A professor who made us all better: An appreciation of RSJ professor Jake Highton

For 30 years, Jake Highton reminded his journalism students to always ask more, not less, of themselves

The longtime Reynolds School of Journalism professor, Jake Highton, passed away on Monday at age 86.


8/8/2017 | By: John Trent |

Writing the way Jake Highton wanted you to write was hard. Writing about Highton, who died yesterday at age 86, is harder.

Let's back up to my lede for a moment. Notice how I wrote Jake "died" and didn't "pass away" at age 86?

Real journalists, I learned from Jake more than 30 years ago when I was student, always dealt in facts and got to the most important part of the story right away. They also wrote declarative, punchy sentences and never tossed in euphemisms like "passed away" when a shorter, more direct word like "died" would work better.

Still, even though I know it's journalistically the right thing to do, and that I'm less at risk now of having this electronic story somehow marked up in red pen from an all-knowing hand from the heavens, it's hard to write that Jake Highton has died. He's a man who deserves to be remembered, particularly in this era where it feels like it's open season on journalists and the important work they do.

Here was the announcement from RSJ Dean Al Stavitsky today: "Colleagues - I'm sorry to share the sad news that our friend Jake Highton died yesterday at 86. Jake taught in the School for 30 years before retiring as professor emeritus in 2011. Beloved by former students as a challenging but caring professor, Jake remained active as a journalist until his final days, publishing a column in the Sparks Tribune just last week. Our thoughts are with his wife Mary and his three daughters. We will share memorial information when available."

There were always two sides to Jake, who was a professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism for three decades, during which he wrote several books on journalism including a history of Nevada journalism, "Nevada Newspaper Days," before he retired. Jake had incredibly high standards, and during the course of every class he could be blunt, and often his grading was unmerciful. No one could escape the wrath of his red (sometimes black) pen.

Some sample comments from past students on "Rate My Professors" include:

"Oh Thank Gawd they retired this fossil! Responsible for so many students either changing majors, changing universities or dropping out";

"Jake is impossible. He is an awful teacher. ... He says JOUR is not an exact art, bit if it's not done his way, it shouldn't be done at all";

"Oh, and my favorite, he'll often gratuitously praise papers that get low, low F's. Outdated, confusing, arbitrary and insanely difficult."

And these are just some former students. If you held power, in a high place, goodness knows Jake's pen often also reached out to you.

During his 23-year run as president of the University, Joe Crowley got to know Jake well. Joe became president in 1978; Jake arrived on campus in 1981 following a career in newspapers that included stops as an editorial page writer for the Detroit News. At one point, in his weekly column in the Sparks Tribune, Jake criticized the Crowley presidency, which by most metrics had been successful - record enrollment, record fundraising, record research. Not so to Jake. He wrote that Crowley was no better than a "C" president.  That led to an interesting back and forth, which Crowley later recounted in his book, "The Constant Conversation," and which tells you something about both men.

Crowley wrote of receiving a "C" from Highton was actually a high honor: "I wrote him a thank you note (we remained friendly despite the harsh appraisals) expressing the opinion that this was a much higher grade than the evidence he adduced in support of it seemed to warrant, and suggesting that he was in danger of damaging his reputation as a tough grader."

Years later, when I visited Jake's office in the Journalism School, he produced Crowley's letter light-heartedly accusing him of getting too soft in his grading. Jake held it up as he did with all papers he handled, like a defense attorney in a murder trial holding aloft some key, game-changing evidence, and howled with delight.

"Touche," Jake, who was a lifelong Francophile, yelled out, laughing so hard he could hardly contain himself. "Touche Joe Crowley!"

There were always two camps in Jake's classes. Those who loved him, and those who didn't, and those of us who loved him loved him long after we were his students.

A former student, Amy Minor, wrote that she came to appreciate the method behind Jake's classroom rigor once she became a professional: "I don't think I was a great student in Jake's opinion during my time in his classes, but I know I've become once since. I'm still often hunched over The A.P. Stylebook, brow furrowed in confusion, but if nothing else I gained a great respect for the craft of writing and editing. And while most of my papers were covered in red and I made the same mistakes more than once, I did get a 'perfect' from him one day. And with Jake, whether it was good or bad, you knew you deserved it. And a 'perfect' made you grin all the way home."

He was the most hands-on professor I ever knew. When I'd visit his office for help with my writing, he would unapologetically dive right into my copy, making furious notations, crossing out extraneous phrases or pretentious adjectives that he always felt "take the life right out of what you're trying to say. Adjectives are like lard. They make all writing flabby."

