Allen’s death shook Sam and his family as well. With the Allens’ cooperation, and much additional reporting, he has crafted a story that traces Allen’s too-short, full life.
We see him as a curious, intense, occasionally reckless middle- and high-schooler; learn of his determination to attend Penn for college, which he managed to do through the College of Liberal and Professional Studies after being denied regular admission; and witness his developing career as a writer in love with distant places and turbulent environments, who risked his life to tell stories that honored the human complexity of lives lived in the world’s mostly ignored war zones.
The story also grapples honestly with the vexing question of whether the competitive pressures of his chosen field—the urge to make a name for himself—may have led him to put himself more at risk than was necessary to do his job. And it considers the vital service provided by journalists like Chris Allen who are still willing to bring stories of faraway conflict back to the rest of us at a time when major news outlets are less inclined to devote resources to that task.
Also in this issue, frequent contributor Dave Zeitlin C’03’s “Film for Social Change” reports on some hidden stories—close at hand and otherwise—being brought to light by Penn student filmmakers. These include a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and the Graduate School of Education centered in public high schools, a project spearheaded by the cinema studies program that has sent students to Kenya and Puerto Rico to make virtual reality (VR) films, and other efforts to encourage and support what John Jackson, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice and himself a groundbreaking anthropologist-filmmaker, calls “multi-modal” scholars.
And in “The Rigors of Success,” Julia Klein profiles Eva Moskowitz C’86, founder and CEO of the Success Academy charter schools network in New York. Moskowitz’s story isn’t exactly hidden—she seems right at home in the city’s brawling media spotlight—but Julia’s piece goes well beyond the headlines and talking points in the perennial charter vs. district school debate to offer an informative take, both skeptical and sympathetic, on Moskowitz herself, the success of Success, and what it means for K–12 public education overall.
Fond farewell. “A Death in South Sudan” is just the kind of thoughtfully constructed, powerfully realized story that Sam Hughes has been presenting in these pages for more than 27 years—and it also happens to be the last one he’ll publish here, at least as a staff member. Sam retired from the University in August, so this will be the final issue to include his name on the masthead, after some 178 previous outings (I counted) starting in May 1991, when my predecessor as Gazette editor, Anthony A. Lyle C’61, hired him as senior staff writer.
He has been a mainstay of the magazine ever since, writing with consummate skill and sensitivity about, well, pretty much everything to do with the University and Penn alumni—from creative artists like legendary producer-director Hal Prince C’48 Hon’71, to fascinating figures from Penn’s past like Thomas Evans (European royalty’s dentist of choice), faculty giants like Annenberg’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and tales of complex medical research on Alzheimer’s disease and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).
Along the way, he has won multiple awards for writing from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and other accolades, as well as contributing mightily as an editor, sounding board, friend, and mentor to the rest of the Gazette staff. We will miss him greatly, and wish him well.
—John Prendergast C’80