We’ve reached the season of commencement ceremonies, high school graduations, end-of-year awards banquets and last-day-of-school parties. As another exhausting academic year comes to a close, remember to thank your teachers.
I graduated from Troy University 30 years ago next month. Here’s a heartfelt note of appreciation to my primary journalism professor:
We arrived at Troy State University’s Hall School of Journalism at the same time in September of 1988.
Gordon “Mac” McKerral was an assistant professor of journalism, and I was a freshman journalism and political science major.
A cliched mix of hubris and insecurity, I resembled the stereotypical immature college freshman. Because I had worked at my hometown newspaper since the summer of 1987, recognized the MicroTek typesetting computer system the journalism department used to produce the student paper, knew a little Associated Press (AP) style, and had front-page stories with my byline, I believed I already knew a lot about journalism.
But I was also a college freshman. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was my first time out on my own, and though I lived in a dorm with 500 other guys, I suddenly had a level of self-determination and freedom I had never experienced. I wanted to be true to my faith, my upbringing, my values, and myself, but I also wanted to make friends, fit in, and achieve goals. I wanted to become the editor of the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, and I wanted to graduate with top honors. I had my eye set on landing a good job at a big paper, making a name for myself in the process. In contrast to my veneer of self confidence, I questioned my abilities and intelligence. I wondered if I had what it took to become a respected journalist.
Enter Mr. McKerral.
We first crossed paths in Reporting I the winter quarter of my freshman year. After only one quarter at Troy, Mr. McKerral had earned a reputation for being tough but fair, a good lecturer drawing on his varied real-life experiences and a challenging mentor who pushed students to achieve more than they thought they were capable of. As I had with every adult I had met since adolescence, I tried to win his approval, impressing him with my journalistic background and talent. I was the only freshman in the Reporting class that quarter, and Mr. McKerral seemed to cater to the upperclassmen, making jokes and building an easy rapport with them. I wasn’t offended. I vowed to earn his academic AND social affirmations.
Mr. McKerral’s curriculum for Reporting I included weekly quizzes on entries from the AP Stylebook. A firm believer that journalists should know the book inside and out, he gave us sections to study each week. After only a few weeks, he gave us the assignment of creating our own AP Stylebook quiz. His educational goal was for students to become familiar with the entries by drafting their own 10 questions. I scoured my Stylebook, building my quiz around the most obscure entries that no one would possibly know off the top of their head and would almost never use. To my horror, the next week Mr. McKerral passed out my assignment as the weekly quiz. He did not cover my name which appeared in the upper righthand corner. As we all struggled through the quiz, I heard grumbling around the room as my classmates cursed the sadistic questions. If I had been an anonymous freshman before that ended with the authorship of the impossible Stylebook quiz. My reputation plunged further the next day when Mr. McKerral handed back the graded quizzes while offering a derisive commentary to each student. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t have made it to Spring Break. Mocking everyone’s performance with a quip, Mr. McKerral saved my quiz for last. He relished pointing out my own poor performance to the class.
“As you all know, Young Wallace here wrote this quiz,” he said holding my paper aloft and fluttering his eyelids. “What you probably don’t know is that he missed three on his own test.”
Mr. McKerral’s laughter relieved the tension, and my classmates released their frustrations by following suit. Standing at the lectern with his foot propped on the base, he dismissed all of our fears with a wave of his hand. He declared the quiz would not count in the grade book, but it was by far the hardest Stylebook test he had ever seen. Though he prided himself on his Stylebook acumen, he confessed that even he had to look up many of the answers. He said he had to make us take that quiz on principle.
“Let that be a lesson for you: You can never know the AP Stylebook too well.”
I no longer had to wonder if I had captured his or my peers’ attention. From that moment on, I was the wunderkind, the Doogie Howser of Reporting, the freshman phenom, the journalism nerd.
Soon we moved on from AP Stylebook quizzes to actual writing assignments. Mr. McKerral served as our editor, treating the campus as our coverage area. He assigned stories that required us to contact administrators, faculty, staff and students for interviews, and in some cases, dig up information from public records or the library. Each week, Mr. McKerral handed out the juiciest stories to my classmates and stuck me with the most mundane topics. After several weeks, I worked up the courage to confront Mr. McKerral during his office hours.
“You’ve written plenty of those kinds of stories before,” he said about the more exciting topics given to my classmates. “If you are going to improve and grow as a reporter, you’ve got to learn to make something out of these stories that don’t have much appeal on the surface.”
He could have told me that up front, but Mr. McKerral understood that I would learn better if I grappled with it on my own. He was right, and I attacked each subsequent story with vigor, embracing the challenge, determined to draw readers in with my writing. I didn’t always succeed, but the struggle made me better.
