Looking back on the Grady School with fondness

In the weeks leading up to the Grady College Centennial Weekend, April 16-19, we'll feature a guest blog post authored by a preselected alumnus/alumna. For ways in which students, faculty, alumni, donors and friends can share Grady College memories and photos in honor of the centennial year, please visit grady100.uga.edu.

At Warner Robins High School, Warner Robins, Ga., I had been the editor of both the yearbook and the newspaper, and particularly enjoyed writing. So, once I was accepted to the University of Georgia, I enrolled in the journalism school. This was at a time when you could simply do that – declare you were in with no particular requirements to meet. That's my kind of admissions policy.

I had in mind that I would major in advertising. I now have no idea why, and likely had not much of one then, other than perhaps some very vague notion of the attraction of Madison Avenue along the lines of today's “Mad Men” drama. As it turned out, once at UGA I never took an advertising course or gave advertising another thought.

In the fall quarter of my freshman year, I was fortunate enough to have, for what I believe was the last such class he taught, Dean John Drewry for Journalism 101. This was in the Commerce-Journalism lecture hall, featuring Drewry's marvelous Southern accent and impeccable storytelling and delivery, honed over decades of teaching this course.

ROTC was still a requirement then, as were certain rules of “decorum” for women. My adult daughters have a very hard time imagining me in an Army ROTC uniform, worn to classes once a week on drill day, saluting my “superior” officers all the while. And they are certainly amused by the fact that women, on days they took P.E., had to wear an overcoat until they could return to their dorms to change lest they show a bit too much leg to those of the opposite sex. The specter of both situations seems hard to imagine these days, but that was very much the scene in my freshman year.

Change was coming to the UGA campus, but it hadn't arrived quite yet.

By the next year, my sophomore one, it had. Or at least that was true for those apparently subversive legs and for mandatory ROTC. Women were allowed to skip wearing overcoats. As to ROTC, on Dec. 1, 1969, many of us watched with tremendous intensity and no shortage of anxiety as the first Vietnam War lottery numbers were drawn. This determined who would be drafted and who would not. It was based on your date of birth. Mine, June 3, drew No. 301. My roommate, a close friend to this day, was born on Oct. 5, which drew No. 24. An accounting major, he was later drafted, serving honorably as an Army clerk typist at Fort Jackson, S.C. Not coincidentally, I withdrew from ROTC later the same week.

Other memories of my sophomore year are fairly vague, other than writing a novel (are there any would-be or practicing journalists who at some point do not think they can write The Great American Novel?). It perhaps comes as no surprise that, when years later re-reading this decidedly unpublished novel, I found it in fact to be sophomoric.

My memories of the Grady School perk up in my junior year. Two new professors, Wallace Eberhard and John English, both with newly minted University of Wisconsin Ph.D.s, began what became their long and illustrious careers at Grady. Both were memorable professors, as was Al Hester, a former city editor of The Dallas Times Herald who arrived at Grady the same year.

I'll be vainglorious enough (and/or lazy, since it's already written) to characterize much of my last two years at Grady by including the conclusion of remarks I made in 2009 as the guest speaker at the annual Red and Black banquet.

Earlier in the speech, I'd talked about my career; urged the students to establish a retirement account beginning with their first post-college job; referred to the importance, a la the Woody Allen quote, of showing up; and described both the enjoyable and pragmatic aspects of staying in touch with friends and former colleagues. I concluded:

The other thing I want to talk about is the serendipity of life, the randomness … how sometimes you are taking a critical step but have no idea you're doing so.

I'm always somewhat amused when people say you have to plan your life and follow that life plan. And, yes, you do need to arm yourself with both the best possible education and a strong work ethic. But I think so much of life is luck, catching a break, and that what is key is being ready to take advantage when that break comes your way.

When I was a junior here at Georgia, a journalism class taught by a talented instructor, the late Dan Kitchens, required that we write for The Red and Black. I did so and was quickly hooked . . . the instant gratification of your byline in the paper . . . the license it gives you to go out and cover news, meet new people, see new places. Now, you'll notice no brilliant strategy on my part. I wrote articles because I was required to do so.

