Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks to Professor Bill Ward's Life Lessons in Journalism

Professor Ward
A couple of weeks ago, I found out through Facebook that my top professional mentor, Bill Ward, had died at the age of 85.

Since moving to Washington D.C. 15 years ago, I had known Professor Ward, the title all his students knew him by, had lived in nearby Reston, Virginia since his retirement from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. And I had always regretted not somehow reuniting with him out here on the East Coast.

At least we followed each other online and he occasionally sent me his latest compilations of poetry through the mail. I've always sensed that SIUE was one of the hidden-gem journalism schools in the country and, because of Professor Ward and Nora Baker, who also died this year, the nowhere school of very little acclaim was the source behind dozens or hundreds of the country's best and most driven and successful journalists, PR pros, and law professors who studied under Ward and Baker.

Bill Plaschke
Bill Plaschke, an L.A. Times sportswriter who Professor Ward often referenced in my classes and was one of Ward's most acclaimed students, wrote a captivating eulogy this Thanksgiving to Professor Ward. Here are the parts of his article that seem equally like snippets of my undergrad life back in those hallowed SIUE journalism halls:

  • I was wandering the empty halls of SIUE, a state college in a swatch of pastures and woods down the highway from my parents' home. I walked into that cluttered closet [Ward's office] to announce my presence. That's where I first saw him, a middle-aged man who appeared to be a combination of Albert Einstein and Mr. Peabody, piles of frizzy white hair atop black horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in mounds of corduroy and surrounded by piles of newspapers. His name was Bill Ward.
  • Professor Ward had created an environment where everyone would be given a fair chance, where even the worst of budding journalists would be evaluated with no judgment, no bias, and best of all, no ceilings. Professor Ward's first lesson was that it was OK to dream. And then he taught me to write. Those human interest stories that appear in this space often enough to make hardcore sports fans shudder ... blame Professor Ward. He insisted sports was never really about sports, but about the people who played them. "The best thing about sports is its humanity," he would say. "Write the humanity."
  • Those short sentences and paragraphs in this column that drive everyone nuts ... Professor Ward again. He taught me to write as if I were having a conversation with readers around a campfire, nudging, explaining, infuriating, using my words to make them laugh or cry or think. "Write like you talk," he would say, and by now most folks know I talk fast and in spurts.
  • Professor Ward taught those lessons to a generation of budding SIUE journalists with a loud snort and an iron fist. He was my toughest editor. He was my harshest reader. He ran our small and obscure department as if it were a daily newspaper. If your copy was filled with typos or misspellings, you flunked the assignment. If you missed any deadline, you flunked the project.
  • I don't think I ever received an A. I don't think I ever even received an attaboy. Professor Ward had so much faith in me, in everybody, that we could never be good enough to justify it. I thought my sights were set impossibly high. He set them higher. Show up earlier than everyone. Stay later. Work harder.
  • From that cubbyhole he built one of the nation's top journalism programs. Our funny four-letter school would regularly beat the likes of Missouri and Northwestern in college writing competitions. They would enter stories about big-time college athletics, and we would enter a Keith Schopp story about a morbidly obese failed college wrestler that began, "The big man laughs."
  • It turned out I was not the best writer to study journalism at SIUE under Professor Ward. I'm not even the best Los Angeles Times writer to come out of his program. That would be our investigative reporter Paige St. John, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who would often sneak into a closed mass communications building and spend all night finishing her projects. "I sense I have not yet fulfilled his aspirations for me," she said this week.
I imagine that all of Professor Ward's students feel equally that they have not yet fulfilled his aspirations for us.

Paul McCartney On the Run in the 1970s

In the introduction to a new biography of Paul McCartney's surprisingly under-reported 1970s era, author Tom Doyle discovers a very human side to a person oft-perceived only as an international and almost beyond-human treasure.

"Between 1969 and 1981, McCartney was a man on the run - from his recent past as a Beatle, from his horrendous split with his bandmates, from the towering expectation that surrounded his every move. Behind his lasting image during that period as a Bambi-eyed soft-rock balladeer, he was actually a far more counterculturally leaning individual (albeit one overshadowed by the light-sucking John Lennon) than he was ever given credit for - freewheeling in his hippified way, taking to the road with "a bunch of nutters" for an impromptu, disorganized university tour with the proto-Wings, viewing the world through perma-stoned eyes, and defiantly continuing to flip off the authorities the world over who sought to criminalize him, all the while adopting a shrugging, amused attitude to it all."

Here are some other nuggets from the opening of Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s that have my mouth watering to get back to the rest of the book soon.

  • As 9/11 unfolded, McCartney was parked on the runway of JFK Airport in a commercial jet that was suddenly going nowhere.
  • He can't really use an iPod because the headphone system of listening to music reminds him too much of working in the studio.
  • He has his misgivings about reporters, which isn't surprising given all his years spent in the tabloids. "But they're not bastards, they're lovable rogues. They're just not as lovable as they used to be," he says.
  • He once hit a photographer, but it luckily didn't get reported. "I think he thought he deserved it."
  • "His eccentricity often gets lost behind his deceptive facade of straightness," Doyle writes.
  • In the late 60s, he thought about recording an album called Paul McCartney Goes Too Far, but he never did. "I was such a daring young thing. We were on this wacky adventure," he said.

Gone Girl Can't Help But Be Good in Movie Form

I wonder what the people in the theater who hadn't already read Gone Girl thought of the movie.

I loved the book as an enjoyable page-turner, and I enjoyed the movie as well. But it followed the book almost exactly, so all the Hitchcockian suspense was a little ruined by my prior knowledge of what was coming next.

Leaving that behind, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike turn in really good performances as a fairly unlikeable man and his disappeared wife. Especially Pike, whose deep-throated blonde-bombshell performance clearly echoes and pays homage to the great Alfred Hitchcock leading ladies Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and Tippi Hedren.

David Fincher certainly doesn't hurt his already impressive resume of film direction, which includes Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

That said, Gone Girl was such a great book that it was a bit of a softball of an easy home run to turn into a movie.

**** out of ***** stars