I tell the same story every year. I tell the same story, and I see some of the returning Rocket staffers roll their eyes and a few take out their phones. But I tell it anyway. I tell it because it means something to me and because it is true and because it explains a lot about who I am, who I was, and why student journalism is so important to me.
Here is the short version.
A long time ago in a mythical place called Missouri, a young undergraduate at Northwest Missouri State University, a state university in a god-forsaken corner of the state (sound familiar?), was struggling. I had matriculated at the university as a broadcast major with some vague idea of becoming a disc jockey. After a few semesters this seemed like a silly goal, and besides that, all the broadcast majors were just too…earnest. Perhaps I missed the memo, but playing records and reporting on the bovine futures didn’t really seem like a calling but apparently I was alone in that opinion.
One day I wandered quite by chance into the office of The Missourian, the campus newspaper (a girl might have been involved but my memory is fuzzy on this detail). I do remember talking to a few of the editors of The Missourian during my visit. They were funny, caustic, irreverent, sarcastic, and fiercely intelligent. I also think a few of them were drunk at 2:00 in the afternoon. I was shocked. I was appalled. I was home.
When I now tell Rocket students that I “lived” in the office of The Missourian they take it as a metaphor. It isn’t. After finding my people I spent every free waking and sleeping hour of my life in the office. This was possible because back in those days The Missourian was housed in a stand-alone building in the middle of a remote quad. (I went back to NWMSU to visit last summer and discovered the school had placed their new football field right on top of the former location of my student newspaper. I died a little that day. Actually, I died a lot.)
It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that The Missourian saved my life. Without a doubt, my time at The Missourian saved my academic career. In the office of The Missourian I learned a lot about the practice of journalism but more importantly I learned about friendship, loyalty, honesty and the value of working hard every day.
Fast forward about 15 years and I am sitting on the second floor of Eisenberg on the campus of Slippery Rock University waiting to interview for my dream job as an Assistant Professor and adviser of The Rocket. In my mind, this job is my chance to pay back all the things that were given to me by The Missourian during my undergraduate career. I am told that The Rocket is a divisive shambles and they need someone to inspire what remains of the staff and move the paper into the future.
“We think it might be a good idea to have a website for the newspaper,” I am told by the chair of the search committee.
“No problem, I can do that,” I say with confidence. I have no idea how to make a website. I have only a working knowledge of how e-mail works.
“We think it might be a good idea if the newspaper production process becomes completely digital,” I am told by the chair of the search committee.
“No problem, I can do that,” I say with a little less confidence. I have no idea what they are talking about. I smile a lot. They smile back.
One week later, much to my amazement, I am informed I have the job. I tell my wife we are moving to Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. She indicates her excitement by hurling most of the plates in our kitchen directly at my head. The adventure begins.
In preparation for my new position, I bought a copy of “Quark for Dummies” and looked around for some cheap website design software I could buy. I settled on Claris Home Page because it seemed like the simplest program and it came conveniently loaded on two floppy discs. When I arrived on campus in August, I found The Rocket office stuffed with design tables, wax machines and line tape—all the tools needed to manually lay out a newspaper page. I dragged everything into the hall and proceeded to dismantle all the tables so there was no turning back. Some of my colleagues’ first impressions of me were of a crazy man smashing tables in the hallway. They kept their distance for several months.
When the semester started, I was sure I was going to be fired at any minute because eventually someone would figure out I was a total fraud. But much to my surprise no one seemed to notice or particularly care that I didn’t know what I was doing. I kept my head down and hid in the Rocket office working with my student editors from morning until night. They probably taught me more those first few months than I taught them.
I could lie and say the first few months weren’t rough but they were. But eventually all the pieces started to fall together. The students recognized what I was trying to accomplish and the value of working as hard as you can to create a quality product for your audience. They began to see the advantage of putting the organization first and putting yourself second. After those first few rocky months I looked around and realized we were producing an excellent newspaper each week using what, for the time, was cutting edge desktop design technology.
I was also The Rocket’s first webmaster. In those days our print deadline was 2 a.m. I would usually get home about 3 a.m., sleep for an hour, then get up and come back to campus to get The Rocket’s stories up on the website by 6 a.m. Then I would teach class all day. At the time this seemed like a perfectly reasonable schedule. I was actually kind of sad when we hired a student to act as our webmaster.
Just two short years later I found myself at the College Media Association/ Associated College Press convention in Atlanta, watching as my latest Rocket staff wins a Pacemaker award for college journalism excellence, probably the most prestigious award in college journalism. Even I was surprised about how far we had come in such a short time.
What is the moral? If a lost little boy from little Northwest Missouri State University can make a success of himself, then so can you at little Slippery Rock University. All it takes is hard work, integrity and dedication to your craft—and a little luck.
This is usually where the story ends.
These days I don’t get as big a reaction to the story as I used to get. Maybe I don’t tell it as well or maybe the world has just become a more jaded place. In any event, I won’t be telling the story again. My adventure with The Rocket officially ends today.
A lot has happened in my life since I arrived to advise The Rocket 19 years ago. In the last 19 years, I have moved eight times and lived in three houses and five apartments. In the last 19 years, I misplaced one wife, fell in love twice and, unless I am completely mistaken, had one person fall in love with me, albeit briefly. In the last 19 years, I have watched Slippery Rock University evolve from a friendly little university where the administration was filled with chummy alumni into an efficient but cold educational machine.
The constant in my life has always been The Rocket, whether I was officially advising them or not. Next year the phenomenal Dr. Brittany Fleming will be taking over the advising of The Rocket, and she will begin the work of merging The Rocket with WSRU-TV. This is a change that I not only support but instigated. I think the merging of the two organizations is long overdue and will be a good thing for our students. But I would be lying if I said that I don’t get a little sad when I realize that The Rocket I know and love will soon be gone forever.
I intentionally haven’t mentioned any individual Rocket staff members in this column; not because I couldn’t think of any that I wanted to talk about but because there are far too many wonderful students to mention in this brief space. I don’t want to leave anyone out. But I know that former Rocket staffers are all over the world working as journalists, college professors, public relations professionals and in dozens of other impressive professions. I hope each staff member that passed through the door remembers their time at The Rocket as fondly as I do. I hope that The Rocket office provided a place for them to work, study and most importantly, make life-long friends. I hope a few of them remember me and their time at The Rocket and they smile. I guess at the end of the day that isn’t a bad legacy. I’ll take it. I’m ready for the next adventure.
Dr. Mark Zeltner is an Associate Professor of Communication at Slippery Rock University. During his time as Rocket advisor the organization won a Pacemaker, a Pinnacle and over 400 regional and national college journalism awards from The Pennsylvania Press Association, the American Scholastic Press Association, The Columbia Scholastic Press Association, The Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Collegiate Journalists. If you need to find him this summer, he will be sitting at the end of the bar at the Mother-In-Law Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana. If you ask nicely, he will let you buy him a beer. Don’t ask him about The Rocket. He isn’t ready to talk about it yet.