Paul Gillin just tagged me, following Kami Watson Huyse’s Thanksgiving meme. This one struck a chord so I took a crack at it. I’m taggng Karen Christensen of Berkshire Publishing fame; she’s currently in Shanghai;  Karen Wickre, the force behind Google’s corporate blog and Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations. I bet they’ve got great stories.

The teacher who most inspired me

His name was Wilmott Ragsdale and he taught in the journalism program at the University of Wisconsin where I got a masters degree.

Rags, as we called him, was the real thing. He was a veteran reporter for TIME, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. He had a professorial mustache and always dressed in a tweed jacket. He was always smiling,  always funny.  

What I remember most was his gentle, wry touch whether he was lecturing to a class, talking to a student one-on-one or writing comments on a story you’d turned in. (Yes, we wrote on paper back then and the teacher marked up our copy and handed it back.)

He taught by asking questions and always had the perfect provocative one… asked gently, of course, that made you realize you could improve.

‘It’s not quality… it’s quantity’

But his underlying message was strong: you can become a great reporter. And you can do better than you’re doing now. Keep at it. Keep trying. I’ve been most inspired by his favorite aphorism about writing: “It’s not quality… it’s quantity.”

In other words, keep writing and writing… and writing. Don’t concentrate on a few well-written stories. Write more! (Sounds like good blogging advice… doesn’t it?) And if you care enough about the craft you’ll turn into a great reporter. Which, of course, he was.

I suppose I still think of myself at bottom as “a writer” and a journalist even though I’m in business and marketing. Seems to me that the authenticity he begged us to include in our stories is pretty much the same thing as what makes a good blog.

Before turning to teaching he’d been – among other things – a boxer, a merchant seaman, a poet and a war correspondent (we’re talking World War II) for TIME, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal.

Another of his favorite sayings which I loved, for some reason: “Journalism is not a profession… boxing is a profession.”

Unbelievably, I just found a link to a TIME Magazine story about Rags and what a great reporter he was, dated June 29, 1942. I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ The War on DVD for nights now, so this really struck a chord. Army gliders are shown in the film. They’re very fragile and, it turns out, not terribly effective:

From TIME – 1942

TIME’S Wilmott Ragsdale wasn’t sure you could do a loop in an Army glider until he went up in one at the new glider school at Twentynine Palms, California —suddenly felt his safety belt tighten and saw the desert above him.

He wasn’t sure how you get down, either —until his pilot banked the wings almost vertical, fell off into swooping circles and came out at 90 m.p.h., 400 feet above the ground.

Probably you didn’t know any more about these things than he did—so I think you will be especially interested in TIME’S story on Page 48—and in knowing a bit more about Ragsdale and his part in making the story so clear and real.

Ragsdale works out of TIME’S Washington office, but because of his rough and tumble travel experiences he is apt to be ordered anywhere. Educated at the University of Washington and at the Sorbonne, he has been a professional fighter, a logger, an oil driller, an extra in the Ballet Russe, a stevedore in Alaska, a publicity man for a symphony orchestra —and he sailed in the fo’c’sle to South America, the Caribbean, Europe and the Orient.

He originally got into the news business to make enough money to marry a girl he met in Paris —worked for the Wall Street Journal before he came to TIME… Continued…

TIME magazine (June 29,1942)