The year was 1998. A lot of things happened that year, from the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal to the New York Yankees winning the World Series. But at Slippery Rock, it was the year Mark Zeltner joined the SRU staff.
Rewind a little bit, and you can find the start of his path. If you catch him at a good time, he’ll be more than happy to tell you about it.
His journey started at another small Division II college in Missouri, which nowadays is a sports powerhouse. That school is Northwest Missouri State University (NMSU).
As an undergrad there, Zeltner felt at home. The lavish lifestyle of the much bigger University of Missouri just wasn’t for him. Not yet at least.
“I went to Northwest Missouri State for the same reason a lot of you guys come here, it’s close by and they had the best broadcasting major in the state other than the University of Missouri,” Zeltner said. “I thought that was too big, too expensive and too far away [from home].”
After a stint with some small newspapers, he pursued an MA in Education at The University of Tulsa. There, they encouraged him to become a professor. He did eventually go to Missouri.
“I finally went to [the] University of Missouri, but I didn’t go there because I’m from there,” Zeltner said, “I went there because it was the best school in the country.”
His teaching career finally started, but in a little bit of an odd spot. Wilson College, at that time an all-girls school, was in need of someone to help bring their school newspaper back to life.
“Their newspaper had died, and I hadn’t really thought about advising newspapers, even though I had worked for newspapers before,” Zeltner said. “They said, ‘The newspaper is dead, and we want you to revive the newspaper,’ and I told them I could do that because I needed a job.”
Zeltner pulled up to their campus and got to work with their staff of just two women. It had been just about two years since they had produced a paper, and after some work and a little bit of time, it was back.
In the five years Zeltner spent there, he oversaw the revival of the paper and in that period, they also won a few awards.
Then, Zeltner got wind of a job in another small, rural town in Pennsylvania. That job of course was a communications professor opening at Slippery Rock University.
In his mind, he wasn’t planning on staying here for long. This job would be another move to catapult him somewhere else closer to home.
“I came here thinking, because I’m not from around here, probably I’ll do five years here and go somewhere else,” Zeltner said. “That was 23 years ago, so I obviously did not do that.”
It was weird. Something about this rural place felt almost like home. Or, as close to it as he could get to it.
“You know I went to Northwest Missouri State University, which is a carbon copy of Slippery Rock,” Zeltner said. “It’s a public university, which used to be a teacher’s college out in the middle of rural Missouri.”
When he was at NMSU, he got to have those close relationships and hands-on experience, while still having a fairly big campus. The Rock’s environment felt exactly like that, and it drew him in. Slippery Rock turned out to be the missing piece to Zeltner’s puzzle.
“I thought it was a pretty good fit, and it turned out to be a good fit and it’s why I stayed so long,” Zeltner said.
Stepping in, Zeltner once again had the task of helping a struggling newspaper. The Rocket had been having a lot of trouble before Zeltner arrived. His first move was to make things all digital.
“When I got here, they were still doing it manually with tape, so we went all digital, which was unusual in time,” Zeltner said. “There was [the] only printer in the state that could do it from digital.”
Back then, The Rocket was still a weekly newspaper. So, when things were still being done manually, there would be a weekly drive to give all the stuff to the printer in New Castle. Zeltner, luckily enough, never had to do that.
A big task back then was figuring out how to fill the pages, but with all the news that happens on campus, it wasn’t hard. The weekly print edition became a grind. A grind that Zeltner grew to love.
“Our weekly print edition was about 26 pages, sometimes it was 20 pages, but for the most part, we kept it at 26, and our staff wasn’t any bigger than it is now,” Zeltner said. “It was tiring, but it was a lot of fun and it was the best part of the job.”
The next step was eventually creating a website. Zeltner was the first one to introduce a website and it was The Rocket’s first website master. To think about it now seems unusual, as The Rocket is a digital-first publication, but that all started with Zeltner.
