Monday, September 20, 2010

Compassionate, brave and ethical life of journalist Jack Shelley left lifelong mark on the soul of a no-longer-young hippie lad

“Jack Shelley, longtime voice of radio and TV, dies at 98,” reads the headline.
Below that headline is Jack’s face, smiling robustly, from the Des Moines Register website.
I lean back in my well-worn office chair – my perch on this well-worn life – and for a few moments, well, probably longer, think about Jack, what he meant to me, how important a role he played in my life just by being himself.
He was of journalism’s greatest generation, a man who served his public by going overseas during World War II, sending taped dispatches from the front during some of Hitler’s worst brutality and from the days when U.S. airmen began the nuclear age by dropping A-bombs on Japan.
First thing I did was type in a Facebook update, letting people know that we had lost a journalism giant who also was a friend and mentor. He wasn’t a household name, like Reasoner, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley or Murrow. He had his opportunity to join that crew in the public perception, but he turned it down in favor of serving his own state, the pig farmers, educators, businesspeople, grain elevator operators,barkeeps and store owners across a gloriously beautiful state.
In the hours after I learned about his death, I did more than lament it … for after all he had lived a good and honorable life. But I was transported to the day I first met the then-retired journalist who had taken on a role as a professor at Iowa State University.
It was that smile that greeted me on my first visit as a prospective student to the then kinda shabby confines of the Journalism and Mass Comm building, where cigarette butts littered the stairwell and burned coffee’s aroma flavored the air.
Jack’s also was the smile that consoled and counseled me as I made my way through the four years it took me to earn my degree in journalism and mass communication, graduating with “borderline-almost-honors” after indulging in the passions, pursuits, whims and rallies that tore through campuses where males were pitched on the precipice of war. Friends were drafted and died. Others came home and twitched and turned in the night, sometimes springing from their bunks and prepared to kill at the slightest interruption. Talk him down, man. This isn’t Saigon.
That’s just the time it was, a time I wouldn’t trade, filled with mistakes and experiments and experiences savored and regretted and sometimes forgotten. These years – 1969-1973, when Jack was a constant in the life of a young man teetering precariously between cold-sweat fear of war and exuberance of living life to its fullest -- flavor me and the writer, the journalist I have been and always will – even though corporate newspapers seem to feel me old and in the way, as my late pal Vassar Clements might say.
That picture of Jack Shelley and the obituary saddened me and made me proud at the same time. It also launched me into memories of anti-war rallies, time spent with the Black Panthers and Black Muslims, Give Peace a Chance seriousness and Sly and the Family Stone escapism. Suddenly I was in the lecture hall near the administration building and my history professor came into the building, tears rolling down his cheeks, exclaiming “I’ve tried to be neutral and calm about the war in Vietnam, but God damn a country that shoots its students. Class dismissed. I don’t care what you do, but you need to make your voices heard if you think this was wrong and cowardly. Damn. Damn.”
Four dead in Ohio.
Oh, that really doesn’t have anything to do with Jack Shelley, other than that he framed that time for me, made me welcome, a young hippie drifter and Kerouac wannabe who came to ISU because I was kinda pissed off at the state of Illinois.
I had earned the honor of being named an “Illinois State Scholar” for pretty much an A-minus average in what was then considered, at least by Life magazine, to be one of the top 10 high schools in the country. I’d worked hard (played hard, too, but I was sober during much of my high school career) to become a recognized student, athlete (not so good, but popular because I would mouth off to coaches if they were in the wrong), a friend of greasers and a dater of cheerleaders and princesses.
Neither a renaissance man nor a man of means by no means. Which is why I ended up in Iowa and made a close friend in Jack Shelley, perhaps the greatest journalist I’ve ever known personally.
You see, the state of Illinois, while it recognized my “scholarship,” was not going to give me a penny toward my schooling. They said I didn’t qualify because of my father’s income. The fact I was paying for my own school -- that I worked as a night stock boy at Jewel (quit because I hated to wear bow ties at midnight while ink-stamping prices on cans of corn and stew) and did yard work and shoveled stalls at a nearby day camp as well as worked for the Park District (big responsibility: learn to drive the stick shift so I could get donuts from the nearest bakery at break time) – didn’t change that a bit.
So, since they didn’t want to give me any state money, I wasn’t going to give any to them. Which meant going to school out of state. I’d been to Iowa State before, because my big brother was a knee-damaged and shaved-headed football player there. He’s a nice guy and not a bit like me.
