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A journalism career inspired by one teacher

Published May 25, 2003

This is a note of thanks to my high school English teacher, Beatrice Hendricks, who died at the age of 88 in Georgia last week. I want to thank her for first forcing me to write and then encouraging me to write. I want to thank her for showing me that I didn't have to settle for the limited options circumstances presented me with as I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I want to thank her for setting this farm boy on a course that has taken him beyond the wildest dreams of his youth.

Don't tell me a teacher can't make a difference in young lives. I know better. Mrs. Hendricks introduced me to journalism, which was my ticket off the farm and to the big city. But it was more than an escape route; it was a highway to heaven - heaven being a working life in the newspaper business. I can't imagine a better way to make a living, or a more satisfying trade.

I've had my share of lucky breaks over the years, but my greatest luck was to wind up in Mrs. Hendricks' freshman English class in the fall of 1959, the first of four years under her instruction and encouragement. She stood out among the women teachers in those days. She dressed smartly and fashionably (some of her teaching colleagues thought she wore her skirts a little too tight). Her blonde hair was perfectly coiffed and frosted. And, as far as I know, she was the only woman teacher at the school who smoked cigarettes.

In the classroom, she knew her challenge was to engage young minds not only in the study of literature but in the rules of grammar. I'm sure many of her students, given a choice, would rather have been picking cotton than diagramming sentences. The rap against Mrs. Hendricks among students was that she was too demanding.

Her teaching philosophy was simple: The best way to study literature is to read literature, and the best way to learn how to write is to write. Freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors - if you were in Mrs. Hendricks' English class, you would write and write and write. Every student was required to write a short essay each week. No exceptions. If you couldn't come up with a subject, she would come up with one for you.

I don't remember the subject of my first essay, but I remember my surprise when it came back with an A+

grade. Before I landed in her class, my writing had consisted of a few book reports. The A's kept coming and she began reading my essays to the class, citing them as an example of a fertile imagination. I was hooked. With her encouragement and support, I entered a short story in a national competition and, to my astonishment, it won second place (it was published in the magazine of the National Beta Club, an honor society; I came across a copy a few years ago and, Lord, was it awful).

The next thing I knew Mrs. Hendricks was steering me toward a career in journalism. She told me about a local boy who had made it big. His name was Harold Martin, who wrote a column for the Atlanta Constitution and roamed the world as a contributing editor for the Saturday Evening Post. He had perfect pitch and few peers as a writer. He had grown up in Commerce, where Mrs. Hendricks lived, about 10 miles down the road from Homer. She suggested I write him a letter asking for advice on how to break into the newspaper business. The mail was too slow. So I hopped a Greyhound to Atlanta and showed up unannounced at Martin's office. I can't remember what his advice was, but after high school graduation I wound up at the University of Georgia and began pestering Harold Martin and Gene Patterson, who was then editor of the Constitution, for a summer job.

They came through for me, and I have spent the past 37 years working for newspapers - the Atlanta Constitution, the Miami Herald, the Washington Star, the New York Times and now the St. Petersburg Times - and occasionally wondering what I would be doing if Mrs. Hendricks had never entered my life. I have no idea what other line of work I might have chosen. All I know is I've had the time of my life in the news business. I've questioned presidents and flown with them on Air Force One; I've covered popes and superpower summits, urban riots and natural disasters; I reported on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights revolution and space shots, airline crashes and presidential campaigns.

I've had a wonderful run in this business, and I owe it mainly to a high school English teacher. My only regret is that I lost touch with her over the years. That's why I had to write this, to say thank you again to someone who touched my life.

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