Thursday, July 01, 2004

In Memoriam, Dick Yoakam

I said I was not going to post, but then I got a call late tonight and had to put up something.

The world of journalism and journalism education has lost one of its shining lights. Richard Yoakam -- Professor Yoakam to those of us who had him and Dick behind his back -- has died at age 80 in Bloomington, Ind.

Dick was one of those life-changing people you meet only a few times in this spin of the Earth. To his students, the gravely voice that sounded as though it were rolling down from Mount Olympus, interlaced with a Midwestern twang, was a source of both fear and motivation. He ruled the halls of the Indiana University Radio-TV center. When you heard that rumbling that erupted with "Fisher!" or whoever else was in his sights, you just knew you had heard the voice of God. If you had really messed up, he would sometimes point his crutch at you. (I never had the guts to ask about the crutch. Someone said it was childhood polio, and I guess I've read that. To this day and all the times I've seen and talked with Dick, I never have asked about it. It was just a part of Dick, as much as if he had worn a raincoat or a fedora every day.)

But then from under the moustache would come this smile -- no, more than a smile; what could only be described as a Cheshire cat grin. And no matter that you had just in your script accidentally killed off 20 people who weren't dead or libeled the chancelor, there came pretty much the same response: "Let's get it right next time, shall we."

You see, Dick, and I will call him that out of respect because he let me do so lo these past 30 years, always willing to take a phone call or receive a visit from a former student, Dick understood that to succeed you must take risks, you must fail. That often seems lost in today's corporately driven newsrooms. And with failure comes success, and then more success, and finally you realize that this is the best damn thing in the world and you want to do it for the rest of your life!

He also expended the time and patience to take a kid under his wing who was not a journalism major, but had gone to school to be an astrophysicist but had gotten "the bug" when passing the campus radio station. And he showed me as much skill and dedication to craft and ethics in two courses as he would for anyone taking a full journalism load.

And after Dick would roar and then smile, he would walk into his office in the back of the newsroom with the clear understanding that you were now free to do it -- and screw it up again -- on your own. (That office was not one that a student went into on a lark. But it was also the place during those pre-Cambrian days (i.e., before unlimited nationwide calling) where there was a phone that had access to the university's statewide phone network. And so at times, usually as it got on toward the time to make calls to find jobs or summer internships, Dick would casually stroll out of the office with the tacit understanding that what he didn't know wouldn't hurt you.)

Now that I'm teaching, I realize what a marvelous gift he had and wish I had only one-tenth as much.

One of my classmates, Jon Duffey, put it this way:
First, *ALL* of my best lessons came from Professor Richard Yoakam - and not all were in a classroom. But everyone of those lessons stuck with me for my entire career.
What I learned from Professor Richard Yoakam was a great gift. I've carried his priceless legacy of ethical guidance and love of the spoken word through my entire professional career. Even in the darkest of days for broadcast news, his philosophy is always there as a bright beacon for those of us with the big "J" on our shirts. Anyone who has had the fortune to learn from him knows how to use the flashiest of production values... without violating the journalistic integrity of the message. Link for more.

Dick had produced the Nixon-Kennedy debates. He had been in the trenches. He infused us with that, and we appreciated that. Perhaps that is why so many of us are still in the business. Those who came under Dick's tutelage included Dick Enberg, Jane Pauley, Joe Angotti (former "NBC Nightly News" executive producer and then at Northwestern), Bob Rodenkirk at WBBM in Chicago, Jon Duffey in Tampa, Greg Barman in the Rockes last time I checked, and dozens of others.

When some of us served on a committee a decade or so ago to raise money for the Yoakam Endowment, we found ourselves calling classmates who are now in the upper reaches of their profession. Usually, before we could get vary far, the question from the person being called was simply, "How much?"

I've gone on long enough I suppose, stumbling about for an ending. I told Bob Rodenkirk I was writing this in fits and starts, some parts easy with memories that bring a smile and others much harder. And Bob wrote me back with what I think would be the perfect ending. Without his permission, I am going to borrow from it, but I don't think he'd mind:
Perfectly understood. Take your time. Get it right. Dick would appreciate it that way.


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