News Editorial

NU journalism students taught by Texas professor

Class is given via the Internet

By Eric Rineer
Alumni News staff

If you could see footage of David McHam’s life, you would probably see him eating lunch with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey or maybe talking with former President Lyndon Johnson. He may even be getting yelled at by legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.

McHam, a professor from Texas, taught journalism students at the University of Nebraska during spring semester. He drew from his reporting experiences to teach NU’s depth reporting class, which he instructed from his hometown in Texas. He communicated with his students via e-mail and telephone and spent two days a month on the NU campus. That way, he also could teach reporting at the University of Texas in Arlington.

Reporting experiences

McHam’s reporting experiences are the kinds of things most journalists would envy. Forty years ago, McHam was finishing a degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. The year was 1960. He decided to try to interview Dempsey, a prizefighter from 1914-27, who held the heavyweight title for seven years. Having retired from boxing, Dempsey owned and operated a popular New York City restaurant.

McHam just called the restaurant and asked Dempsey for the interview. The former champion agreed, and the two met at the restaurant on a weekday afternoon. McHam’s interview with Dempsey turned into a front-page article for the Houston Post, for which McHam had been writing during graduate school.

The Post was publishing a serialization of Dempsey’s book over a week-long span. McHam’s interview ran with the first installment of the serialization. Not only did McHam’s byline make the front page, but Dempsey also sent McHam an autographed copy of his book. The champion signed McHam’s copy “To my Texas friend.”

McHam, who was accustomed to interviewing prominent figures, graduated from Baylor University before attending Columbia in 1959.

The Green Bay incident

After earning the M.A. at Columbia, he returned to Texas to teach at Baylor and report for the Waco News-Tribune. In 1966, McHam did a sidebar on a Green Bay Packers versus Dallas Cowboys preseason game. He was interviewing Donny Anderson, a star rookie running back on the Green Bay team, when he encountered an upset Lombardi.

“Don’t talk to that boy,” the coach told McHam. It was a Lombardi policy not to allow his rookie players to talk to the press. McHam backed off.

“He seemed to have the kind of presence that I instinctively knew not to do it,” McHam said. Some reporters may have held a grudge against Lombardi — the winner of the first two Super Bowls — but McHam rates his incident with the football coach as one of his most memorable reporting experiences. “I mean, who else do you know that was yelled at by Vince Lombardi?” he asked.

The Green Bay incident wasn’t the only time McHam had an interview request turned down. He once saw Fidel Castro entering a New York City hotel and asked the Cuban president, “Can I ask you some questions?” Castro just stared and walked into the hotel.

Most of McHam’s journalistic experiences were more successful than his encounter with Castro. He helped cover the 1960 presidential campaign and was the makeup editor at the Waco-News Tribune when the first astronauts landed on the moon. He wrote for the Associated Press in 1983 and has worked at the Houston Post and the Dallas Times Herald, He’s been teaching journalism for nearly 40 years.

Journalism background

Mike Stricklin, NU professor of journalism, said he wasn’t surprised at the types of individuals McHam interviewed during his career.

He said McHam was an expert at knowing how to network. Stricklin got to know McHam at Baylor when Stricklin enrolled in a typography class McHam was teaching. McHam expected a lot from his students, Stricklin recalled.

“We grew to hate (his) current events quizzes,” Stricklin said. “His point was, if you’re going to be a journalist, you have to know about a lot of things.”

Stricklin said he learned a lot from McHam. He had the professor for advanced reporting and a number of other journalism courses in addition to typography. He later taught with McHam at Baylor, and the two have remained friends for the past 30 years.

Former students

What impresses Stricklin the most about McHam is the type of journalists he produces. Two former students work for the Philadelphia Inquirer — one of whom is the president of the Greater Philadelphia Newspaper Guild. Another former student is an editorial page editor in Roanoke, Va., and one was a member of the Alaska Legislature for 10 years. Another former student is an the editor at Newsday on Long Island, N.Y. , and one is the editor of the Anchorage Daily News. Two other former students are the editor and managing editor for the Houston Chronicle. The list doesn’t stop.


But there’s another side to McHam besides the successful teacher and reporter. McHam likes to make people laugh, his friends said.

Will Norton Jr., dean of journalism and mass communications, chuckled about an incident he recalls.

Norton was a professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford when McHam came to visit one year. Norton and McHam had known each other since 1975, when they met at a Society of Professional Journalists meeting in Philadelphia. In Oxford, McHam and some friends, along with Norton, drove through some neighborhoods tossing newspapers onto driveways. The newspapers weren’t from Mississippi, however.

McHam had done a workshop at the Anchorage Daily News and was still receiving a subscription of the Anchorage paper at Baylor. He kept copies of the Anchorage paper in the trunk of his car. When he arrived in Oxford, the newspapers were still there. The morning after McHam and his friends delivered the goods to the driveways, the residents couldn’t figure out where the papers came from.

Norton laughed when he told about the prank.

“It’s not just the Anchorage paper,” Norton said, “but it’s from five weeks ago — it took a long time to get delivered.”

The newspaper-tossing incident was one of many of McHam’s practical jokes. Pat Dougherty, one of McHam’s former students, now the editor of the Anchorage paper, remembers another.

One year in Alaska, Dougherty was attending a friend’s birthday party. His friend was a fan of the late Willie Morris, a nationally renowned writer and magazine editor from Oxford, Miss. McHam knew about the woman’s admiration for Morris and decided to do something about it. He contacted Morris and asked him to call Dougherty’s friend at the party and say happy birthday. Morris agreed.

When the phone call came, the woman “just sort of holds the phone out and says: ‘You aren’t shittin’ me?’” Dougherty said.

“It was great.”

Though he’s capable of a prank or two, McHam’s friends would probably talk more about his journalistic background. They might mention his teaching awards, or maybe some of the topics he covered as reporter. In 1994, for example, he was named the outstanding teacher in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. The Society of Professional Journalists named him the outstanding journalism teacher in the nation the same year.

“What I think is, he is an incredibly active person, and he really wants to help people reach their potential,” Norton said.

“He’s one of several people I consider major players in my life.”

Dougherty agreed, saying McHam was a major influence on him in college.

“I was so impressed by David and what journalism seemed to be through his eyes that I thought what I wanted to be was a journalist.

“I never really looked back after that. That became my life.”

As McHam reflected on his career, he said he would teach as long as he could. “There’s almost nothing in the world more interesting and exciting,” he said. “I was always surprised that they were paying me to do this. It is such a great thing to do.”