A tweed fedora and a ready-for-anything smirk capture USF professor Reese Erlich’s essence well. Erlich, who started working at USF in the Fall of 2020, passed away April 6 from cancer. He was 73 years old.
Born in Los Angeles, Erlich was an award-winning international journalist whose career spanned more than 40 years. He was also a devoted progressive activist. Erlich published multiple books about U.S. foreign policy and history in the Middle East. His articles and features have been published in Vanity Fair, VICE, CBS News, The Guardian, The Nation, Foreign Policy, California Monthly, Mother Jones, and the Progressive, where he had a consistent column. Erlich was honored by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, won a Peabody Award — which recognizes excellent storytelling in journalism — and was a multiple-time recipient of grants from the Pulitzer Center. He also contributed to a Jazz podcast on JazzCorner.com.
Erlich graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, just across the Bay, but reported from around the globe throughout his career. The “categories” section of his website appears to be a list of country names that cover much of the Middle East and Latin America. Diammyra Cruz, a sophomore international studies major who took Erlich’s Global Media and Journalism course last fall, said his well-traveled nature meant he had a lot of stories to share.
“A lot of the time, university professors dedicate their lives to teaching and their respective area of research; but Professor Erlich had covered many issues all over the world,” she said in an email. “He’d sometimes share a story of Cuba, his protests to the Vietnam War, his time in Iran, and ultimately, his battle with cancer. Towards the very end of the class, he showed us his fedora collection.”
Fellow USF journalism professor Timothy Redmond knew Erlich well and worked with him at the newspaper he edits, 48Hills. “Erlich went — fearlessly — where the story was, risking arrest and even death to report the truth from places many journalists would never go,” Redmond said in an email. “And he always, always got his facts right. You could agree or disagree with his politics, but nobody could argue that he was anything but a world-class foreign correspondent.”
Erlich was widely known for his reporting on foreign policy issues, specifically in the Middle East. “Those of us who study the Middle East professionally recognized that Reese was one of the very best reporters out there,” wrote politics professor Stephen Zunes in an email. “Scholars who research those countries and U.S. policy towards the region will rely on his articles and programs to learn what transpired for many decades to come. Reese knew the politics, the culture, the history, and the major players. In covering conflicts throughout the Middle East, he was not easy on anyone, particularly the U.S. government.”
Zunes, who teaches in both the politics and international studies department said even before Erlich came to teach at USF, he had invited Erlich to speak in his classes for years.
Cruz said that as a professor, Erlich was not only highly knowledgeable, but firm and nurturing. “I don’t think I’ve had a professor give as much feedback as he did,” she said. “He genuinely wanted us to turn in the best version [of an assignment], and he understood all of us weren’t used to journalistic writing. Even if the learning curve was steep, he was with us every step of the way.”
Erlich published his final column for the Progressive March 26, just two weeks before his death, in which his well-loved tinge of sarcasm was present alongside his devotion to storytelling and education. He wrote, “I hope I’ve helped explain some complicated world issues you might not otherwise have understood. I hope the activism earlier in my life and my writing and speeches later have helped bring about progressive change.”
A virtual memorial service will be held for Erlich in the coming weeks, which you can sign up for here.
Mardy Harding is a senior international studies major and the Scene Editor at the Foghorn. She can be reached at email@example.com.