By Chuck Wasserstrom
Davan Maharaj was not your typical UTC undergraduate.
Perhaps it was because he was from Trinidad … and had a Caribbean accent … with an even more interesting name (pronounced DAY vahn MA ha rahj).
Maybe it was because he already had lived life a little bit and had a successful career prior to arriving in Chattanooga – having spent time as an award-winning reporter before acquiescing to his mother’s wish to earn his college degree.
Certainly, he knew exactly what he needed to do – which was to add an education to his journalism expertise in order to devote his professional career to “doing good and making a difference.”
Meet Davan Maharaj, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the 2016 UTC Distinguished Alumnus Award honoree.
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Maharaj’s journey from Caribbean reporter to intern-to-publisher of the L.A. Times had a fascinating little four-year stopover on the UTC campus.
“The short story,” said Maharaj (BS, Political Science, 1989), “is one of my uncles worked for the DuPont Company – and I was actually going to go to school in Pennsylvania because he was headquartered in Delaware. But he moved (to Tennessee), and I applied to UTC. I was an older student. I had already worked for five years for a newspaper in the Caribbean called the Trinidad Express. I covered basically everything in Trinidad, from cops to investigative reporting. But I didn’t have a college degree.”
His mother, Dolly, made it known early on that she expected Davan and his three siblings to get a college education. Go ahead … get your life started … but you won’t go places without that degree.
“My mom was very interested in all of her kids getting a college education. And all of my siblings had a college degree except me,” he said. “But I was having the most fun, by the way. It’s been said that the one thing they don’t tell you about journalism is a secret … that it’s a lot of fun. It’s a passport into people’s lives.”
Maharaj used his time at UTC to get to know people and to learn their stories. He would go to a different church in Chattanooga every Sunday. He said it gave him a window into the city and into how people lived. He got to see a lot of different things and meet a lot of interesting people. It was the right place because there were no distractions.
“The time I was there was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a hodgepodge of very eclectic people pursuing different intellectual interests. Like my poet friend Khaled Mattawa, who is now a professor of literature. There was John Meeks, who became a teacher of religious studies. There’s a lawyer in town named Bob Meeks – same last name, no relation – who was from Mississippi. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist. We found each other interesting. There were so many others. The one thing that I learned is not to judge people. Accept people for who they are. Everyone has an interesting story.
“Chattanooga was a godsend because it was a place that was welcoming and a place where we could remake ourselves by absorbing this really special education that we got there. To me, it also meant becoming part of a community in Tennessee and part of an international community. At that time, they were recruiting people from around the globe. People from around the world were finding their way to Chattanooga. It meant meeting adult students – people who were coming back to school and were extremely fascinating. It also meant opening up my world. I had engaging sessions with professors and classmates. It was a lot of fun. I’ve said this in a speech before … I really can’t find a time where I had a negative experience at UTC. I’m not blocking anything. I don’t think there were any.”
And UTC, to Maharaj, meant learning and discovery. It meant “meeting people who are extremely generous teachers, and people who are intellectually rigorous.”
When asked about having a favorite professor, he said it was hard to single one out. But “Jim Ward really challenged me. Not just with the material – but he was an excellent writer. While teaching history, he would talk about writing, and I absorbed a lot of that. It made me just think about how important professors and teachers are, because sometimes the best students in the class hang on your every word. With Professor Ward, I used a lot of his critiques and observations about writing in my own writing. So he would be one who stood out. I learned a lot about questioning history and about writing history and how history is written and about deconstructing it.”
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Although he arrived in Chattanooga having been a reporter in the Caribbean, it was during his time at UTC where Maharaj really crafted and refined his journalism career. He had professors who challenged him and classmates who bonded with him – including some unique individuals on The Student Echo newspaper staff.
“He was really somebody you could see would be a mentor, especially as far as reporting and writing went,” said Chris Gilligan (BA, Humanities, 1989), an Echo colleague who is now UTC University Relations’ web development specialist. “Although he was one of the outstanding (communications) students at the time, he didn’t have much of an ego. He was really willing to help people and direct people in terms of getting the story and getting things right. Although he had a bit more reporting experience than most of us did, he wasn’t snobbish about it.
“He was a pretty serious student – more so than a lot of us – and a lot more professional and focused on his career than some of us were. He was also a really friendly and fun-loving guy with a great sense of humor. He was a whole lot of fun to work with. Putting out a college newspaper is pretty serious business for early twentysomethings who don’t have a whole lot of work background. You really get to know people – and the group of editors especially got to know each other pretty well. He was just a really fun guy to work with and great as far as being an excellent writer. And he had an understanding of what it took to get a story and publish a story.”
His editor-in-chief at The Echo, Khaled Mattawa, called Maharaj wonderful in that he completely understood what it was like to be on his own culturally.
“What connected us were the things that were not part of our education – the authors we liked … the ideas that we found exciting … the political views we were exploring,” said Mattawa (BA, Political Science, 1989), now an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. “We had a lot in common – other than the fact that he was a serious student and I was an unpredictable one. We were serious about ideas, and we both had a mischievous sense of fun.
“One thing I should say about Davan is that – as capable as he was when we worked with him … he never ever … not once … did he show off or claim the authority that was due his experience. We felt confidence in him by virtue of his skills and his camaraderie and patience. He never said, ‘This is how it must be … or this is how it is … or you guys don't know a thing about journalism and I'm the expert.’ All of those things were true, but he never said them or even implied them. He also could have written many articles for The Echo, or published his course pieces for it. He never did that. He allowed his fellow students to do the work and edited the pieces – which may have been good training for him. He was just a great benign force of support and expertise.”
During his second year as The Echo’s editor-in-chief, Mattawa brought in his good friend as managing editor. The results were immediately noticeable.
