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Back on campus

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Speaking engagement stirs up memories

By G. Michael Dobbs, Prime Columnist

    Recently I was asked if I would speak to a journalism class at the University of Massachusetts, my alma mater.

    I was honored to do so and this was the first time in my career that someone thought I had something I could say of some value to students thinking about entering the profession.

    It was the first time in years I had been on campus and it was an exercise in nostalgia and confusion to be there once again. Nostalgia as once I saw the library, the Old Chapel and the Campus Center the memories came flooding back. Confusion as I tried to figure out which new building I need to find.

    I attended UMass from 1972 to 1976. The Vietnam War was still a factor in American life. I had registered for the draft, but I missed it by one year. I was very lucky.

    It was a very different time to say the least.

    I commuted to school from Granby where my family lived. It was part of a deal to stay and help with farm chores and my folks would assist me with tuition. I missed the whole “campus experience” of living there, although at the time I didn’t mind. I still don’t. I drove my little Datsun – now Nissan – pickup truck over the Notch every weekend day to the campus.

    The journalism students had a “writing lab” in one of the buildings closest to the Student Union. I’m not sure what kind of productivity university officials expected as the lab had only tables and chairs and no typewriters. We were told the university didn’t have the budget for typewriters.

    We were told to go to the offices of the campus newspaper, The Daily Collegiate, and join the staff to access typewriters. In 1975 I went to the offices thinking I should join. The students running the newspaper came across as arrogant snobs and I instead went to the new weekly newspaper, The Valley Advocate and started writing as a paid freelancer.

    I owe those jerks a thank-you. If I hadn’t gone to the Valley Advocate, I wouldn’t have started my career as a paid writer that early in life.

    My favorite professor was Ralph Whitehead, a reporter from Chicago newspapers, recruited to the fledging journalism program by the head of the program, Howard Ziff.

    Whitehead imparted a lot of wisdom, including these three pieces of advice:

  • You will conduct your most important interviews in bars.
  • At a press conference if a competing reporter drops a pen or pencil kick it across the floor.
  • Don’t be shy to use your elbows to keep other reporters from reaching the pay phone to call a re-write person.

    I should note I have conducted only three interviews in a place with booze. I have never kicked someone’s pen or pencil and I have never been physically aggressive with another reporter (although there has been one reporter I’ve long thought about assaulting for his habit of interrupting an interview I was conducting.)

    There was a lounge area in the Student Union for commuters, but I soon discovered the Science Fiction Society, a club for fans like me. It was my home away from home during my four years there. It was very sad to me the university in the past several years kicked the club and its extensive library of science fiction, fantasy and horror books out of the Campus Center.

    As a movie fan, UMass at the time was a little slice of heaven. Many clubs and organizations would rent 16mm prints and show them to raise money. The Science Fiction Society was no different. I brought to campus double features, such as Vincent’s Price’s “The Raven” with “Son of Blob,” the comic sequel to the 1950s’s science fiction film. Another show was “Between Time and Timbuktu,” an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut stories. I also was able to screen “The Last Days of Man on Earth,” a trippy film that had limited release in this country.

    Those were less complicated times with my whole adult life ahead of me. I had no idea what was in store for me and this little trip to UMass brought back those feelings of my youth.

    I’m going to raise a glass tonight to those salad days!

 Michael Dobbs is the executive editor for Reminder Publishing LLC., and in that role oversees the production of the company’s 10 free community weekly newspapers – the East Longmeadow Reminder, the Agawam Reminder, the Easthampton Reminder, the Holyoke Reminder, the Northampton Reminder, the Amherst Reminder, the Ludlow Reminder, the Monson-Palmer Reminder, the Chicopee Herald and the Westfield Pennysaver – as well as a daily newspaper, the Westfield News, monthly lifestyle magazine Go Local and the monthly publication of Prime.