Those who knew Alvin Bessent remember him above all for two particular qualities: a keen intelligence and a curiosity for the world.
His education spanned medicine, law and journalism, and his reporting was based on meticulous research, much like the “well-formulated” editorials he wrote for Newsday when he moved to the Opinion section during a 29-year career at the newspaper.
But he was also just a really nice guy, nice and ruthlessly polite, friends and former colleagues said on Tuesday.
“Alvin was a gentleman” and a “philosophical thinker,” said Monte Young, Newsday’s associate editor for multimedia editorial.
Bessent, 73, died Monday of complications from treatment for prostate cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, his wife, Valerie Graves Bessent of New York, said.
“He passed by very peacefully,” she said of her 41-year-old husband, calling him “this handsome, curious man.”
Graves Bessent added: “Alvin was curious and unapologetic about what interested him. It could be anything: government – he would separate budgets in Albany. I think he read the law on affordable care, for example. I think it’s a couple thousand pages. That was him.
Alvin Bessent grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the son of Thomas Bessent and Elora Bessent, who predeceased him. He attended local public schools, where he met his future wife.
“We went to middle school and high school together,” Graves Bessent said, recalling those days at Jefferson Junior High School and Pontiac Central High School. “Alvin has always been an exemplary student.”
Alvin Bessent earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, where he became a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1982.
He was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University from 1997 to 1998. The fellowship, awarded to working journalists, aims to “help these journalism leaders succeed as effective agents of change, improve access to the information people need to create and maintain democratic communities”. “, says the university’s website.
Bessent also studied for a year at Howard University School of Medicine. But his wife said he discovered ‘it wasn’t really what he wanted to do for the rest of his life’. He went to law school briefly, but when he got accepted to Columbia, “he decided that journalism was it,” she said.
Graves Bessent said her husband “believed in educating people as much as he could by giving them quality information”. At Newsday, “he did a lot of court reporting. The treatment of minority people by the justice system was an area that really interested him,” she said. And when he moved from Newsday’s reporting side to the editorial page section, his focus “expanded into politics and government.”
Alvin Bessent joined Newsday in 1985. Joye Brown, now a columnist and associate editor of Newsday, remembers recommending his hiring as a reporter for Hempstead Town when she was editor of Nassau County. “Alvin went to medical school [and] law school,” Brown said. “He brought his genius to this rhythm of the city. He kept working it when he hit the court beat… No matter what he did, he brought his intelligence to it. He could turn any topic upside down.”
Beyond all that, Brown said, “he was a gentleman” and “a basketball maniac.”
James Klurfeld, former editor of Newsday’s editorial page, said Bessent presented his views “in a non-confrontational way. He was very forceful about what it was to be black and why we should lend it He was very logical. He had his facts. He wasn’t emotional about things. He was just a great person to have as a colleague. He was also caring and prepared.
Rita Ciolli, who succeeded Klurfeld as editorial page editor, said Bessent “has always been a voice of reason for us.” She said he was “ready to look at things 360 degrees” because he took other perspectives. “He was also a fine writer. His points – he could present them clearly and they were always well stated.”
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies and former Newsday columnist, said of Bessent: “He was thoughtful in putting together his arguments and in the kind of questions he asked that made you rethink where you came from.”
Levy added, “He was a great person in every way.”
In addition to his wife, survivors of Alvin Bessent include his sisters Thomasina Ellis of the Chicago area and Lorene Phillips of Pontiac, Michigan; one son-in-law, Brian Graves of Pontiac; and a grandson, Brian Graves II. He was predeceased by sisters Wilhelmina Hines, Catherine Graves and Sandra Burris.
Graves Bessent said funeral arrangements were incomplete but a service would be held in New York at a later date. Alvin Bessent will be buried in the cemetery of the church his family founded in Waynesboro, Georgia, she said.