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.

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