“We used to finish the weekly issue at 5 a.m. on Thursday,” he recalled. “When Davan took over as managing editor, we finished the issue at 11 p.m. – with plenty of time to grab some beer and nachos at the Pickle Barrel.”
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They met in a Faulkner class.
Right from the beginning, Maharaj was smitten with Abby Harris. The first time Davan met Abby, “I knew that there was something about her. We would talk – and I had a secret crush on her.”
Davan and Abby actually first met in 1985 – the year they started at UTC. They both ate lunch at the Christian Student Center, where church ladies would bring in home-cooked dishes.
“We would chat a little. He would tell me about things like his working as a journalist in Trinidad and publications he respected, like the Christian Science Monitor. He even loaned me a Street Pulse cassette tape once,” said the future Abby Maharaj (BA, English & American Literature, 1989) – a native of nearby Jasper, TN. “He seemed reserved, intellectual, and extremely polite and well spoken.”
They only crossed paths a few times over the next couple of years before they both wound up in Professor Arlie Heron’s Faulkner class.
“We both liked Faulkner’s writing and especially liked Heron’s style of lecturing,” Abby said. “(Davan) always had great comments to contribute in class. I was impressed at his intelligence and his observations about the material we were studying. We ended up attending the same study group sessions, where we learned we had several mutual friends. And a couple of good friends of mine from that group spoke highly of him. I could see he was a good person.
“For our first date, he invited me to Grote Hall to see a foreign film. That became one of our favorite things to do. We saw each other nearly every day after that. I would hang out in the offices of The Echo.”
They started dating eight months before he left Chattanooga to begin a summer internship with the L.A. Times in 1989.
“In my first year, I went back several times to see her,” he said. “Travel wasn’t easy 27 years ago. You had to fly from (Los Angeles) to Detroit to North Carolina to Atlanta – and then drive to Tennessee. So she eventually came out here. We came back a couple years later and got married on campus.”
Davan and Abby have two children and try to make annual pilgrimages back to Tennessee. Abby’s mother, Wanda, recently retired after a long nursing career. Two of her siblings still live in the area. Meanwhile, Davan’s sister, Elaine, is married to the former head of the UTC Political Science Department – Dr. Fouad Moughrabi.
“As a couple, UTC was a place we remember for the great faculty and for the interesting classmates we had,” Abby said. “And Chattanooga is such a great city that has it all … arts, culture, beautiful geography, rich history, and a strong sense of community.”
Abby was his secret crush in Chattanooga. Today, Davan calls Abby his hero.
“When I was a Times correspondent in Africa, she got sick. We lived in Nairobi. After stops in Africa and London, we ended up in Los Angeles – where she had a liver transplant. It was a pretty close call, and it has really given me a perspective on life. One, in terms of someone who has been through so much – this is why she’s my hero. She’s been through so much and has the most positive outlook on life. And two, it taught me to measure the little moments – like spending time with your family, or your loved ones, or your friends.”
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The UTC Distinguished Alumnus Award was established in 1969 by the UTC Alumni Council to recognize alumni who have made significant contributions to the community and society, and whose accomplishments and career activities have reflected glory on the university. Selection criteria for the award includes having a national or international reputation in his or her field; outstanding contribution to science, medicine, the arts or other fields; and selection for national or international awards.
As editor-in-chief and publisher of the Los Angeles Times Media Group, Maharaj oversees the largest daily newsgathering organization in the West. He added publisher to his title in March 2016 after having been named editor and executive vice president in 2011.
As a reporter, his six-part series “Living on Pennies” – in collaboration with L.A. Times photographer Francine Orr – won the 2005 Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Writing and inspired readers to donate tens of thousands of dollars to aid agencies working in Africa. His investigative report about a probate attorney who inherited millions of dollars in stock, land and other “gifts” from his clients led to changes in California probate law.
Maharaj was pleasantly surprised and humbled to learn of the award, according to his wife.
“It is a reminder that UTC was a great foundation for his future career in journalism and for life in general,” Abby Maharaj said. “His professors went above and beyond to do more than just lecture in the classroom. Davan was always the kind of person to check in with professors, sometimes just to say ‘Hi’ and see how they were doing, but also to discuss things they were learning from the class. I think the professors appreciated his taking the extra step to engage with them on this level. It is encouraging to see that UTC makes this effort to celebrate alums who apply what they learned here to their future careers, while never losing sight of that foundation.”
Mattawa said that selecting Maharaj was an overdue honor.
“Davan deserves this more than any other UTC alumnus I know. It's a great thing for the university to recognize him,” Mattawa said. “Choosing Davan for such an award shows that UTC is operating at a high national and international level when it comes to training leaders for the future.”
From Maharaj’s perspective, winning the 2016 Distinguished Alumnus Award put a marker on a very important period in his life – a period of discovery.
“Every time I go back, I try to recreate some of the pleasant experiences I had there,” he said. “(Winning the award) doesn’t change who I am or what I’m trying to achieve. What I’m trying to achieve is simple; by searching for truth, I’m bringing information to readers so we can all be better citizens. I try not to get too caught up in what my position is … I’m searching for truth and doing high quality journalism. I’m making a difference. Thirteen years ago, I was a correspondent in Africa – just trying to write good stories about people I cared about and people whose stories I was interested in telling.
“UTC opened up my world to a different culture. From the jobs I had on campus, working in the writing lab to a couple of other odd jobs, it was more about the vibe – a vibe that anything is possible. I always thought about doing the right thing in the moment and being righteous. That’s why I got into journalism. It’s about doing good and making a difference. It sounds trite, but it has the benefit of being both corny and true. My experience at UTC truly prepared me for that.”