At the end of the spring quarter, I applied for the vacant editor position of the student newspaper, “The Tropolitan.” Mr. McKerral served as the Trop’s adviser and was a member of the search committee. It was rare for a sophomore to be named editor, and the committee looked for evidence that I could handle the responsibility. My resume and reporting experience spoke for itself. What they needed to see in the interviews was how I handled pressure and conflict. Other than being asked arcane grammar questions and probing about my experiences at The Daily Highlander, the committee didn’t focus on journalistic skills as much as I anticipated. Led by a cross examination from Mr. McKerral, I left the interview having learned more about myself than the committee learned about me.
I don’t remember who else competed for the position, but I got the job, which I would hold for two years. This journalism lab exposed me to such challenges as deciding when to run and when to hold a story, getting the paper to the printer on time, how to handle corrections and managing a staff. College students were not always reliable. I couldn’t always count on a student reporter to submit his or her assignment on time, and section editors had a habit of disappearing as the quarter wore on. I recruited a good team of section editors and found myself spending more and more time in The Trop’s offices. It became my life and my obsession. My friends never saw me. They even started calling me by a new nickname: Trop. The paper was my identity.
The Tropolitan went to press on Thursday nights. We had to deliver the pages to the printer in a nearby town for printing by 10 p.m. Mr. McKerral accepted no excuses for being late, and without fail, he would check on us each week around 7 p.m. uttering his unique brand of sarcastic encouragement.
“Is this the Tropolitan or the Palladium?” he would yell out, comparing our weekly newspaper to the university’s annually printed yearbook.
“What’s this comma doing here?” he would say, leaning over an already completed page on the paste-up board.
“That’s not how you spell ‘fiduciary!’” he would chide.
And his staple: “Start a page, finish a page!”
On one particularly tense Thursday production night, he made the rounds in the newsroom and paste-up room barking orders and offering “encouragement.” When I heard his office door close, I began to mimic him, yelling out editorial admonishments in his Chicago accent. I ranted and raved, waving my arms in imitation of Mr. McKerral’s signature gestures. A minute into my performance, I noticed the staff had stopped laughing. Their eyes shifted from me, so I turned to see what had stolen their attention. Mr. McKerral had quietly opened his office door and re-emerged into the Trop’s offices. He stood behind me with his hands on his hips and his eyebrows raised.
“I do not talk like that!” he said before dramatically exiting through his office and slamming the door.
Always able to come up with the perfect quip, my all-time-favorite McKerralism came during one of our staff meetings at the beginning of the term. My use of the slogan “Get a Staff Infection!” on recruitment signs throughout the journalism building had invoked a raised eyebrow and a head shake. I was leading a Q&A after my presentation about the glory of working on the student newspaper. The Trop’s office was about two-thirds full with a mix of new and familiar faces. An artsy, very earnest Bohemian-type in the back raised his hand. I pointed to him.
“Do you publish fiction?” he asked sincerely.
Before I could even process what he was asking, Mr. McKerral called out from behind me, “Not on purpose!”
In his role as adviser to The Tropolitan, Mr. McKerral met with me each Friday after the latest edition hit the streets. We discussed grammar and punctuation mistakes, poor wording choices, pushed deadlines, personnel issues and even AP Stylebook errors. He would offer his critique, sometimes gentle and other times more personal. He helped with personnel management of the newspaper staff and even had to point out how disruptive it was when my girlfriend, who was the business manager, and I argued. He illuminated my blind spots and made me a better journalist, editor and leader. Those weekly one-on-ones proved to be some of the most beneficial learning experiences of my time at Troy.
He was also my academic adviser, and two of the best pieces of advice he gave me were about my internship and how to round out my course load my senior year.
I had worked at newspapers every summer since my junior year of high school, but I wanted my for-credit internship to be at a big-city paper that would open doors for my future career. The Indianapolis Star’s conservative former editorial page editor and frequent cable news show pundit M. Stanton Evans taught an editorial writing class once a year at Troy. Mr. McKerral advised me to take the class, telling me I wouldn’t have another opportunity to learn from someone so accomplished, skilled and connected. Of course, Mr. McKerral was correct, and I found the class one of the most challenging and beneficial during my major course of study.
Having Mr. Evans as an instructor also gave me a leg up in applying for the internship program he ran in Washington, D.C., called the National Journalism Center (NJC). I was aiming for an internship at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, or one of the big daily newspapers that was part of the Knight Ridder chain. Mr. McKerral told me to go study in D.C. with Stan for a quarter. It turned out to be sound advice, and I had a life-changing and career-building experience in Washington.
