Fifteen years ago this week, I made a life-altering decision. And it’s because of that decision that I’m writing to you today.
I was just about to complete my first semester of college. But even though I already had the credits to move on to a four-year school (and would soon make the President’s List with a straight-A report card), it was “highly recommended” by the folks in vocational rehabilitation at the VA that I complete two more semesters at DMACC in Boone.
As I’ve written before, I went to college planning to become a computer network administrator, not a journalist. I started working at the campus newspaper — then called “Bear Facts” (today, it’s called The Banner) — because I needed extra income, not to make a career for myself.
And, the more I did it, the more I enjoyed sitting down with people to tell their stories. I also really enjoyed digging into important issues to find answers that mattered to everyone around me. But, always the realist, I “knew” my passion was working with computers.
In March of 1998, I was told that as a member of the newspaper staff, I was entitled to travel to Omaha to take part in a professional development workshop hosted by the Poynter Institute. The keynote speaker that year was Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and former editor of the Ames Tribune, Michael Gartner.
His words inspired me in a way I hadn’t been previously motivated — particularly with regard to the newspaper business — and for the first time ever, I felt like there just might be a place for me in the industry. I was still bouncing the idea around in my head when my advisor, Jan LaVille, asked the now-infamous question:
“So, Bob, are you coming back next semester?”
The decision that I was coming back to DMACC for another two semesters was already pre-determined. That I would come back as a work-study student for the newspaper was not. And with nearly every eye in the van fixed squarely upon me, I gave the only answer I could:
“Sure, I guess so.”
Little did I know Jan had a little surprise she was going to unload upon me at that moment: no one else currently on staff was planning to come back in the fall. So, that meant I was going to be editor of the paper if I did come back.
So, not only would I be the only person on staff with even a sliver of experience – mind you, I had written a sum total of six stories – but now I was Jan’s only real option as an editor. It would have been an exciting prospect if it weren’t so darn terrifying.
Less than 24 hours earlier, I had finally begun thinking of the possibility that journalism might be something I could do professionally. Now, I was being handed the keys to an office that was generally reserved for people who knew they wanted to be professional journalists.
To help me get a little more experience under my belt, Jan helped me edit a campus newsletter during the following summer session. So, by the time the fall came around, I had written a sum total of 12 stories, and had supervised the work of one graphic artist.
That fall, we had nine incoming freshmen on the staff, including two former homeschool students aged 15 and 16. To say I was in over my head was an understatement of epic proportions.
But Jan stuck with me, and provided mentorship I hadn’t had since I was very early in my military experience. Even when she disagreed with me behind closed doors, to the rest of the staff, she projected absolute confidence in my leadership.
While much of my leadership style was formulated during my military experience, it was perfected as a result of her mentorship.
When the VA ultimately said it could not support my career change — a story for another day — she encouraged me to use my remaining time on campus to completely immerse myself in journalism. I did, and it paid off big-time for me. I tripled the number of “clips” I had, and spent the extra time honing my writing skills in an effort to get my first job.
And when I blind-applied to every newspaper in Iowa, looking for a job, Jan’s name was at the top of my list of references.
A few weeks ago, I and another former DMACC journalism student, Ames Tribune reporter Luke Jennett (himself a former editor of the Ankeny campus newspaper), were interviewed by the current editor of the Ankeny campus newspaper. And during the course of the interview, I learned that Jan would be one of several DMACC instructors who would be taking early retirement at the end of the current semester.
I always knew the day would come when Jan would hang it up, but I guess I didn’t expect it to come so “soon.”
The past 15 years have seemingly passed in the blink of an eye. But, I also know I wasn’t the first person Jan dragged – kicking and screaming in a few cases – into a career in journalism.
I know Jan has many friends in the DMACC community, including several at the Newton campus. And so, before time ran out, I just wanted to publicly say “thank you” to her and to DMACC for all they did to help me get where I am today.
Sure, I could be making a whole lot more money working on computers today, but I wonder if I would really be happy doing it. I know, without a doubt, it couldn’t compare to what I’ve been able to do as a journalist.
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If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
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Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at firstname.lastname@example.org via email. He conducts “office hours” 7-8 a.m. each Thursday at the Newton Hy-Vee cafeteria.