“I was the first webmaster, and I created the name,” Zeltner said. “I was the webmaster for a year before I got students to take over.”
Still, back then The Rocket was a print-first publication. Each week, there were 6,000 copies printed and as soon as they’d hit the shelves, they’d be gone. Zeltner used to have to hold on to papers for students. It took a bit for the website to catch on.
The Rocket obviously wasn’t the only thing that Zeltner was doing here.
While also being The Rocket’s advisor, Zeltner was teaching his classes. He taught mostly journalism classes, and for a lot of them, he’s still teaching even in his final days as a professor. New media journalism is one of those classes.
“When I do that class, I make students go out and actually talk to people and report,” Zeltner said.
As it would go, six years after becoming the advisor of The Rocket, Zeltner stepped down to become the head of SRU’s communication department. Those three years were different for him.
“It’s a lot and it’s a thankless job,” Zeltner said. “I always used to say I did six years of managing college students and three years of managing college professors, and I’ll take managing college students every day.”
After being the head of the department, he once again took the role of being the advisor for The Rocket. He missed it, more than he’d like to admit.
“It was weird,” he said. “We hired someone specifically to be the advisor of The Rocket, and it’s why I was able to be department chair.
“But it was odd, and I never stopped being involved with The Rocket.”
Even though Zeltner did enjoy the university in general, there were a few times in which he had thoughts of leaving.
“Most of my friends and family are in the Midwest, so there was a time really, about 15 years ago, when I was pretty intent about going somewhere else, but I couldn’t find an opportunity or a job that fit as well,” Zeltner said.
Those thoughts never resulted in anything, except him returning to campus for yet another year at the school he had, in a way, fallen for.
Another seven years as the advisor went by quickly.
In the blink of an eye, there were conversations to make one person the advisor of both The Rocket and WSRU-TV. Those talks were about the current Rocket advisor Brittany Fleming.
“She came in, and we hired her to do WSRU-TV,” he said, “But we both had this idea because we were both working on the converged journalism major and the changing media environment.
“We both thought it would be easier for one advisor to do that instead of two.”
At first, Zeltner said Fleming struggled a little bit. The TV studio is in the Maltby Center, and The Rocket office is in the Eisenburg Classroom Building. But, thus far, she’s made it work really well. Zeltner said he knew she would, and that’s why he was so on board with her taking over.
Handing over the keys to the new advisor for the second time was a lot easier. This time, he knew he was handing it to someone he could trust.
“It wasn’t weird the second time because of Dr. Fleming, I knew she would be great,” Zeltner said. “The reality is, we’ve been partners in this, but she’s the boss.”
Before handing it over, Zeltner played a big part in making the decision to lower the number of print editions to just once a month. Something that is still done today.
Now down to his final days at Slippery Rock, you can see him here a lot more than usual. Some of that is because the current group of professors amazes him. In his time here, he feels he hasn’t seen such a good group.
“We have the greatest group of professors in this department that we’ve ever had,” Zeltner said. “They’re smarter, better teachers and it’s a very diverse group from people to thinking.”
Another reason is that things are normal. Had COVID-19 mandates continued any more semesters, he may not even be here. But the end of this semester has given him the end at the university that he had always envisioned.
“The restrictions are off, and the masks off, so the last six weeks have almost been normal, which is nice because I wanted a time when things were more or less normal,” Zeltner said.
Zeltner, who loves to travel, will be able to get a lot more of that in with the free time that he’ll have. Maybe he’ll even attend a Lizzo concert.
But even after all this time here, Zeltner is still able to stick to his roots as a Kansas City Chiefs fan.
While Slippery Rock will always have a piece of his heart, he’s from Missouri, through and through.
One thing is for sure, though; Zeltner won’t regret anything going out. His views have always remained the same, but if you ask him why he’s been here so much trying to enjoy every second, his answer will be simple.
“I think my attitude is, if you’re going to go to the party, you stay until the end,” Zeltner said.