Late-great comedian Red Skelton, a radio pioneer, gave us colorful impersonations of make-believe characters each week. We grew to expect them, our mind’s eye envisioning what they MIGHT look like.
One was Clem Kadiddlehopper. In a typical vignette, we could envision his squinting while making his weekly pronouncement: “It just don’t look right to me.”
Conversely, this week’s piece is a tribute to a teacher to whom most of life looked quite right, and he had photographic proof….
Joe Swan was my first journalism teacher a full 50 years ago. I thought of him as a veteran teacher; in truth, he was only a handful of years my senior. But already he had been head usher at a local theatre, a reporter for our small-town daily newspaper and a military editor/photographer in Korea.
I could hardly imagine his wearing a uniform with pillbox hat “shushing” noisy kids on the front row at Saturday matinees, much less wielding a rifle with fixed bayonet.
He seemed too gentle for either assignment. We felt immediately welcome in his magical world. Each day, we watched for the horn-rimmed glasses to come into view. His dark eyes pierced the lenses, a smile crossed his face and a slow Texas drawl was about to commence….
Swan bore down on the importance of accuracy. “For crying out loud, every reporter can at least spell names correctly,” he implored. “Always ask, even if you think you’re sure about the spelling.”
More than once, he emphasized that many people’s names appear in print only twice—when they are born and when they die. “If you mess up the spelling on either end, that’s half of the items fouled up,” he warned.
He also encouraged feature treatment whenever possible, even in obituaries if tastefully done….
One student took the admonition too far.
During a practice session on obituary writing, he went “far afield” in attempts to featurize the death of “Farmer Jones.”
The student wrote: “Fifty years ago on their wedding day, John and Mary Jones’ marriage wish was that they might die together. Half of that wish came true today.”…
A licensed pilot before he learned to drive, Swan’s “on-the-job” military training included driver education—in a jeep!
Most of his professional life was spent in California, where he served almost three decades in photojournalism at San Jose State University.
Just as he had helped us “find the right words,” he helped students there capture pictures worth a thousand words each….
And what a job he did! Three of his students won a total of four Pulitzer Prizes for photography. He became a tenured professor—the first one in his field at San Jose State—and they’ve named a scholarship in his memory.
The good-natured educator with the broad smile loved inducing smiles. He smiled when Californians mentioned that he “talked funny.” And they smiled back.
Wherever Swan served, he “got life right.” Never a complainer, he kept diabetes at bay for many years. He retired in 1991, but his health was on a steep downhill slope in recent years….
Last year, a leg was amputated, and four months later, he lost the other leg. Yet, he faced his plight with humor intact.
Smiling, he’d ask visitors how he should answer when asked his height.
“Say you’re tall enough,” his pastor advised….
Hospitalized for 10 months and clinging to life through dialysis, Swan asked doctors about ending dialysis and going home. They said he’d likely live 8-12 days. He chose to go home, where he enjoyed the comfort of his bed, photographic memories and visits of family, friends and colleagues for the next six weeks. So many wanted to “say thanks” to the old professor whose lenses of life were wide-angled and rose-colored.
I didn’t know about his death on March 8 until recently. Immediately I thought of his classes, and how he touched my life.
Ripples of his life will lift the lives of others from here to eternity. He was a teacher, an encourager and a friend, this Joe Swan, J-O-E S-W-A-N. He was 78….
Dr. Newbury is a speaker and author in the Metroplex. Information about his books and speaking requests at website: www.speakerdoc.com. Inquiries and comments, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 817-447-3872. -