The teacher who launched my career

12/2/2014 by Maura Casey

 Laird B. Anderson was a journalist, an Army veteran, but above all, a teacher. In October, he died in his sleep at the age of 78.

Laird taught journalism at The American University in Washington, D.C., and for years he chaired its graduate school of Journalism and Public Affairs.

The editorial writing class he taught inspired me - and any number of other students - to make a career of opinion writing.

Laird expected his students to be, not just good journalists, but good citizens, with a passion for the First Amendment and a desire to make the world a better place through their chosen profession.

He had a special zeal for editorial writing, sparked when, as a young newspaper reporter, he filled in for a staff editorial writer who went on vacation for a week.  Anderson loved writing opinion and his once-a-week class in editorial writing became well-known. He taught opinion writing as an art form and encouraged vigorous debate among his students for the second half of every class, when we would form an editorial board to discuss issues.

Laird chose the 8 a.m. time slot for his class deliberately – some of us suspected he would have chosen 5 a.m. if the university allowed it – and was famous for entering the classroom, a foot-high stack of editorials under his arm, and opening the windows, wide, for at least a few minutes, even in the middle of the coldest winter day. He exuded confidence and yet he was just a few inches taller than five feet in height. Because he was a colonel in the Army reserves, one male student was heard to joke that if the class didn’t do well, he might make us all do push-ups.

It never happened. Laird had a tough exterior but was a tireless advocate for his students within and beyond the classroom, helping them find places to live and lending a sympathetic ear to their troubles. He was ever-mindful of the expense of graduate school and worked hard to ease the burden, making at least a third of our class graduate assistants.

The last slot, the day before classes were to start, went to me. My job? Cleaning the typewriters once a week in the student newsroom.  (It was 1982, after all). For that, the university knocked $2,000 off the then-breathtaking tuition of $7,000; gave me a stipend of nearly $200 a month and a coveted parking space behind Mary Graydon Hall, which housed the communications program. I was over the moon.

Laird became an unofficial father to many of us and a role model in many ways. For example: when he spoke of his wife, his face would light up. It was clear that he adored her, and at the time of his death, they had been married 44 years.

While still a student, I became engaged, and I told Laird I wanted to keep my name. He wasn’t merely supportive, he was enthusiastic, telling me that he and his wife had to go to court in Florida for her to keep her name. Florence Ashby, Laird’s wife,  confirmed the story, with a twist; she said Florida law in 1970 required a woman to take her husband’s name, but statutes said nothing to prevent her from changing her name backafter marriage. When she and Laird went to court to arrange it, the judge in the case, reading the law, confirmed to the couple that their interpretation was correct. “But don’t tell my wife,” he said, and granted the request.

As graduation neared, I became increasingly nervous about my ability to find a job. My husband-to-be, Peter Panzarella, and I were going to move to Boston so Pete could obtain a graduate degree in psychology. But neither of us had any contacts there. Then as now, it was tough to find a job in journalism and I began to express my fears to Laird.

He cut me off mid-sentence. Showing an officer’s impatience with a young recruit, Laird barked, “Your job – your JOB – is not to buy into to the world’s negativity. There is no end to the number of people who will tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t listen. What you need to do – and all you need to concentrate on for the next several months – is to take the hill. Hear?” He leaned towards me, his eyes narrowing. “TAKE. THE. HILL,” he said.

His words yanked me out of my self-pity. I got busy, writing letters to every editor whose name I could find in the Boston area, and on my wedding day, while my sisters were fixing my hair, I typed one last letter to Matthew Storin, then-managing editor of the Boston Globe. When I arrived in Boston I met with Storin as well as other editors. But Storin was the biggest help; he told me I was too green for the Globe, but that I should apply to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, 25 miles away. I did, and three weeks after moving into our basement apartment in Somerville, I started as a reporter at the Eagle-Tribune. Six weeks later, editor Dan Warner made me editorial page editor largely on the strength of editorials I had written in Laird Anderson’s class.

One memory about Laird has always guided my thinking about our profession: In class one day a student asked Laird what he considered to be the most important quality of a journalist. He could have given a hundred answers. But without hesitation, Laird replied, “Compassion.” Unless compassion drove our motives and our reporting, we wouldn’t be the professionals, or the human beings, we ought to be, he said.

The word “compassion” has its roots in two Latin words, which together mean, “to feel with.”

Laird B. Anderson “felt with” his wife, his students, his country, and any who needed him.

He touched those he met by his example as a journalist and as a man.

He made the world a better place.

 

 

 

 

Comments:

by Larry Checco on 12/2/2014 at 12:37:28 PM
Very nice piece, Maura. Yesterday, Greta, Nathan Seppa, Ken Terrell and I represented our class at the celebration of Laird's life, held at AU. Very moving event. The man truly touched many lives. Very glad I made the effort to have lunch with him several times in recent years. Unfortunately, towards the end he lost a lot of his physicality, but never his Lairdness, which you so wonderfully brought to life in your piece. We'll all miss him.

by Donna on 12/2/2014 at 12:52:26 PM
Beautifully written. It sounds like the admiration was two sided. You made him proud. 😊

by maura casey on 12/2/2014 at 12:52:42 PM
Thank you, Larry. He was a great man. I so envy that you had the ability and the thoughtfulness to have lunch with him over the years.

by Gregory Enns on 12/2/2014 at 7:46:20 PM
Maura, Thanks for this beautiful tribute. I think "take the hill'' resonates with many of us and is certainly a big part of Laird's legacy. Larry, thanks to you, Greta, Nathan and Ken for representing us.

by Carol Kaplan on 8/12/2015 at 5:51:36 PM
Maura, sorry this response is so late but I just found this essay. Wow. I just experienced a time warp and found myself reliving 1983. You brought Laird back to life and renewed my memories of his impact on my career. I remember so many things he said. On the first day of class as we all sat anxiously in our seats, Prof. Anderson called named aloud and ordered those called to stand. "Name the members of the President's cabinet," was his first direction. One by one the students sat down embarrassed by their failure. "By the end of this semester, you will all be able to name all members of the president's cabinet, but the Supreme Court and congressional leadership, by party." You could hear a pin drop. That set the tone for the rest of the year, a baseline for the level of professionalism he expected of us. "The definition of a professional is someone who does their best work on their worst day," he said. That statement stays with me every day I sit at a keyboard.


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