Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Missing a Writing Mentor: RIP Bill Glavin

When I learned last week that he had died, I had not seen Bill Glavin in about 26 years. I had tried- sort of – to see him about 10 years ago, but the colleague in the office next door to his told me I’d missed him by 20 minutes. I had his home number, but didn’t use it, figuring my one-time college magazine journalism professor would not want to swap tales with me when I had my husband and two young sons in tow. I was wrong of course, he would have, I know, welcomed the whole tribe because he was much more than a teacher – Bill Glavin was a mentor.

Three times I was privileged to sit in Bill’s classroom at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where for 37 years he taught in the magazine journalism department (part of that as department chair). It’s still sort of astounding to me that, nearly three decades since graduation, when I sit down to write and especially when I edit, so many of the most important aspects of craft at my fingertips were first learned in Bill’s classroom. It’s often his booming voice and incisive advice I hear in my head even now. Plus, he was riotously funny, a rare and wonderful commodity in any teacher.

Bill was still in his 30s, a relatively new face at Newhouse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and, though he’d worked for more than a dozen years by then in newspaper and magazines, he was still closer in age to his students than most of the other faculty. This kept things interesting in the classroom, where Bill strove to recreate real-world journalism scenarios for the wannabe feature writers and magazine editors he taught. But he did so with a twist.

At the time a major country music fan, Bill once assigned us to fact check, restructure, line edit, copy edit, lay out, and write headlines and subheads for a disorganized piece about singer Willie Nelson. The Willie Nelson who was Bill’s idol.

He must have written the piece himself and then dismantled it, because even in its chopped up form, it was loaded with so much obscure information about the super star, that the fact-checking portion of the assignment alone sent many into paroxysms. It turned out the information was not so obscure, but buried under the more well-known prattle that was normally written about Nelson. In those pre-Internet days, however, that much fact-checking research meant dozens of hours, and not only in the library, but also in record shops (where we went, two or three at a time, to read every word on the backs of Nelson’s albums), and in one insane afternoon (resulting in a sobering bill), on the phone with assorted secretaries and one confused PR person in Nelson’s manager’s office. Ferreting out the easily confirmed facts from the less-easily-confirmed, and from the apparent untruths Bill had tossed in to challenge us, became a contest as much as an exercise in completeness.

Nelson was a singer I enjoyed but didn’t think much about and yet acing that assignment meant more to me than a lot of other more traditionally "important” college projects. In hindsight I can see that it was one of Bill’s gifts to not only teach the fundamentals of magazine writing and editing, but to mold students into the kind of curious, meticulous, insatiable, probing people who would not only be good at, but be happy, to work with words for the sake of shaping them into stories that in turn are gifts to readers.

Bill was honored as the Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence—Syracuse University’s highest teaching honor—the first year it was awarded. His office door was forever open, his schedule always flexible enough to handle any student’s urgent question, perceived dilemma, or half-baked idea, and it seems nothing changed since I was a student. He got excited any time a student landed a real-world magazine article assignment, and made himself available as a pre-submission editor, if that’s what the student wanted. When I was about to graduate, students were making the strange transition to computers and word processing, and I recall Bill attacking that with both eager curiosity and a curmudgeonly resistance which I always suspected was a bit of a show. No matter what was happening around Newhouse, in technology, or the media world, when you talked to Bill, it was always about helping students learn how to tell the story.

Later, when I was living in Syracuse training for the horse show circuit and working as a freelance writer, Bill briefly dated a friend of mine, and a group of us each weekend tried out one country music club after another, over the course of one particularly languid summer. To cap off that halcyon time, Bill scored tickets for us all see Nelson perform at the New York State Fair, and while I can’t remember how it transpired, we found ourselves, after the show, in Nelson’s trailer for 10 minutes, sharing a drink and listening to his stories. And while I never knew Bill deeply or for long, it was one of the few times in my life (pre-motherhood), when I was truly, completely, incomprehensibly happy watching someone else grabbing life.

After a few years of full time freelancing (and part time worrying if I’d clear enough for rent AND food that month), I took a more lucrative job in public relations in Manhattan. When I told Bill he sighed a little, but never chastised me for abandoning journalism or my writing goals, and ever the mentor, gave me this advice: Just remember, always find the real stories and tell them with art, honesty and grace. Not always an easy thing to do in PR, but his words stayed with me, even as our contact grew more sporadic and then pretty much ceased.

Twenty years later, when I did return to my writing roots to pursue an MFA in my 40s, I let Bill know and he wrote me the most effusive, supportive email, which of course I failed to print out and is now lost. In the low residency MFA program I attended, one is assigned to work with a single faculty member over the course of a semester, and that faculty member is called, officially, one’s mentor. Bill wasn’t officially my mentor, he was simply my professor, and then later, for a short time, my friend. But I like mentor. When someone taught you, guided you, cared about your life as well as your writing and your career, that’s a mentor, and even if you haven’t spoken to or seen that person in years, you miss him when he’s gone.


Harriet said...

Lovely tribute, Lisa.

Joseph D'Agnese said...

Thanks for writing this. It's nice to know so many people had the same impression of him. I had him class of '86. A lovely person and a good friend. I'll miss him.

Lisa D. said...


Thanks for sharing this. He was my professor for class of '08, and it was nice to read that he was as vibrant then as he was early in his career.

meg said...

Thanks for writing this. That Willie Nelson assignment? By 1995, it had become a ramshackle piece about Clint Eastwood.

A few years ago I emailed Glavin from Switzerland, where I had just given birth to my husband's and my second daughter and was trying to freelance. Writing/editing gigs in English are hard to come by in Bern, and I worried that I would never be able to reenter magazine journalism. Glavin commiserated, but then he said something like: "But Meg, you've achieved something so much greater. You've made a family." That meant a lot.

I did make it back to writing and editing - stateside - and am now juggling work and family, and feeling so lucky to have both. I miss Glavin a lot, but I still hear his voice in my head. I am grateful for that.