A warning to aspiring young journalists who later become distinguished mass communication law scholars: A feature newspaper story that you write at age 23 could come back to haunt you 47 years later.
That's what retiring University of Minnesota Professor Donald M. Gillmor found out during a memory-filled, black-tie banquet “roast” in his honor during the National Media Ethics and Law Conference, on Saturday, April 19 , in Minneapolis. About 150 family, friends, attorneys, colleagues, journalists, alumni, and former students gathered to honor the award-winning Silha Professor of Media and Ethics and Law, who is retiring in June after 45 years of teaching, primarily at the University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC).
A native of Fort Frances, Ontario, Dr. Gillmor began his journalism career in 1950, at the Winnipeg Free Press, after earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Manitoba. He later completed his masters and doctoral degrees at Minnesota, before joining the faculty in 1965, after teaching at the University of North Dakota. His book, Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comment, which he co-authored with Jerome Barron and Todd Simon ... is considered the field's classic textbook.
But instead of something from his bookshelf full of scholarly work, a surprised Prof. Gillmor saw his feature story from the October 18, 1951, edition of the Winnipeg Free Press appear on an overhead screen. The banquet's roastmaster, William A. Babcock, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, began the evening's fun by inviting Gillmor's students to edit their former professor's copy. There were redundancies, clichés, even a bad lead paragraph, Dr. Babcock joked, wielding his red pen over the copy.
"But I was only 23 then!" Prof. Gillmor cried out, rising in mock protest to the lighthearted destruction of his early journalistic prose. The scholar later admitted that the best part of the story about a Ukrainian Canadian's dream about Coronation Day was the "terrific" photograph that didn't get printed.
Also displayed near the front of the room was a blow-up poster of a 1973 Esquire parody of the National Enquirer, which named Prof. Gillmor as one of the nation's sexiest college professors. More than 20 speakers accepted Prof. Babcock's invitation to honor Dr. Gillmor with touching, sometimes emotional remembrances of his dedicated teaching, remarkable scholarship, and devoted friendship.
Prof. Gillmor's final master's degree student, Russian native Irina Dmitrieva, shared how Prof. Gillmor would often mix touching personal stories with his scholarly lessons. She and her husband, SMJC graduate student Gregory Borchard, met last fall in a Gillmor class.
"He would tell stories about how he and [his wife] Sophie met," Ms. Dmitrieva said. "On his desk there was this beautiful photograph of her. Behind this wise and clever man there has been this wise and clever woman all these years."
Unable to attend the banquet, Dr. Gillmor's youngest brother, Alan, a professor of music at Carleton University, sent a touching letter read by Stuart Adam, a Carleton vice-president. In remembering his brother, the younger Gillmor praised his brother's constant encouragement, even though he admitted "losing many arguments over the years."
"You were there for me, refreshing my spirit by word and deed and giving me the permission to excel," the letter stated. "In this warm and bittersweet moment, you are surrounded by people whose lives you have touched."
Among the many stories shared was one from Herb Terry, Prof. Gillmor's one-time student and later co-author with Jerome Barron and Todd Simon. As a graduate student, Prof. Terry once "boldly corrected" Dr. Gillmor after a lecture that John Marshall was not the first chief justice of the United States.
A few years later, when Prof. Barron was arguing the case of Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo before the Supreme Court, he could not even get a chamber seat ticket for his wife to attend the oral arguments. The enterprising Dr. Terry wrote to fellow Minnesotan Chief Justice Warren Burger and obtained two tickets. The former student was "so proud" to take Prof. Gillmor to the court, especially since the ticket envelope was marked "Herbert Terry and guest."
Wichita State University Professor Vernon Keel stated he "would have paid for a copy of the Winnipeg Free-Press" as a Gillmor student at the University of North Dakota, then a graduate student at Minnesota, nearly four decades ago.
Fellow School of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty member Daniel Wackman thanked Prof. Gillmor for welcoming him and his wife, Kathy, into the community some 27 years ago.
"Kathy and I are in a sense Don's kids," remarked Wackman, who was once "his boss" as SJMC's director. "Don and Sophie took us in and made us a part of the community."
Always having his door open for students, fellow faculty and media professionals, Dr. Gillmor was "amazing" in his passion and dedication. And as a student in Prof. Gillmor's final class wrote, "The only thing to do with Don Gillmor would be to clone him," Wackman said.
Steven Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, agreed that "the idea of cloning seems like a good idea," since Prof. Gillmor is "one of the few giants" among the college's 500 professors. In announcing the beginning of a national search for a new Silha Professor, Dean Rosenstone also praised Prof. Gillmor's recent leadership in the SJMC's crusade for state funding for new media technology.
"The sense of camaraderie in the Journalism School created by Don over the past eight months made a new chapter possible in the life of the Journalism School," Rosenstone stated.
Joining other media scholars present, Prof. Barron, Dr. Gillmor's longtime co-author, extolled his colleague's stature in First Amendment scholarship. They first met when Dr. Gillmor sat in on Prof. Barron's class at the University of North Dakota in 1969. When West Publishing asked Prof. Gillmor to write a textbook on mass communication law, he insisted that Prof. Barron be his co-author. At the banquet, attorney James Goodale admitted that he "stole" the book's table of contents for the "principle basis" for law seminars at the American Practising Law Institute.
"His views on the First Amendment differ from mine at times," Prof. Barron noted. "He believes these problems are resolved by relying on the ethical standards of working journalists. I didn't always agree, but I respected him as a scholar. He's contributed to the education of students, journalists, and my own.
"It's amazing that two people with such diverse views on the press would get along. That shows his tolerance and mine too. It gives our work a tension but a good one. Even though I think he sometimes lives in error, I believe in his passion. He's a great scholar, a great colleague and a great friend—a pleasure to celebrate."
Otto Silha, principal benefactor of the Silha Center with his wife, Helen, recalled first meeting Prof. Gillmor and being impressed with "his optimistic idea" for establishing such a center for the study of media ethics and law.
"Almost everyone I meet here today is either a student, a disciple or a mentoree of Don Gillmor," Mr. Silha said. "He told me at breakfast this morning that he was going to keep his gradebooks because he wants to remember the names."
In his humorous roast, Sanford University Professor Ted Glasser, former Silha Center associate director, used an impressive slide collection of Gillmor memos, clippings, and photographs to reflect on his remarkable career. Prof. Glasser also recounted Dr. Gillmor's unusual "fetish" for trapping squirrels on his property, then setting them free elsewhere.
As a final token of appreciation, the Gillmors were presented with several gifts, including a framed map of their beloved Rainy Lake in Northern Minnesota.
In thanking those gathered and those who could not attend for their many wishes, Prof. Gillmor first made "just a few corrections" about some of the stories told, then particularly expressed his gratitude to his wife, his family, his co-authors, students, and others.
"This is probably the last time I'll see my friends, my students, my family, all in one place. That's a sad thought, but it makes a wonderful occasion. I just want to say how much I owe to all of you...
"I just want to say how much Sophie and I appreciate you being here tonight. This is a very memorable evening for me. We love you all. We thank you so very much.
"And Bill [Babcock], this was your idea. I damned you for it, but I love you for it."
- Jack Breslin was an SJMC graduate student and the Silha Bulletin Editor when this was written (November 13, 2009) reporting on a banquet held to commemorate Don Gillmor’s retirement from teaching at the University of Minnesota. Breslin now is a faculty member in the Department of Mass Communication of Iona College (New York).