Good-bye to a mentor and a friend

04 Dec

Julie Jensen McDonald copyI have been a writer and reporter for many years, and I owe many people for any success I’ve had.

But no one deserves more credit than writer, reporter, author, playwright and teacher Julie Jensen McDonald of Davenport, who died November 25 at age 84.

When I was merely a self-taught writer of freelance magazine articles, Julie read some of them at a writers’ conference where she was teaching during the summer of 1988. She encouraged me to keep writing.

I was at a turning point in my life then. I had lost my job in the office at the Davenport Caterpillar plant the prior March due to the plant’s closing. I had worked in radio off and on, both part time and full time, since 1968 and was considering returning to college to study journalism.

In late August of 1988, in no small part because of Julie’s encouragement, I returned to St. Ambrose, where I’d graduated in 1971 with a speech and drama major, to spend two semesters earning a second major in mass communications with an emphasis on journalism.

Julie was one of my instructors there; I took her print journalism classes in news reporting and feature writing.

Julie told the students in my class that we were expected to attend. In earlier times, she said, she had baked cookies and brought them to class to encourage attendance.

But when that had not worked, she took to knocking on the dorm room doors of students who had skipped to ask them why they weren’t in class. They had better be sick!

That was typical Julie Jensen McDonald.

In those classes, I learned writing principles from Julie that I recall nearly daily. Others did, too.

TV producer Kelli Hoag says Julie “was tough and used red ink freely, but she helped me become a better writer. When I got my first ‘A’ on an article, it meant something to me. I met her again several years later and she remembered me, and that meant something to me, too.”

I vividly remember Julie waving her arms and swooping about the front of the classroom like a giant bird, saying “over” refers to a location — not quantity — as in “a bird flew over the city.” Per Julie: “The robber took over $100” is wrong. “The robber took more than $100” is correct.

“To this day, I can’t use the word ‘over’ when talking about an amount,” admits Hoag.

“And does ‘impact’ as a verb also set your teeth on edge?” asks publicist Lisa Lockheart, another former Julie McDonald student.

“I, too, learned a lot from Julie way back when,” says TV news anchor Kris Ketz. “Talented. Tough. She hated unnecessary words or phrases. Even as I write stories today, her classroom teachings almost ‘haunt’ me and that’s actually a good thing. A very good thing.”

In late 1988, while I was still her student, Julie arranged for me to become a correspondent at The Leader, a now defunct weekly paper.

Then, following my completion of the journalism major at St. Ambrose, The Leader hired me (at age 40!) as its summer intern. I have no doubt that Julie had a part in that decision.

When the internship ended, I stayed on as a reporter. Then I worked as the associate editor and later the managing editor before leaving in January 1997.

While working as an editor at The Leader, in an interesting role reversal, it was my honor to have Julie serve as one of my reporters.

Not surprisingly, she turned her stories in on time, and they were always “clean,” meaning they needed little to no editing, and they left no unanswered questions in the minds of those who read them.

Rather than working the phone to interview people for stories, Julie did it the old-fashioned way. She made an appointment, jumped into her pale yellow Buick and went to see them in person.

“I want to look them in the eye,” she said.

There is, of course, an advantage to doing it that way if you have the time; you get to see the interviewee’s reaction to the question you’ve asked.

Julie was a great writer, a nice person, a mentor and a friend. She had made a huge, positive difference in my life, and I had told her that more than once.

I will miss her. But like her other students, I’ll long remember the writing principles she taught.

Copyright 2013, by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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