"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding watercolor, metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Speaking of Geezers

 “Latch on to the old geezers and sop up all you can from them.”
That’s my advice to my journalism students, and anyone else for that matter.
I’ve been fortunate to count five special people who had huge influences on my life and career as a teacher and journalist. What they had in common was a passion for their work, an interest in hard-working younger people, huge amounts of experience in their fields, a desire to keep learning with an eye on the future and change, and no sense of being old.
Every field of work and living has people like these, and I know you can think of some: a seamstress, a cook, an auto mechanic, a mother, a cattleman, a store owner, a piano player, a school teacher. Just by being around them you’d learn about their craft. They would take you under their wings and guide you with wisdom and experience; but they had enough confidence in you to let you try and fail until you found your own wings.
Mentor’s a big buzz word in education right now, but long ago I figured out if I really wanted to learn my craft, I would find these people and “sit at their feet,” as they used to say. But with my mentors, sitting was the last thing you could do--they were busy.

"Latch on to the old geezers..." 
My last mentor, Harry Heath of OSU, the dean of Oklahoma journalism, forgot more about journalism than I know. He was the embodiment of the journalist-scholar, with extensive experience in media, and a scholarly attitude to boot. Always thirsty for knowledge, he never quit writing; retirement was not in his vocabulary. From him I learned to love Oklahoma journalism and journalists.
    Before him was my partner in publishing, Donald J. Morrison of the Waurika News-Democrat. He was committed to his town and family newspaper in a way best described as “from the old school.” From him I learned that small weekly newspapers can accomplish great things--like The Corps of Engineers’ Waurika Lake. He gave up a plush public relations job to come back to the small town and run the family paper. He didn’t make as much, but he could say, “I’m my own man.” 
    Callaway Buckley, executive editor of the Duncan (OK) Banner, could chew you out and 15 minutes later praise you, because he was a stickler for serious work. From Cal, a consummate newsman, I learned a passion for timely, accurate news coverage.
Henry Africa didn’t have a degree but was in charge of the University of Iowa Linotype school, a field obsolete even in the early 1960s. Henry knew the past and future--teaching me--a graduate student--more about the entire process of journalism than anyone. I learned not to be wedded to technology--that technology always changes, and content is most important. Do things the right way, and learn to adapt.
Terrence Miller Clark, father and artist. He taught me to see beauty, and to apply its principles in everything I work at. He also , by osmosis really--by being around art and always trying to draw something, prepared me for my current passion, watercolor painting.
They’re all dead, but live on in the lives of others. I’m fortunate to be a disciple of these men. It’s sort of sad to think that I’m getting too old to have any more mentors--the years just sort of slipped by. I keep thinking that some day I’ll be described as such by some students, and, after 20 years in the business and 25 in college teaching, I guess  I am  getting to be an old geezer myself. One  former student already saucily addresses me as, "Hey Geezer."
Despite the fancy talk about mentors these days, there isn’t much practical instruction out there for journalism students or journalists. A tragedy in many newsrooms with high turnover  and staff cutbacks and "early retirements " is that there are few long-term news people with enough crust to help out new reporters. The same is true in higher education, or any field.

"You need 'new blood,' but  'old blood' too."

In every organization  and endeavor , you need new blood, but you need old blood too. Everybody  desperately needs old geezers with rich memories to pass on the wisdom and experience not found in books or employee manuals.
As I look out over the students this semester, I’ll tell them, if they want to be a success, they need to latch onto the old geezers--the more wrinkles they have, the more stories they can tell, the more experience and wisdom they have--they’ve traveled enough miles to become interesting.
I hope they’ll take that advice from this old geezer.

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