Brian McDowell took the podium at his final year-end Journalism Convocation at the State University of New York at Morrisville last week.
The professor looked somewhat happy to be able to pack away his books and belongings and go back home to spend more time with his wife.
And he looked somewhat sad in the realization that come next August, it will be the other profs handing out awards and huzzahs to the students in pretty old Madison Hall coming back to the little campus in the hills of upstate New York’s Cherry Valley to welcome a new batch of journalism kids.
It was a special gathering to wish Brian off to those deserved restive pursuits, plenty of people attending alongside the current crop of learners and teachers.
Professor emeritus Neal Bandlow, retired since 1999, was spreading his individual brand of smart and humorous, driving over the 15 or so miles to be there with his wife Carol and the former students they were putting up overnight in their home in Oneida, including Mike Sorenson, class of ’74, the guest speaker for the afternoon.
Former students from every decade there’s been a journalism program at this small state school have come back to wish McDowell well. We all know this not only because of the mingling that went on prior to the start of the 3 p.m. program, but because a voice roll call was demanded afterward. I got to proudly call out 1977 along with Nancy Cardillo, my friend sitting next to me. She stopped at the Little Bitty in the Syracuse city neighborhood of Eastwood to pick me up along her way from Buffalo. We stopped at the Bandlows for lunch and so she could drop off her overnight bag. Later, my dear wife Karen would join us all for post-convocation party and dinner across Route 20 at the Fort.
In the car, Nance and talked about the two years we learned so much from Bandlow and his cohorts, program director Jerry Leone, and Dan Reeder, and Charlie Hammond, and Joe Quinn, and our second “senior” year before getting our associate’s degree, Lisa Boulanger. Some days, those. She dated my roommate, the nice Natural Resources and Conservation major Dave Hardy. We got a good chuckle out of remembering how he left me a note saying “left you a sub in the fridge” and how I’d discovered when I opened that mini dorm rental box that my snack was resting right next to the roadkill my roomie had scooped up for his class taxidermy project.
Nance and I have remained friends, way after the days I transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park and she to Utica College to get our bachelor’s, and through the days we’ve worked for newspapers and in public relations and freelance writing.
We listened as Sorenson described what it was like back then to these students of 2015. Big difference. Now they are so immersed in technology compared to our archaic typewriter days. And they now have a four-year program in Internet Journalism in addition to the associate degree. Brian McDowell saw the real world changing and pushed SUNY officials to add the bachelor’s in the new ways. After that, Morrisville also hired Syracuse Area Music Awards hall of famer and former urban radio station owner and market pioneer Butch Charles to lead another charge in video and sound production skills.
Mike Gormley, class of ’81, talked about how he and his Morrisville Chimes newspaper colleagues worked their butts off to cover the Route 20 the fire destruction of Sauter’s Diner into the weekly campus paper the next day, and also into the Syracuse and Oneida papers because they were the only reporters and photographers on the scene. He related how another teacher, the late John O’Connor, addressed the weary students the next morning with these instructive words, ones Gormley has never forgotten as he’s worked his way with only his associate’s degree from SUNY Morrisville through the ranks of The Associated Press to cover important stories around the world, and now works for Newsday in New York City. “That’s what you do,” O’Connor told his students that morning after.
His point: O’Connor, always a hard-ass, never showed that he was pleased with any of their stories. Nance and I whispered how Dan Reeder was much the same way. And how we needed that reconstructive surgery on our writing and thinking.
Yes. And so more speakers, present teachers and students, talked of how Brian McDowell spread his wisdom about always seeking and spreading the truth, with passion and honesty.
Year-end awards were handed out, proud students posing with proud teachers.
These came with the reality check of the Doug L. Youngs and Marcel Joseph Maurice Awards, named for two journalism students, bright lights who were killed in car accidents. Classmates of theirs, a decade apart, hung their heads in sorrow as words were shared about what the world misses because their loss.
Of course, if anything, college is a mirror of life’s ups and downs. This reminded Nance and I to walk outside the Student Activities Building to pay respects at the recently planted Regina Reynolds memorial tree, with an inscribed stone at its foot. Reynolds was a student in our time, known to Nance, whose disappearance from campus caused a major stir. The unspeakable discover of her body and the facts that came afterward of her hitchhiking along nearby Route 20 only to be murdered horrified all. Nance related how she almost packed her bags and went home.
But back in Madison Hall, current graduates were told, several times, that they were now part of a new family that would always lend support in hard times and good times, part of this group that had returned to listen to Bandlow and Sorenson and Gormley. Part of us.
Those who will remain assured the alumni that the home fires will remain burning for future gatherings such as this. Charles got up there and said because his program is so new, he was only ready to honor one student in each area, and arched his eyebrows to tell the remaining group that only hard work awaits.
The final tribute to Brian McDowell remained. Carol Bandlow told of car trips to their home state of Michigan, and how the man who started teaching with her husband a decade before he retired became part of that family, too. More gifts were given and accepted. Neal gave Brian four cases of beer, four different brands. Brian grabbed a cold bottle of Yuengling, breathed a big sigh, and said that would last him a whole year.
And then we started another trek for the next part of the tradition. Across the street to The Fort the alumni walked. We shared stories, a lot of them. “Big Jer,” the guy who started the program, called on the portable phone behind the bar, and we passed it from ear to ear and talked to the man in North Carolina who so wished he could have made the trip to be there with all of his former students and friends. But Jerry, retired for two decades, has been ill. Many of these same people and plenty more will be taking a trip to his hometown in July for a tribute dinner the college has planned in his honor. In my minute with that phone, I told Jerry how great it was to have seen his family newsletter at Neal and Carol’s house earlier that afternoon, to see his smiling face with his kids and grandkids and those who love him so. He loves me and all of us, he said, for the nth time in 10 minutes, meaning it. Soon the bartender came back for her phone, sheepishly informing us that they couldn’t run credit cards while we talked on it.
We shared drinks, a few of them, poured from shared pitchers bought with fifty bucks sent to Neal for that purpose by an alumnus who couldn’t make it.
We shared dinner, a Friday night Fish Fry set out for the community for some, complete with salad bar, taking up two tables we’d pushed together, a third set off to the side, and with others eating up at the bar.
We watched from close and afar as the students who actually had Brian McDowell the 20 years he taught journalism gathered around him to bestow more gifts. Perhaps some there knew him from the 10 years he worked in the College Relations office at Morrisville before he secured that professorship he wore so well. I know I was the only one in the joint who worked with him at The Post-Standard before that. Yeah, Brian McDowell preached what he practiced.
That’s the way it works at the little journalism college program that can.
If you’d like to read my Mark It Up community blog column about college graduations, click the link below.
Here’s the link to my 2014 waer.org story about Neal Bandlow at the SUNY Morrisville journalism program.
Do you ever go back to visit an old school and teachers, and if so, why? What’s your favorite former school memory, and why? If you could pass on one tip to today’s graduate, what would it be?