The program was formatted to have six weeks at NJC covering hearings and press conferences for practice while writing an in-depth project. The second six weeks required a placement at a D.C.-area media outlet. I ended up covering Senate hearings on a retiring ambassador to Russia and wrote my project on the growth of the federal budget during the Reagan administration, pouring over the gigantic volumes at the Library of Congress for hours at a time. Then I spent my outside assignment at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, gaining invaluable experience and clips for my portfolio with bylined front-page stories in The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The St. Paul Pioneer-Press, among others. Mr. McKerral’s advice had been right, and that internship helped me land my first job at the Knight Ridder-owned Macon Telegraph the summer after I graduated.
When I returned to Troy for my last two quarters, Mr. McKerral advised me to fill out my schedule with business classes. Advanced Placement courses from high school had given me a head start on my credits, so I finished both my journalism and political science majors by the end of the fall quarter of my senior year. Wisely, Mr. McKerral said I would never regret taking the business classes, and they would help me with management jobs as my career progressed. I took economics, marketing and management, all of which came in handy when I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in business administration in 2000.
The closer I got to graduation, Mr. McKerral evolved from teacher and adviser to mentor and friend. I was no longer enrolled in his classes and wasn’t editor of the school paper. He insisted I call him “Mac,” and enjoyed continuing our conversations about journalism and my career in more social settings. He even loaned me his car a few times, an older model Mazda stick shift that took some getting used to but ultimately helped me learn a new and important skill. He also gave me his father’s golf clubs. We played golf together a few times when I took golf for a physical education credit, and he proved to be as good a coach on the course as in the classroom.
Mac would do anything for his students, and I learned to trust and count on him no matter the circumstances. One quarter, the honor society I was a member of, Alpha Lambda Delta, needed a speaker for its induction ceremony. I asked Mac, and he reluctantly agreed. He said he didn’t see himself as a very good example for honors students.
“That’s not really my crowd,” he said.
His speech was one of the best and most inspiring I heard in college. He shared how he had gone to Arizona State University, partied too hard and flunked out after a semester. Returning to Chicago and working a number of manual labor jobs, including a stint as a grave digger, gave him the focus and clarity he needed to return to ASU. He not only completed his undergraduate degree in secondary education with good grades, he went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Illinois. He encouraged the inductees to seek out educational experiences beyond the classroom and not waste the opportunities they were given. I was moved.
As adviser to the collegiate chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at Troy, Mac chaperoned our group trips to regional and national conventions. He encouraged me to run for one of the two student positions on the national board, which proved to be another impactful experience.
Mac and I served on the national board of SPJ together for several years after I graduated. I was the representative for the southeast region on the board, and he represented the campus chapters. The mentoring continued, and we worked together to plan several regional conventions. He was truly a trusted adviser and friend.
We kept in touch in those early years of my career, and I frequently sought his advice. Unable to attend in person, Mac sent one of the most thoughtful and meaningful wedding gifts to Carla and me. It was a pewter cup made in the shape of a woman holding a bowl. The bowl was on a swivel. The cub was designed for the bride and groom’s first toast, with the bride drinking from the upturned dress and the groom drinking from her bowl on a swivel. We used it at our reception, and though he wasn’t there in person, Mac was with us in spirit.
When I had been at The Macon Telegraph for more than seven years, a job offer to go to Mercer University to work in public relations came my way. It would mean leaving newspaper journalism behind, so naturally, I consulted Mac. Looking back on it now, I think I needed his permission to give up on journalism as a career more than I needed guidance on taking the job. My identity was so intertwined with my profession, and I did not want to disappoint him as my journalism professor and mentor. As always, he had good advice.
“It’s a big change, but you can do that job. It’s really no different than reporting. You get the facts, you organize them and you tell them in a truthful, compelling way. You’re a strong writer, and you’re good with people. Journalism is changing. I don’t blame you for getting out. But by all means, get your master’s degree, especially if they’ll pay for it. You’ll never regret having that degree, and it will open doors for you down the road.”
I’m sure I’ve told Mac “thank you” dozens of times for all the kindnesses, gifts, opportunities and advice he’s given me over the years, but it seems insufficient for the degree to which he contributed to my growth and development. He helped shape the person I am today. His impact on my life went well beyond his role as my journalism professor.
Thank you, Mac, for everything. I am grateful for your generosity, patience, tough love, and wisdom. If you have made a fraction of the difference in your other students’ lives throughout your career as you have made in mine, you have a profound legacy of which you should be proud.