The copy editor job was the No. 3 position on the paper. No one wanted the job. I said I'd do it. I didn't know the first thing about it, but studied it as quickly as I could and worked hard — I showed up. Being in the No. 3 job made me a plausible candidate to be editor, and I went for it. So, something like seven months after I wrote my first Red and Black story, I was its editor. How unlikely. Were there people better qualified for that copy editor job? Absolutely. But, they did NOT apply.

The Red and Black back then was tabloid-sized and came out only twice a week. We decided to go for a broadsheet paper four days a week. Our team included student business manager Joe Belew, a good friend for nearly 40 years who, so sadly, died earlier this year of a heart attack. We put the printing out for bid and the Athens papers, which had held the printing contract for years without competition, lost the business and the revenue. They saw our four-days-a-week paper as a competitive threat and started a campus edition with the declared intention of putting us out of business.

Working extremely hard with colleagues who are friends to this day — yes, I stayed in contact — the new Red and Black was a huge success. Advisors like now-retired Grady professor Wally Eberhard, and Smythe Newsome, the Washington, Ga., newspaper publisher who won the competitive bid, were of immeasurable help. The Athens papers lost money on its campus edition, and closed it down. The Red and Black was named one of the five best college papers in the country.

This led to The Atlanta Constitution asking me to be its Athens stringer, then later staff writer. I eventually covered the state Capitol and met Governor Carter. Still later I quit the paper to work in his campaign — an obvious choice now; not so obvious then. That led to the White House and later ABC News and later still I went to work with a friend from the Carter White House — I'd stayed in contact, right?

So, let's follow this [read rapid fire]:

Required to work on The Red and Black
Which led to copy editor
Which led to editor
Which led to Constitution stringer
Which led to Constitution staffer
Which led to the state Capitol
Which led to Jimmy Carter
Which led to a long-shot presidential campaign
Which led to four years in the White House
Which led to ABC News
Which led to assignments in Washington, New York, Atlanta
Which led to London
Which led to Washington
Which led to me being with you tonight.

I defy you to put that in a life plan. I sure didn't.

Now, what's the lesson here? That's right, The Red and Black copy editor job. I took a job no one else wanted and it led to a lot of things I could never have anticipated. Without that copy editor job I'm not sure any of the rest would have followed. I would not have made it as quickly — if at all — to The Constitution. My timing would have been off in meeting Jimmy Carter. And so forth.

So, I leave you with this thought: there's a LOT of serendipity in life. You don't know how your life will turn out. You can't know how your life will turn out. That's the joy of life, and its sometimes sadness.

But you have age on your side. Get out there and take chances, and when you catch a break, give it your all to make it pay off.

And open that retirement account. Thanks very much.

My time on The Red and Black, then housed in the Grady School, was by far my most rewarding experience at Georgia. With great enthusiasm, a group of us often worked far into the night — on deadline using our now-anachronistic manual typewriters and rotary phones.

Although our grades sometimes suffered, we were putting into practice much of what we learned in the classroom while at the same time acquiring skills and knowledge that can only be learned by actually practicing a craft.

That enthusiasm and those skills and knowledge served many of us well in the years to come. Plus, it was a lot of fun. I look back on The Red and Black, and the Grady School (now Grady College), with great fondness.

About the Author
Rex Granum is a Partner of Prism Public Affairs, L.L.C. He offers strategic, crisis and issues communication counsel as well as advocacy writing and message development. His counsel is based on years of communications experience as a network news executive, White House spokesman and newspaper reporter. Prior to joining Prism in 2003, he worked for ABC News for 22 years in a variety of management positions in Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta and London. Previously, he was Deputy Press Secretary in the Carter White House and a political reporter for The Atlanta Constitution.

More Alumni Reflections:
There's always a friend to be found at Grady by Lauren Patrick (ABJ '07)
It's simple: The Grady family is forever by Michael Gray (ABJ '11)
How to celebrate a centennial: recommit, reconvene, re-engage by Brittney Haynes (ABJ '09)
It's easy to feel a sense of community at Grady by Shannon Sullivan Collado (ABJ '10)
Grady offers growth by Julia Hemingway (ABJ '14)
Grady grads get more than a basic education by Eric NeSmith (ABJ '02)
Lost and Found at Grady by Susan Percy (ABJ '66)

Date: March 11, 2015
Author:  Rex Granum, rgranum@prismpublicaffairs.com