It was September 2007, the McGauvran Student Union at UMass Lowell, Room 347. I admit, I was a little nervous.
No, I was a lot nervous.
I have met with governors, senators, congressmen, the movers and shakers throughout the state, but can there be anything so intimidating as walking into a room full of young, college students who will be looking to me for counsel and direction. Kids with multiple tattoos and multiple piercings who might ask me a tough question for which I have no answer. As the advisor to The Connector, UMass Lowell’s student newspaper, it was my job to work with these young skulls full of mush and put out a publication every week. This group had boundless energy that had to be harnessed and somehow used for good.
That first meeting was a tentative kind of feeling out of each other. I could sense some of them were looking at this old guy with the big belly and the white hair and thinking, “What’s this guy gonna tell me?” They were probably wondering, “How did he get this cozy, little gig? Must know somebody.” Or, “You mean he’s getting paid and we’re doing this for nothing?” Maybe they weren’t thinking that at all. Maybe I was just paranoid. Young adults can do that to you.
I started off by giving out my e-mail addresses and telling them I’d love to read their stuff. No response that first week. A week later, I asked again. Matt sent me the story he had written the year before. It was painful. It was slam-your-hand-in-a-car-door painful. I made the corrections in red, along with a few suggestions and sent it back. Over the course of the year, I saw Matt’s writing improve by leaps and bounds. In fact, when the paper came out every Tuesday, I would look for Matt’s byline first.
The kids and I started warming up to each other. Nick is a 21-year-old blues aficionado so we had plenty to talk about. I ended up writing a story about Nick for The Sun. Nick has an acoustic Takamine guitar that he doesn’t play but which bears the signatures of some of the greatest guitarists in the business; Les Paul, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Richard Thompson and the late Bo Didley. Over 60 signatures at last count.
Mike wrote movie reviews so we got along really well. Tony was the sports editor so we chatted it up quite a bit. Then there was Melissa Dion, the editor-in-chief. Sharp, on the ball, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. Melissa made sure all the copy came in, all the photos were taken and processed and the pages were laid out. She handled ads, she dealt with the provost, she moved in a hundred directions putting out little brush fires as they came up. And she always had a smile. Well, mostly always. But even on those days when things weren’t going right, it never took very much to get Melissa to laugh.
There was managing editor Krista Perry, fun loving, witty, a rabid Hanson fan if you can believe it. Krista will take over as editor-in-chief in the fall. Roommates Nick H. and Alex, operations manager and production manager, respectively. Neuroses? Thy names are Nick and Alex. They fought like Cain and Abel but insisted they rarely disagreed. But man they did good work. The paper was tight, looked good and had good content. Were there mistakes? Sure, but that’s where learning comes in.
There was studious, conscientious news editor Tim Mahoney, one of the hardest, most diligent workers on the staff. And lest you think that Tim is all work and no fun, I was there when he was speaking to his born-again Christian mother on the phone and he told her to go rent “Reservoir Dogs.”
There was Audrey, the living arts editor, who always managed to push the envelope, whether writing about comedy clubs or sex shops. Jeanne, the features editor, a Bohemian in the purest sense of the word. Jeanne would fly into the staff meetings a bit tardy, having just raced from an art class across campus. Sunday afternoons were spent putting the paper together. It involved making phone calls to staff writers, asking them if we could expect their story any time soon, seeing that deadline was two days ago.
Some real good work came out of that little room. Important work. The staff wrote about student leadership and took the reader inside the machinations of student government. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other publications in terms of covering Chancellor Marty Meehan’s Inauguration. They reported from New Orleans where a group of students went to help out during spring break. They had the inside track on Rachel Carnes, the UMass Lowell student who was struck by a car while she was waiting for a bus. They alerted readers to the outbreak of crime on campus, and when bus drivers were observed behaving badly, The Connector blew the whistle, resulting in one driver’s termination.
When May rolled around word came that the position of advisor to the student newspaper would be eliminated. I shared the news with the staff. They approached me and thanked me for being there for them. We hugged, we shook hands. We exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t text?” I said. “Well, you should. It’s the 21st century.”
In the end, I guess they didn’t find me that threatening and I didn’t find them that judgmental. I’d like to think I helped them figure out: the best way to write a lede, which is the introductory paragraph(s) to a story; how to look for a story; what makes a good story; how to stay on point while writing a story. I hope they remember not to write phrases like “acres of land” “whether or not,” or “the reason why.” I hope they remember people die “unexpectedly” and not “suddenly.” Everyone dies “suddenly.” One minute you’re breathing, the next, not so much.
I hope they learned a little about ethics.
I hope they saw me as a good example.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail address is email@example.com.