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Longtime IRE mentor dies after short illness

Tom Torok, 73, a lifelong journalist and a respected mentor to many long-time members of Investigative Reporters & Editors, died March 6, 2022, at Virtua/Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, after a short illness. 

    A retired New York Times projects editor, Torok created and managed the paper’s data journalism team, which helped the paper win eight Pulitzer Prizes during his 13-year tenure.

    Earlier, he was a columnist and reporter for 18 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was part of four teams that were Pulitzer-Prize finalists, three for the Public Service award, the Pulitzer’s highest honor.

    He also served in various capacities at five other daily newspapers.

    A pioneer in making databases available for Web-based searching by anyone in the newsroom, Torok for years was one of the most sought-out panelists at NICAR’s annual conferences. He worked with IRE member Derek Willis to open source a program he called “shboom” that, through a series of pulldowns and clicks, could make a database web-searchable quickly.

    “It's very difficult to overstate how much of an impression this made on us when we first saw it in action,” Willis tweeted after learning of Torok’s death.

   Torok later pioneered applications to turn free text into searchable data.

   He was an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for nine years and at Rowan University for three years. Most recently, he was an associate professor at American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he taught investigative reporting.

   He lectured at a number of US universities and colleges and to thousands of students and journalists in Eastern Europe and Siberia. He traveled and met with journalists regularly in Kyiv, and was a member of the supervisory board at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. In the weeks before his death, he spent time trying to help friends he met there.

   In one of his last Facebook posts, on Feb. 24, he wrote of his connections with Ukrainian journalists. “I hope in my small way I've imparted knowledge and motivation for them to continue to pursue and convey the truth.”

    He attended graduate school as a Danforth Fellow at the University of Colorado, where he gave up a free Ph.D. to pursue a career in journalism, a decision he said he never regretted. He graduated from Florida State University, summa cum laude with honors, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Psi Chi. 

    An airman with the US Air Force from 1966 to 1970, Torok served in Texas, Colorado, Florida, South Korea and Japan. He was the first person in the Air Force to max a proficiency test on the weapons system for the F4 Phantom fighter jet.

    He graduated (just barely, he said) in 1966 from Carteret High School in Carteret, NJ, where he held and may still hold the record for riding in a commercial clothes dryer.

    Since retiring, he was an usher for the now-defunct Camden Riversharks, a minor-league baseball team; a docent for the National Constitution Center, a guide for the Independence National Historical Park; and, most recently, a docent for the Mutter Museum. There, he enjoyed greeting guests with a smile and a wink and whispering: "I see dead people."

    He is survived by his wife Cecelia Lentini Torok; a daughter, Elena Torok of Dallas; a son, Stephen Torok (Sarah Taylor) of Manhattan; a sister, Arlene Geise, of Miami; nieces and a nephew; and a former wife, Lena Maria Cooper, of Fletcher, NC.

   Relatives and friends are invited to gather on Saturday, March 12, 2022 from 1-3 PM at the Falco/Caruso & Leonard Pennsauken Funeral Home, 6600 N. Browning Road, Pennsauken, N.J., where a memorial service will be held at 3 PM.  Interment will be private.  

   In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to N-Ost, a non-profit investigative journalism organization working in support of their colleagues in Ukraine. Please note in the comments section that your donation is in memory of Tom Torok.

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