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I Stuck With Journalism Even After Enduring A Really Bad Journalism Teacher

the belmont hilltopper
Courtesy of Howard Wilkinson
One of Howard Wilkinson's very first bylines -- ever.

For nearly six years now, I have been walking into the journalism lab at Walnut Hills High School to help advise the staff of The Chatterbox, the student newspaper, put together a new issue.

It's been one of the most rewarding experiences of my 45 years as a journalist, working with these incredibly bright young people who are dedicated to doing accurate and well-written journalism in The Chatterbox.

They are serious about this. Do not ever accuse them of being purveyors of fake news. There's nothing fake about this bunch, and their dedication and enthusiasm helps keep this old ink-stained wretch going, even though I'm old enough to be their grandfather.

For me, it is like going back in time nearly 50 years to a time when I held the high-falutin' title of editor-in-chief at the Hilltopper, the student newspaper at Belmont High School in Dayton, Ohio.

A different time, for sure. A different set of interests and points of reference. Vastly different technology being employed by students working on laptop computers, while we clattered away on manual typewriters loaded with mimeograph paper.

But these kids at Walnut Hills High School – particularly this year's editor-in-chief, Caroline Horvath – have something that I never had at Belmont High School – a journalism teacher and faculty adviser who really cares about them and the work they do.

I did not have that as editor of my high school newspaper.

Samantha Gerwe-Perkins teaches journalism and supervises the Chatterbox staff, although she leaves most of the decisions about what gets covered and what does not to the students.

She is known to all of her students simply as "G-P," just because her full name is such a mouthful.

Spend an hour or two around G-P and watch her interact with her students and you can see how hard she works to spark their imaginations and plant the seeds of creativity in the fertile ground of their minds.

These kids are so bright that they talk incessantly in brainstorming sessions. It sounds like complete chaos, but out of chaos comes some awfully brilliant ideas.

G-P is the best.

She is nothing like the grumpy old man who was the journalism adviser during my year as editor of the Hilltopper. Mr. Palmer, with his shock of white hair, was clearly counting the days until he could retire and be rid of all of us.

He came to us in the fall of 1970, our senior year, to teach Journalism II and oversee the newspaper.

His predecessor in our junior year was Mrs. Titus, a very young teacher who seemed to us to be almost a contemporary. She was cool; she was hip; she could relate to us 17- and 18-year-old kids. We were devoted to her.

I personally would have walked through Hell in a gasoline suit for Mrs. Titus.

She was the one who appointed me to be editor-in-chief in the 1970-1971 school year; and chose the 13 students who made up the Hilltopper staff.

As our junior year was winding down, she called me aside and told me in confidence that she would not be at Belmont next year; she was moving out of town because her husband had a new job – in Denver, if I remember correctly.

A few days later, she made a general announcement to the class.

The administration will find a good replacement for me who will take over in the fall, she said. I am going to miss every one of you.

I was crestfallen.

She was one of the best teachers I ever had, and I was looking forward to working with her to put out a really good student newspaper. I saw Mrs. Titus and me as a team; a journalist juggernaut that would rewrite the rules that had existed since Belmont opened its doors in 1956.

But it was not to be.

Instead we were left with Mr. Palmer.

I knew it would be a disaster from Day One.

He was the kind of teacher who, if he saw any spark of creativity from a student, was determined to crush it like a dandelion under his wingtip shoes. If anyone showed pleasure or seemed as if they were having fun doing what they were doing, he would make it clear that no one was here to have fun.

Life in Palmer World was not about fun. Fun was for losers. The world is a cold, hard place. No room for enjoyment. No room for laughter.

Nose to the grindstone!, Palmer would say, repeatedly.

And I'd be muttering under my breath: Yeah, I'd like to put your nose under a grindstone, you old crank.

But for the most part, he would stay out of the journalism lab, where the actual work of putting the Hilltopper took place. He seemed to prefer sitting in his classroom next door, grading papers from the Journalism I students. Which was fine by us.

But, from time to time, I needed him to intervene – something he was reluctant to do.

Such as in the Gloria Affair.

A very studious young woman named Gloria had been named the news editor of the Hilltopper – the second ranking position at the paper.

Her job was to lay out the front page of each issue; and, in consultation with me, choose the stories.

It became apparent early on that Gloria had a penchant for putting stories on the front page that involved her extracurricular activities, always with a photograph featuring her.

Once she put herself on the front page two issues in a row – first as a cast member of the theater department's production of Our Town (a staple of high school drama), and secondly when she won a $500 scholarship from Dayton Power & Light in the power company's junior homemaker contest.

I pulled Gloria aside and asked that she cease and desist from plastering herself all over the front page of the newspaper.

This is not the Gloria Hilltopper; it is the Belmont Hilltopper. We're not doing this to create our own personal scrapbooks.

To say I ruffled her feathers is putting it mildly.

She ran to Palmer and started complaining that I was interfering with her page and not letting her do her job.

The next thing I knew I was called in by Palmer, who dressed me down and made it clear that I should leave it alone. Those are news stories too, Palmer said. They belong in the newspaper.

Finally, after making a case to his deaf ears, I turned around and walked out, muttering under my breath. What a jerk... only I didn't use the word jerk.  

What did you say?, Palmer yelled. Never mind, I said, sulking as I walked back to the lab, where Gloria sat with a snarky grin on her face.

But, despite Palmer, we were determined to have a good time putting out the paper.

I was churning out editorials and signed columns, along with my very first politics story - an "exclusive" interview with Dayton's congressman, Charles Whalen, who was a liberal Republican back in the day when such politicians still existed.

I loved writing reviews – I did music (Paul McCartney's first solo album after The Beatles broke up) and movies (I remember reviewing Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, a movie I liked then and still do).

We always had plenty of letters to the editor. This was my favorite, under the headline Gum Board Removed.

"You asked me to write a letter if I would like to be heard. Well, I want to be heard! I think the gum poster in our cafeteria is a disgrace to any place called a cafeteria. Everytime I get a sandwich I feel a little sick by the time I get by all that ABC gum (already been chewed). I, myself, believe it should be put where it belongs, in the trash, not on display for all to see.

"Please see what can be done about this."

Connie D.

Our editorial editor, Steve Swallow, had a satisfactory response.

"It also seems that Mr. Smart (the principal) shares your opinion about this. Upon our request, he saw to it that the gum board was removed. The reason behind the gum board was that it kept people from depositing their gum in such places as the milk shake machine and sandwiches."

Tell me we didn't make a difference in students' lives. We spared them the disgusting site of a wall full of chewed up Bazooka and Dubble Bubble.

In October 1970, staff reporter Mark Rocklin wrote an obituary piece when Jimi Hendrix died at the age of 27.

We did wall-to-wall coverage of the second Earth Day celebration in April 1971; published students' poetry; a review of an early Elton John concert in Dayton; sponsored a student short story contest and covered like the morning dew all of the Belmont Bison sports teams.

And we had great fun doing it, despite the cranky old man listed on our masthead as the Hilltopper adviser.

Palmer was awful, but he wasn't enough to drive me away from a career in journalism.

Every time I wander into the journalism lab at Walnut Hills High School, the thought crosses my mind that I would have been a lot better off if I had a high school journalism teacher like G-P.

But, of course, G-P wasn't even born yet when I was editor-in-chief.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.


Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.