I am praying for him and I invite you to do the same. Or hold him in the light. Or hold him in your heart. I walked into his classroom a cocky, full-of-myself first-year college student and he immediately set out to teach me to reach my potential and then some. Anything I am or ever hope to be as a jouranlist, I owe to him.
Ten years ago, he had a retirement dinner I couldn’t attend, so I wrote the following: (It’s long and again, you’re under no obligation, but I want to give you a sense of the man):
The first thing out of the mouth of the best teacher ever was, “As I was saying, the last time we met . . .,” and my heart sank. I said nothing, and my classmates — most of them, like me, first-year college students in our first-ever college course — stayed tucked over their notebooks. Great, I thought. Somehow I screwed up and missed the first class.
I didn’t know at the time that was how the teacher began each semester, goofing on kids who took things too seriously. He then launched into a high-minded and animated lecture about the role of the press in America. He slammed the blackboard. He smacked the lectern. He held my attention as no teacher ever had.
And he scared the bejabbers out of me. I wanted so badly to be a real journalist, and this man could be the gate or the locked door to the only job I ever wanted.
His lectures were performance art. I found out much later, rather casually, that he practiced them at home and got nervous and sick over them. If he thought he was losing us, he got us in on the act. Once he had us chant “Time before date before place!” as a writing aid for the countless chicken-dinner stories we would be doing. “Again!” he shouted, and we chanted again, louder this time.
I learned to spell Pittsburgh, Pa., and Pittsburg, Kan. I learned that quotes are sacred gifts. I learned things that bug me still.
One day the teacher fixed me with pursed lips and a steely glare and asked, “Campbell (I had no first name with him), what is the purpose of a newspaper?” I answered something poetic, and he laughed and said, “The purpose of a newspaper is to make money. It’s a business, Campbell.”
I liked my answer better, but he was probably right. The best teacher ever did for us precisely what journalism is supposed to do for everyone: He comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.
That year, I moved into the college newspaper office with all the other would- bes. We put out a college paper for a dinky little school in southwest Missouri that was, for my friends, a monument to our own failure. If you had grades or money, you went to the University of Missouri, with its prestigious journalism school. If you had neither, you went to my college. The newspaper staff — a mix of boozers, losers and the occasional fundamentalist — shuffled into the office like this was fun’s last hurrah. We tucked our interviews and photography in between our paying jobs. We came in smelling like hamburger grease and stayed until the paper was done, while the best teacher ever swept through to tear up a page or goose a lead. I planned to give it two years and then transfer to M.U. — except after a few months at the college paper, I couldn’t transfer to M.U. because to do so would have meant crossing over to the enemy. We were defiant in our smallness, and hip for our era.
When the time came, I transferred to a college out east, and it is a mark of my teacher’s greatness that he never tried to convince me that southwest Missouri contained all the world I’d ever need.
Once I left, I didn’t stay in touch much, but a few years ago, I worked up my nerve and wrote him a thank-you. I don’t remember what I said, but I know it was mushier than anything I would have told him face-to-face. The response I got back was heartening. He’d been keeping up with me. That meant something, but it meant more that he called me by my first name.
No matter. It’s been 22 [now 32!] years since I sat chewing on my Bic, hoping he liked my writing; 22 years and six newspapers, and I’m still chanting, “Time before date before place” in my head when I type. The best teacher ever warned us that journalism would be tough. He warned us that we wouldn’t always like what we did, but do it we must, just as some people drink and others dance. He made it sound like a calling. He made it holy as he cuffed us for our impertinence.
Over the years, he also organized an impressively comprehensive international educational institute that sponsored scores of overseas trips for students, and he even brought a Nobel laureate to speak on that little campus. The same thing that moved me to leave — the bigger world out there — became the very thing that keeps promising students at that dinky little school. The best teacher ever brought them the world.
Tonight’s his retirement dinner, and I wish I were there. I want to stand with all of his other boozers and losers and occasional fundamentalists and shout, “Time before date before place!” We could say more, but why? The best teacher ever knows how we feel.