He'd hate the comparison, because Jake didn't have a lot of use for organized religion, but he made professional guidebooks like the A.P. Stylebook seem like hymn books to most of us. If you were a serious journalist, you lived your A.P. Stylebook. When I came to campus to work in communications, on occasion there would be some lively discussions with professors who preferred the Chicago Manual of Style over A.P. Style, simply because Chicago Manual of Style was more academic in nature. I distinctly remember one conversation with a professor of psychology who was adamant that I change everything I wrote in a university news story to Chicago Manual of Style. The conversation became heated, and I blurted at one point, with nowhere else to go other than to all-powerful Jake, "Jake Highton taught me that the A.P. Stylebook is like the Ten Commandments, and if you're serious about your writing, you follow its rules no matter what." "Well," the professor said, considering my statement long and hard, "if Jake Highton says it's so, then it must be so. He's a battle-worn journalist. He knows what he's talking about."

That was the kind of influence Jake had. He helped to produce dozens, if not hundreds, of career-ready journalists throughout his time on our campus. He taught them to compose thoughtfully and quickly, to edit carefully, to source and fact-check thoroughly, to defend the First Amendment with all of their might and to not suffer fools gladly.

I spent a little more than a decade as a daily journalist, and every three or four months throughout my time as a newspaper reporter, I'd always receive a package in my mail slot in the Reno Gazette-Journal newsroom. Usually the package would appear a few days after I'd written something I was proud of, or felt that I had written with insight and care. I'd open the package, and inside would be a clipping of that latest story, transformed from what I felt was golden and award-ready to a mass of dark dashes and lines and squiggles and question marks. Entire sentences I had toiled over for hours were crossed out. Entire paragraphs that I thought were full of literary allusion and deep, introspective meaning were chopped into smaller, punchier, less wordy sentences. There would be a small scrap of paper included, one that would usually have what looked like a quickly scrawled message in handwriting that was nearly impenetrable to read, like a forgotten grocery store list: "Too long. Too windy. Boil down. You can do better."

Jake once told me that he was such a hard, unforgiving grader because the world was a hard, unforgiving place, and journalists, in particular, always needed to demand their very best. "If you think my class is hard," he once said, "wait until you have to meet your first deadline. That's pressure."

I took four classes from Jake when I was an undergraduate. I loved them all. His First Amendment class brought to life the writings of Supreme Court Justices who had erected all of the First Amendment frameworks of modern journalism. He loved the "liberal" justices in particular - activist jurists like William O. Douglas and William Brennan - and he quoted their words the way an English professor might quote Chaucer or Shakespeare, with passion, theatricality and awe. He had no use for Chief Justice William Rehnquist - "an intellectual lightweight, and even worse, a Nixon appointee" - but did love the words of Justice Hugo Black, whose writing in favor of The New York Times' right to publish the Pentagon Papers (New York Times Co. v. The United States, 1971) he often quoted: "In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

Although it might be hard to imagine, Jake was also a bit of a romantic, in the sense that a romantic can see the potential for greatness beyond the mediocrity of modern politics. The words of Eugene McCarthy, the failed Democratic anti-Vietnam war candidate of 1968, could move him to tears. When I was a student in the late 1980s, Jake defiantly drove around town in a brown Volkswagen rabbit with a "Jesse Jackson for President" bumper sticker. Didn't faze Jake one bit that the country's first black president (who, by the way, Jake criticized often in his Sparks Tribune column) was still two decades off in the future.

Jake always loved staccato-style writing, so here goes. Journalist. Activist. H.L. Mencken fan. A lover of the outdoors.  A card-carrying Audubon Society member.  An incredibly disciplined, physical man ... so much so during conversation in his office, despite having suffered a stroke years before, he would jump up from his desk in mid-sentence and drop into a dozen quick deep knee bends "just to keep the circulation going." A person who would decide, just as Benjamin Franklin had done in the 18th century, to not drink alcohol for an entire year and to use that time to endeavor to read more, to write more, to learn more, to improve himself so he could help improve the world around him.

More than all of that, though, I will remember Jake Highton for what he was at his core: A gifted teacher who challenged his students every class to always do their very best.

Wrote Jake in a March 28, 1991 column in the Daily Sparks Tribune: "Good teachers inspire, challenge. They make students think, set lofty standards, turn out better human beings. Their imprints last the lifetimes of their students. Nothing is more sacred than the minds of young people."

In this new reality in which we live in, where real news is fake news and fake news is real news and it's difficult to discern what is right and what is wrong, we need more Jake Hightons in our world. Jake's passing ... err, I mean, his death ... should be a reminder that journalism is a valued and honored craft, essential to the workings of modern democracy, and that the people who practice it are special and memorable because they've learned through rigorous practice to always seek truth.

Jake is certainly worthy of our collective memory for the important teaching he did. Love him or hate him, the young people in his classes always knew that if they were to succeed, first with Jake, then in their chosen profession and then in life, the process would have to begin with the unpleasant but necessary and ultimately rewarding business of first demanding more, not less, of themselves.

Related story: https://journalism.unr.edu/archives/12242

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