Sunday, December 10, 2017

O, Captain, My Captain

When I was in college, it was my honor to study reporting under a professor who truly lived the adage that journalism is the first draft of history.

His name was Roy Reed, and he once worked for the New York Times; in fact, he was there when the landmark Times v. Sullivan decision was rendered, and he enthralled us in class with stories of that time. He also worked for the Arkansas Gazette before becoming a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas.

He was on the front lines of history in the 20th century.

He covered Orval Faubus at the Gazette. In the Times job he covered the civil rights movement in the South of the 1960s.

I will always remember the stories he told in class about covering marches that were led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and how he feared for his life when he and the rest of the reporters came under the hate–filled glares of the whites who watched the marches from the sidewalks of sleepy Southern towns.

The folks at the Times didn't think that was hazardous enough, I suppose, so they sent Roy to Northern Ireland to cover the Protestants and the Catholics.

After doing that for awhile, life in Fayetteville must have seemed positively placid by comparison. I never saw anyone as completely happy as Roy was when I was enrolled in his class. He had lived a life to which many — myself included — aspired, and he told us all about it — the good, the bad and the ugly. He was paying it forward, as they say today, sharing the things he had learned in a lifetime in the profession with the next generation.

He didn't give away A's in his class. You had to earn them. And it has always been a source of pride for me that I earned an A in Roy's reporting class. It isn't exactly the kind of thing you can put on a resume. But I'm proud of it, and I carry it with me.

Roy had an aneurysm yesterday and died at the age of 87.

As I understand the sequence of events, he lapsed into a coma on Saturday and was kept alive for a time, but life support was removed today and he passed away.

Roy's life was all about communication and information — so it was fitting that it was through social media, which didn't exist when I was in Roy's class but is the method for spreading information in the 21st century, that I learned of his death. There is a Facebook page where my friends and former colleagues post news of interest, and the tributes to Roy have been pouring in over there.

We all have our own memories of Roy. For me, there are too many to count, but one stands out. I was in his class in an election year, and he recruited several of us to do volunteer work at the county courthouse on Election Night. I suppose many, if not all, of us were motivated by the lure of extra credit, but I was genuinely interested in participating in the process on an Election Night — which, in those days, required us to spend most of the evening on the phone taking down vote totals from precincts by hand and passing along the totals to others, who would compile them. When all the precincts had been heard from, the numbers were passed on to the secretary of state's office in Little Rock.

After I graduated from college, I participated in similar work for newspapers on Election Nights to come. Whenever I did I always thought back to that night during my college days. Among other things I owe that to Roy.

He influenced so many of us — and he will never be forgotten.

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