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What Would Dale Do?

Posted by Kiki Schmitz on September 11, 2008

Kiki Schmitz and Hannah Sperandio

The room is full of journalists. Some mingle, hugging old friends, exchanging business cards and one-upping each other with post-graduation stories. A few wave frantically across the crowded conference room, gesturing to open seats beside them. Others sit off on their own, one man immersed in the business section of the New York Times, another typing furiously on his Blackberry, forehead creased in concentration.

Yet despite their differences, they all had one thing in common. They knew Dale. Dale Spencer graduated from the University of Missouri in 1948. From there, he went on to serve as an editor of the Columbia Missourian, ultimately returning to Mizzou as a J-School professor, serving as a faculty member up until his death in 1988. On Thursday, September 11th 2008, family and former students alike gathered to remember Spencer, and commemorate his time at the J-School.

One of Spencer’s former teaching assitants, George Kennedy, opens the discussion, asking Spencer’s former students to raise their hands. As the majority of the room lifted their palms in response, many laughed, pleasantly surprised to see just how far Spencer’s influence stretched.

Another of Spencer’s students, Paul Berning, speaks of Dale’s “not always gentle tutorage,” retelling an anecdote in which Spencer, working as the editor of the Missourian, sent Berning to deliver a message to another reporter, seated just twelve feet away. Berning walked back and forth between the two desks, relaying the increasingly perturbed responses (concerning the reporter’s sub par story) until finally, the colleague in question dropped his own story in the wastebasket.

“I don’t know what that story was about,” said Berning “but that day, the readers of Columbia were deprived.”

The audience chuckled, many recalling the exact same anecdote from their own time with Spencer, editing stories with “this thing called carbon paper” which, Berning explained, was “slow and cumbersome, and left you with dirty hands.”

Spencer was not afraid to get his hands dirty. Berning described him as “a strong believer in the free press” and Spencer’s own daughter, Melinda, has fond childhood memories of dinner table discussion, covering topics like Watergate and the free press with her father. “He liked being provocative, “ said Berning, “and controversial.”

From here, the focus shifted to a group discussion, covering a topic dear to Spencer—the first amendment.

“I really don’t think we could have a democracy if we don’t have a free press,” said Berning. “Can there be freedom if there is no press?”

His view was echoed by several audience members, each chiming in with their own beliefs on the economic burden’s faced by the press, and the government hurdles many in the industry struggle with.

Audience member John Ferrugia of Denver’s KMGH TV spoke of the conflicts faced by today’s journalists, especially in obtaining public records. According to Ferrugia, many government officials make it extraneously difficult for journalists to view public records, sometimes to the point where expensive legal action is necessary.

“I’ve been to court on four different occasions,” said Ferrugia “And we’ve gotten the records each time. No matter where you are, public officials are withholding. What is more important than the public being able to access public records? We found false arrests, reports on mistaken identities, and sloppy police work.”

Many of Spencer’s former students, like Ferrugia and Berning, fight to keep the free press message of their mentor alive. The battle, they feel, is worth it, even if it isn’t always an easy one.

“Where do we go from here?” said Kennedy. “Dale would prefer us to be up and out the door, in pursuit of a worthy end. What is a worthier end than promoting public and professional understanding?”




One Response to “What Would Dale Do?”

  1. Steve Tarter said

    Kiki–I want to send along my story on the centennial since you’re in it. Drop me a line. Thanks for your time and good luck at school! (Go Cubs!)

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