Vincennes University Journalism Program begins year with new home, new leadership
Before I begin, I must openly admit that this is a biased story.
A new era has begun for the Journalism Program at Vincennes University.
Not only am I an English professor at Vincennes University, but I’m a product of its Journalism Program (1977-79), a once-legendary curriculum that was led by a strong, little man who had giant ambitions for his students.
My friend and mentor, Fred Walker Jr., died in 2006. Prof. Walker, as he was always known by his students, was the founder of the VU Journalism Program in 1964. For 32 years Walker’s students were taught and were challenged, and they consistently produced an award-winning weekly newspaper that gained a national reputation.
Journalism program graduates went on to become newspaper reporters, editors, lawyers, librarians, photographers, business people, and more. Jerry Hicks, one of Walker’s first graduates, worked at the Los Angeles Times. Others are sprinkled throughout Indiana, the Midwest, and the world, struggling to keep pace with the changes in modern media that Walker would no doubt abhor.
Walker was the Journalism Program’s director until his retirement in 1996. Since then the Program and its campus newspaper, The Trailblazer, have changed physical locations three different times, since those halcyon days at the old Elihu Stout Hall.
At the start of this school year, the VU Journalism Program has a new leader in Associate Professor Emily Taylor, and The Trailblazer has a new, permanent home on the third floor of Walter A. Davis Hall.
The new journalism laboratory was re-dedicated recently, as the Fred Walker Journalism Laboratory, and a plaque announcing this and a portrait of Walker sketched by VU art professor Stephen Black, was unveiled by Taylor and VU President Dr. Chuck Johnson.
“It was a great honor to help unveil the portrait of the program’s founder,” Taylor said. “There is a strong tradition of newspaper history not just at VU, but in the Vincennes community dating back to Indiana’s first newspaper. I feel privileged to be a small part of carrying on that tradition.”
Walker convinced former VU President Isaac K. Beckes that VU needed journalism instruction at VU and that he was the man to do it. Beckes agreed, and the deal was sealed with a handshake at Beckes’ kitchen table in Vincennes. He developed a strict, but quality instructional program in journalism.
During a recent open house at The Trailblazer’s new digs, students and professors milled about, looking at the formal photographs made of Walker’s students. Today’s students learned of the traditions that Prof. Walker instilled in the Program, like the annual Journalism Awards Banquet, or when The Trailblazer editor laid a wreath at the gravesite of the first Indiana newspaper publisher Elihu Stout.
There is a younger version of myself in those pictures, and many others who spent hours at the old Stout Hall and other locales, writing, editing, discussing, and somehow pushing out an all-local, ad-free, newspaper. We were dedicated, sometimes working until 3 or 4 in the morning, seeking the quality Prof. Walker encouraged.
During the blizzard of 1978, we journalism majors were stuck at Stout Hall overnight. We did not have the Internet, nor were there cell phones or video games. We did not have a TV. We had our books, our newspapers, and our typewriters. We survived.
Prof. Walker taught us journalism, but he also taught us something about growing up. He worked hard at teaching us to be professional. As a member of The Trailblazer staff (a very important distinction for us), he warned that our conduct “reflects on The Trailblazer and the Journalism Program” and that the “staff’s reputation is the publication’s reputation.”
Walker was inducted into the National Junior College Journalism Hall of Fame in 1994, an honor that was only possibly eclipsed by his being bestowed the “Elihu Stout Plaque for Distinguished Achievement in Journalism” upon his retirement. Of course, having a journalism newsroom/laboratory named for you isn’t bad, either.
Each Monday during the Walker era, students would gather around the eight-page newspaper they had put so much into the week before, noting the professor’s markings with his infamous red Flair pen. We would groan when the pages bled red, and felt relieved when a pages were relatively clear. We learned how to write, edit, and produce a newspaper. It was one of my best educational experiences.
The Trailblazer was first published on Oct. 31, 1923. It began weekly publication on Sept. 22, 1966, two years after Walker became the Program’s director. It was published weekly thereafter, winning the All-American distinction from the Associated Collegiate Press Association for 52 semesters.
The Trailblazer was the Indiana Collegiate Newspaper of the Year in 1977. The newspaper has been statewide runner-up in that contest five times, one of which was in 1979, when I served as editor that spring.
Today Prof. Taylor is hoping to bring a new tradition of excellence for students studying journalism at VU. In sorting through Program archives, she was impressed by the hard work and dedication that went into producing the campus newspaper.
“From the inception of the Journalism Program, it appears The Trailblazer followed industry standards,” Taylor said. “Students were expected to conduct themselves professionally, ethically and with integrity as they worked to tell the stories of the VU campus.
“One tidbit I found especially interesting is that the motto for The Trailblazer for many years, printed right on the front page, was, ‘The newspaper read by the decision makers of the school,’” she said. “I hope that is an ideal current students can strive to achieve as they tell the stories of the current campus community.”
Students today use computers, instead of manual typewriters, and the paper is designed electronically, not pieced together or “pasted-up” by waxed columns of type and strips of headline type. Photographers download their pictures among their peers in the newsroom, not in the confines of developer trays in a darkroom.
Things have certainly changed.
“The way we tell stories may evolve to include a website and social media channels in addition to the printed newspaper, but the ideals of journalism should remain the same,” said Taylor, eager to teach and eager to recruit more students to VU’s Journalism Program.
“I hope the VU Journalism Program can continue to help graduates become successful journalists and communications professionals,” she said. “And this starts with their work as student journalists for The Trailblazer.”
By Bernie Schmitt