On Feb. 7, Professor Dave Hendrickson walked into the Introduction to International Relations class with a hop in his step and a giddy smile on his face. “Little Tommy Shanker is here,” he declared. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he welcomed Mr. Thom Shanker into the room and sat him down at the front of the class. “Let’s talk about Russia. Do you really think Russia swung the election? The Times certainly seems to think so, but seriously?” Shanker shifted in his seat before looking up with a wry smile. “We’ll get to that in a bit—hang in there David.” Hendrickson laughed and let him begin. The day was split into three sections: a class, a speech, and a dinner at Hendrickson’s home.
Thom Shanker ’78 is a New York Times editor with a calm disposition, a sharp wit, and remarkable humility. “I’m not smart,” he said in the beginning of the class. “I just worked hard and had access.” Though undoubtedly true that Shanker is a hard worker—he rarely works fewer than 12 hours a day—his achievements speak to his talent and luck as well. He is also quick to credit Colorado College for much of his success. Though his siblings graduated from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, his father likes to say that “he was the only one who got a good education.”
He helped contribute to the education of students in our class with some insight on the Trump administration and active commentary with the professor. They had great chemistry, often moving the class to laughter with stories and side-notes. Though Shanker tried to keep the commentary impartial, there were many loose moments of playful delight. At one point he caricatured President Trump himself while discussing the latter’s affinity for generals in cabinet positions, scrunching up his face and trying on an accent. Though, for the record, the New York Times is not politically aligned and “not pro-anyone but an educated population.”
Shanker wrote for The Catalyst as a student and found journalism appealing. After completing a major in political science, he moved back to his home state, Oklahoma, to work at the local paper. Without the wonders of the worldwide web, moving back and starting small seemed like the right thing to do. He doesn’t regret the decision at all. “I learned a lot working out of a local paper,” he said. “If you want to be a journalist, write. That’s what I did there.”
Writing for the Daily Oklahoman gave Shanker experience, taught him the ropes, and built his portfolio, but he didn’t stay small for long. While working towards a Master of Arts and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Shanker got a job offer he couldn’t refuse: he moved to Illinois to work for the Chicago Tribune, where he covered Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago. From there, he developed a knack for stumbling into the right place at the right time. He was sent to the Kremlin during the Gorbachev years, witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union, wrote on the Serbian War as it broke out, and was hired by the New York Times to cover the Pentagon again just before 9/11. Since then, he has spent three months per year in Afghanistan and Iraq covering the wars there beginning in the early 2000s. He claims the Block Plan was the perfect preparation for 30 years in and out of war-zones; intense focus on one subject is what journalists do.
In his formal talk, Shanker covered the inner-workings of the Kremlin and the White House, two buildings that have often been discussed together in the past year. The Trump presidency and Russian intervention thus were on the docket. Hendrickson was ready. “There is an organized plot underway to use cyber-warfare against our country,” he said as he began to shift in his chair. “The sanctity of U.S. elections are now suspect.” Hendrickson stood up and walked to the side of the stage. “We need to keep talking about Russia,” Shanker continued. Hendrickson ascended to the pulpit and addressed Shanker, who stepped slightly out of the way with a look that was both quizzical and amused. “Can I say something? Is this okay? You can’t honestly believe that,” Hendrickson interjected. The audience settled in for a lively debate that was well worth the interruption.
Just an hour later, we were all seated in Hendrickson’s wife’s office. Plates of Thai food sat in front of each person, and the air buzzed with conversation. Shanker was as interested in us as we were in him, so questions and answers zipped across the room. Hendrickson was in his natural element, skipping from group to group to check in and contribute his thoughts on each and every topic. The house was cozy; the food was good; and I couldn’t help but wonder at the beauty of the night. I smiled, biked back to the dorm, and slept soundly with the knowledge that this wouldn’t be the last time I had a day like this. As Shanker said before I walked out the door, “only at CC.”