1. From student to reporter
When I graduated from college, my goal was to be a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in five years. I never made it. But in a triumph of life’s unpredictability over human aspiration, I am glad my plans went awry.
I entered Eastern Illinois University in the fall of 1975 certain I had picked a good major, computer science. This was before we knew that a computer could be “personal.” I learned how to run the university’s computer system so well I did it for four days alone in the spring. I was far enough ahead in Fortran, an early programming language, that the professor sometimes called on me in class to suggest a solution to a problem, though I was a lowly freshman.
In October 1975, the rock group Chicago came to Eastern. This was my first rock concert and Chicago was a favorite group. When the student newspaper published a review that had several of the songs wrong and spent too much attention on the new stage, I wrote an angry letter to the editor. One of my co-workers in the university computer center saw it and gently asked if I could do better. Yes, I asserted. Then why don’t you go write for them, he suggested.
Thus a newspaper error and a peer’s challenge sent me to the college newspaper the following January, offering to write reviews. Fine, they said, but first you’ll need to learn how to report and write basic stories. I wrote several in the spring of my freshman year.
But writing was a hobby. My focus was computer programming. And by the end of my freshman year, I had determined that I would transfer after my sophomore year to the University of Illinois, where the transistor was invented and my high school friend Tim Herrick was a student.
In the summer of 1976, a letter arrived from the person who would be the student newspaper editor in chief in the fall, Barry Smith, offering me the position of government staff editor. I thought he had confused me with someone else or else he didn’t know I wasn’t a journalism major and was planning to transfer after a year. When he persisted, I figured the experience would look good on the resume.
That fall, I didn’t know what a headline or a cutline was. About all I had were the grammar skills instilled by my middle school English teachers and curiosity. What I didn’t know was that I also had Reed.
John David Reed was a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who had come to Eastern’s fledgling journalism department to shape young minds. He was the student newspaper adviser, and he lived it. He critiqued the paper every day and returned after supper five nights a week to help us “paste up” the paper and coach us in the fine points of journalism. His passion was infectious. I abandoned plans to transfer, changed my major and became a journalist.
2. From reporter to editor
I was fortunate to get a good job right out of college as a regional reporter based out of my home for the state capitol daily in Illinois, the Springfield State Journal-Register.
After a year, in 1980, I went to the Decatur Herald & Review to run its first bureau, this time running an office 25 miles north, in Clinton. One of the office clerks was convinced I needed to meet a young woman from her church who shared my interest in guitars. I met Julie on her doorstep. Nine months later we were married, in 1983. I quickly became the adopted father for her son, Stephen, who was nine months old when we met. Another nine months after the wedding, Nathan came along, in March 1984. So in 18 months, I went from foot-loose and fancy-free to being married and the father of two sons.
Being in a family way increases the need for income and concern about living quarters, so I took a job as an assistant city editor working nights in the home office in 1984. In 1986, we moved to La Crosse, Wis., where I became city editor of the Tribune so I could work days and see Stephen once he started kindergarten. I didn’t make enough to afford to buy a house, so three years later, at the ripe old age of 31, I became editor of the Gazette-Times in Corvallis, Ore.
In Corvallis, we welcomed twins Kyle and Megan, born May 1991. That made our three-bedroom house too small, so in 1994 I accepted the corporation’s request that I move to Butte to edit the Montana Standard. A year later I also became the publisher, a post I held for three years until leaving the company.
In 1998, we traded the Rockies for the Pacific Northwest, becoming editor of the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, Wash. I thoroughly enjoyed working for a family-run newspaper and the staff was superb. We had a nice home with great neighbors, many friends and a climate to practice landscaping.
But I was growing restless. This was the third newspaper I had served as editor in chief. I was approaching middle age and restless. What’s next?
3. From editor to student
At the invitation of a retired journalist friend who lived in the Skagit Valley, I applied for three university-based, nine-month, mid-career journalism fellowships designed to recharge the batteries. I did not get a fellowship but the process forced me to think about what classes I would audit and what my academic focus would be.
More important, when I searched for other fellowships, I found one designed to attract mid-career journalists to pursue a doctorate at the University of Maryland. Could teaching serve as a second career? After consulting people I knew in academia, weighing options -- and, as I had done 25 years earlier, visiting the University of Maryland as a prospective student -- Julie and I decided to take the plunge.
The previous sentence compresses into too few words the difficulty of the decision and the amazing support Julie has provided. I was asking her and the twins (the older boys stayed behind) to uproot everything they knew, move 3,000 miles away to a metropolitan area for three years (if I was lucky) and then move again, because universities avoid hiring their graduates. But they were remarkably accommodating.
The frontrunner was Maryland because it offered what other leading contenders like Chapel Hill and Austin could not: the benefit of exposing the twins, who would be entering seventh grade, a chance to take a three-year field trip to the nation’s capital. We explored the major museums and watched Congress in action. I even took the twins out of school one day to hear oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Maryland also offered proximity to one of the country’s elite newspapers, the Washington Post. I started working for the Post during my first summer and worked part-time for two years as a copy editor on the financial desk. Editing section-front and front-page Sunday stories offered a nice coda to the professional career.
Though Maryland’s journalism doctoral program was small, it offered several outstanding professors and allowed me to work for the incomparable Gene Roberts. I also benefitted enormously from three doctoral seminars I took in the business school, which offered a theoretical foundation for my dissertation -- and more important, socialized me in quantitative research. That exposure helped me complete my doctorate in three years.
4. From student to professor
Communigator photo, by Jason Henry
I had gone to Maryland to teach but came to appreciate research. So when the time came in my dissertation year to apply for jobs, I sought out research institutions -- the gold standard, if you will, for academia, for they require excellence in both teaching and research. Of those, the University of Florida looked the most promising and I gladly accepted an appointment in the fall of 2007 as a start-from-scratch assistant professor.
Florida offers great students and some excellent faculty role models in graduate mentoring, teaching and research. In the 2009-10 year, my third, at Florida, I was fortunate to be named the college’s teacher of the year -- and surprised to be chosen as the UF university-wide teacher of the year.
I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by terrific teachers, expert researchers and wonderful students. I am a lucky guy.