Friday, July 23, 2010

Life Influences

In every life, I suppose, there is a point when someone influences that life and nudges it in the direction that ultimately will define it for good or ill.

Sometimes, people have several influences like that. I was one of those people. My mother really got the ball rolling, encouraging me to write from a young age. Her mother–in–law — who went to college at a time when that was not the sort of thing most young women did and had gone on to a career as an English teacher — reinforced the message.

There were certainly influences on me from outside the family. When I got to high school, I came under the influence of my journalism teacher, who took the rare step of keeping me on the newspaper staff for a second year even though her practice had been to do that only for those students she had chosen to be the editor of the paper.

The baton had been passed.

I was, thus, encouraged to pursue journalism in college, where I learned reporting from a man who built his reputation as a reporter for the New York Times and the paper where I later worked for nearly five years, the Arkansas Gazette. And, of course, in college, I learned about the great journalists who were before my time and whose influence can still be seen in professional newsgathering today, even though the tools that are used and the methods by which the news is delivered are far different from what they knew.

Then I entered the world of professional journalism and embarked on a path that eventually brought me back to the classroom, where I remained for four years. Then, for reasons I prefer not to discuss here, I gravitated in a different direction.

Life does that to you sometimes. Some people follow storybook career paths that seem to have been etched in stone from the moments of their birth. Others follow more fluid paths that twist and turn, perhaps taking them completely away from their original objectives.

"Some folks' lives roll easy," sang Paul Simon. "Some folks' lives never roll at all."

And some folks — like Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" — sorta get sidetracked.

I guess that's what happened to me. But I hope I'm moving in the right direction again. In precisely one month, I will start a new job as an adjunct (i.e., part time) journalism instructor at the local community college. I've been trying to prepare myself to enter a classroom for the first time in 14 years, and I'm already anticipating the many ways I could stumble.

But I'm also thinking of those who influenced me along the way and trying to remember the things they taught me. Because I want to be able to pass along to my students their desire to seek the truth, their commitment, their integrity.

If I can do that, then my efforts — and the efforts of all who influenced me — will not be in vain.

In my formative years, there were many influences I never met — Woodward and Bernstein, whose determined reporting reminded everyone how important the journalist's watchdog role is in a democracy; Walter Cronkite, who was probably more trusted than any man except maybe the pope; Mike Royko, a columnist whose writing I once compared to another great American journalist, Mark Twain, in a paper I wrote in college.

And a fellow named Daniel Schorr, who occupies a unique role in the story of the Watergate scandal.

In late June 1973, John Dean revealed in his Senate Watergate committee testimony the existence of Richard Nixon's infamous "enemies' list" — a list of prominent people from a variety of professions who were perceived as enemies by the Nixon White House.

Schorr, a protege of Edward R. Murrow, was a correspondent for CBS News in those days. The list had been submitted as evidence, but it had not been reviewed by anyone at CBS. Schorr was asked to read the list on the air and was startled to come across his own name at #17.

"I tried not to gulp," Schorr told PBS' Terence Smith, "I tried not to gasp. So I read on. Mary McGrory, Paul Newman, now back to you."

I always liked Dan Schorr. He was an unassuming sort, always aware of the important people and important events on which he reported (and his career spanned the second half of the 20th century) but seldom self–conscious. I remember reading a paperback copy of his book, "Clearing the Air," when I was in college.

It was one of the most inspiring books I've ever read.

So I was saddened when Schorr — who was about the same age as Cronkite, who died a little more than a year ago — died earlier today. He was 93, the victim of an unidentified illness.

I was sadder, though, to learn of the passing of another influence on my life, a fellow named Michael Gauldin.

I went to college with Mike. We worked on the school newspaper together at the University of Arkansas. I was assigned the student government beat when I was taking reporting, and the student paper picked up my articles. I wound up covering student government for Gauldin and the rest of the editorial staff for a couple of years.

I was acquainted with Mike, but I wouldn't say we were friends. We didn't go out for a beer together after exams or anything like that, but I learned a lot about dedication from his example.

And he had a lot of talent. Everyone saw that, I think — the journalism faculty, his classmates, everyone. Gauldin was a military journalist between his high school graduation and his enrollment in college, then he wrote and edited some after graduating and served as press secretary to Bill Clinton when he was governor, but I always felt cartooning was his true calling. He used it in many of his jobs. And he did so masterfully.

After I graduated from college (the year after Gauldin did, although he was several years older and had already married and begun his family by the time we met), I saw his cartoons in newspapers from time to time, and I remember clipping one that was always my favorite. It was drawn to mimic the old–fashioned "tale of the tape" boxing posters that showed both fighters in an upcoming bout with their height, weight, reach, etc., listed below their pictures. Above their pictures were their names and the nicknames by which they were known.

Bill Clinton was beaten for re–election while Gauldin and I were in college. In those days, Arkansas' governor was elected to two–year terms so Clinton ran again two years later and faced the man who had beaten him in the last election.

Both Gauldin and I had graduated from college by that time. I was working as a general assignment reporter. He was working as a reporter and, apparently, a freelance cartoonist as well. His cartoon presented that electoral battle as a boxing rematch, with Clinton's nickname "The Comeback Kid," neatly summarizing the entertainment angle of that campaign.

That was 10 years before Clinton claimed that the voters in New Hampshire had made him the Comeback Kid. And that cartoon remained on my refrigerator until I took a new job and left that apartment.

Anyway, Gauldin, too, passed away today. Apparently, he was a victim of cancer.

Next month, when I'm addressing my students, I hope I will be guided by the memory of these two dedicated journalists.

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