As I looked at the catalogues – remember those big catalogues, glossy pictures and text that all universities had before the internet? – I saw that the university had a solid journalism program, featuring print and broadcast reporters who had covered World War II. These guys didn’t have Ph.Ds in journalism. They didn’t have master’s degrees. They weren’t scholars. They were cigarette smoking, whiskey drinking professionals. That appealed to me, as those passions, along with writing and enjoying life and running scared from a war, were prominent on my own life’s resume.
At that point, I was thinking of going into broadcasting, so I honed in on the fact that one of the great reporters from TV’s early years – Jack Shelley – would be my adviser if I went to ISU.
On our first meeting, we hit it off well. I know I was not the prototypical Iowan at the time. My hair was a bit longer than many of the kids from the cornfields and I drove a Ford Falcon instead of a GTO and a John Deere. But did you know that the farm kids grew hemp between the cornrows? Did you know that possession of pot in Iowa at the time was a simple $5 fine, less than a traffic ticket?
A lot of hog farmers had started growing hemp to help in the manufacture of rope during World War II and, well, they learned how to dry the leftovers on the pot-bellied stove out in the barn.
This did not play into my choice of ISU as a place to go to school, oddly enough. Really, the deciding factor was Jack Shelley. Oh yeah, I was there to see him because I wasn’t going to give Illinois my money and I couldn’t afford Northwestern. I had considered the University of Michigan for a time, but it too was expensive and there was something about the wide open prairies of Iowa I relished after a youth in the Windy City.
It was later that I met Uncle Moose, Capt. Kirk, Smokin’ Joe, Nardholm, Carpy, Titzy and Jocko – some of the boys who helped me in my pursuit of embracing life before life began to consume us and turn us old. These fellows would come and go from my life, some entering school before me and leaving sooner, some arriving later.
But Jack Shelley was there from the start to finish. I had heard of him, as he was the biggest name in Iowa television.
In addition to his famous stories of hometown heroes or whatever they called his “nice” features, he was a hard-news guy who honed his chops on Hitler’s ass.
You see, in his younger years, this jovial man – I considered him old then, though he was only the age I am at this writing – Jack had covered the Battle of the Bulge in the defeat of Hitler’s Europe.
From Fortress Europe, he went to the Pacific Theater, where he had the first recorded interviews with the men who dropped the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also attended the signing of the peace treaty in Tokyo Bay and covered the A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert.
In his obituary in the Register – anybody else remember the “Big Peach” of the Register’s pre-Gannett emasculation? -- it is reported that Jack is held in high esteem in the history of broadcast journalism, right up there with the likes of Murrow, Cronkite and Sevareid.
Fact is, if my ancient and concussed memory serves me – and sometimes it does not -- back on the day I met Jack in 1969, among the things he said was that he actually turned down the opportunity to be the talking head on ABC, a job that went to his friend, Eric Sevareid, in order to remain in his beloved Iowa.
You see he was born in Boone, Iowa, just west of Ames, where ISU was located. Best thing about Boone was it was on the way to the Ledges and sometimes gas was 15 cents a gallon there.
The basic news reports of his death mention that he began as a reporter for the Clinton (Iowa) Herald in 1935. That was back when every journalist honed skills at newspapers. TV was just being “discovered” and radio was king. It was when broadcasters didn’t need to have pretty faces and nice hair. Good thing, too, eh Jack?
He went from the newspaper to WHO radio in Des Moines and quickly rose to news director, remaining in that role after the station became both TV and radio in the 1950s and people began buying those blond-wooded Philcos.
Oh, I could go on and talk more about his role as a hero, covering the great events of the 20th century.
I could talk of the comfort his voice brought to the farmlands. He still did some substitute broadcasting when I was living out in Iowa and I was always a fan of the soothing tones of a man who had seen humanity’s best and worst.
He chose to live his life celebrating the latter.
I opted out of broadcasting rather quickly. I had too much passion as a writer, but when I changed paths, I asked to keep Jack as my adviser. He helped me negotiate the precarious path of a student who was living sometimes in the fast lane but also attentive to school work and dedicated to his profession.
Yes, I am a writer. Sometimes I wish I had gone into broadcasting. But then I’d probably have to giggle at puns by weathermen and wear my hair short.
But the lessons of fairness, the principles of press freedom, the lessons of the responsibilities those of us who entered that then noble profession – either print or broadcast – Jack (and a couple of other professors, long gone), taught me have been my guideposts.
In my lifetime as an editor and writer and now a part-time educator -- I am journalist-in-residence at a local university and have similarly served at another Nashville bastion of learning -- I hope I have and can continue to pass on the principles,hope and lust for telling the story right that Jack embraced.
I loved the old guy. I loved the profession which he helped me enter. Now Jack’s dead and some might say so is real journalism.
I’ll miss them.