April 09, 2007


Stay with me. This will take a moment.


It is June 1989.

I'm in Pensacola, Fla., about three weeks into my reporting internship on the features desk at the News-Journal. I'm so green, they could skin me and use my epidermis to cover a pool table.

I check the mail one morning as I head to work. I'm staying in a one-bedroom apartment on Pensacola Beach over the garage of a college friend's father and stepmother. The Gulf of Mexico's waves lap within earshot of my bedroom. Life is good.

Then I open the one letter I got that day. It's from the University of Florida, where I just graduated from the College of Journalism and Communications. Hmmm. Probably a parking fine, I think.

"Dear Mr. Houck," it reads. "A review of your graduation transcript reveals that you are three credits short of qualification for your diploma due to insufficient grades."


The heart races. The mind spins. The letter drops.

What didn't I finish?

Then one word comes to me.


In December 1988, I was approached by journalism professor Hugh Cunningham to study with him one-on-one for my final semester. He saw promise in me, he said. The same promise he saw in previous students. Including one he taught at Sam Houston State named Dan Rather.

He would take me under his wing. He would teach me. I would write stories for him. I would learn what I needed. And, if possible, he would shepherd me to an internship and/or job through his many connections in the business. I would get three credits for my work. The experience would be invaluable.

That January, heady with what I perceived to be golden status, I report for spring semester's classes. Cunningham never tells me when to check in. He gives me no syllabus. He assigns no stories, so no stories are written. On the occasions when I see him for another class I'm taking, we exchange jokes and pleasantries. He says nothing about the work-study arrangement.

So this is how the real world works, I think to myself. This must be like a no-show union job, where you get the money but you don't have to lift a finger.

Midway through the semester, Cunningham sends me on interviews. St. Petersburg Times. Tampa Tribune. Orlando Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale. All with former students who have risen to places of prominence in their newspapers.

Only a matter of time, I think to myself. This must be what he had in mind for the "work" in my work-study.

One day while hanging out during a free period in Cunningham's lab newsroom, I meet Anne Saul, executive editor of the Pensacola News Journal. You need to meet Jeff, Hugh says. He just had a funny column in the Alligator today. Ralph Lowenstein, the college dean, says, "That was you?" Ann asks if I have an internship. Send me a resume and clips, she says.

A thought swirls continuously through my head like an aquarium full with too many fish: I. Love. College.

It's now May. End of semester comes. I put on the cap. I put on the gown. Relatives cry. Brimming with hubris, I take my own photo with the president of the university on the dais as I accept my faux sheepskin.

I pack the U-Haul and move to Pensacola. I start my internship. Life is good.

Then "The Note" arrives.

Seems Cunningham gave me an F when I did no work.


Life is not like a union job, I realize. I am not a golden child. I am not remotely special. Quite the opposite. I am lazy. I am arrogant. There are ramifications for lack of initiative, I now understand. I am a complete and utter tool, I now realize.


I had been telling my mother for weeks when she'd ask that it would take time to get the actual diploma. "They have to do thousands of these things."

Somehow, she knew different. Don't screw with a mother's instinct.

First thing I do: I call Jon Roosenraad.

"Rosey" is associate dean of the college. I explain my problem. He listens. Just like he listened when Cunningham set me up with my "special" arrangement. If anyone can fix it, he can. If he can't, I'm eternally screwed and faced with the prospect of explaining to my temporary employer that my status within their newsroom is built upon a big, fat lie.

Can I use my Pensacola internship to qualify for the three remaining credits, I ask with The Most Humble Voice Ever Emitted From A Human Larynx.

Sure, he says, with a calm, reassuring tone that says, "I've done this more times than you'll ever know."

I call in sick that next day, I drive four hours to Gainesville to file the necessary paperwork. I drive back immediately. I go back to my internship. I finish the semester. I get hired by the newspaper full-time. I get my diploma in the mail. I show my mother. She cries a little. And then I tell her the story. And all is well.

Years later after we'd both left UF, Cunningham would hire me to be a Metro columnist in Alaska. Filled with mistakes and false-starts, it would come to be the best decision of my life. I never missed a deadline.

Of the many people I owe for my career, which has been filled in it's short time with all the adventures and surreality anyone could dare imagine, Jon Roosenrad has to go to the front of the class for his top-shelf glove save.

For that, I will always be thankful.

So when I heard Rosey was retiring after 38 years, it was the least I could do to pose with a group of other Gator journos here at the Tribune for a photo salute. It would be part of a larger photo project to collect other students raising a glass to him as well from around the globe.

On Monday, I got this e-mail from the journalism school:


Sent: Monday, April 09, 2007 3:37 PM
Importance: High

He retired but he won't go away. Jon's last official day was Halloween, but he came back Dec. 1 and will work through the end of June as a part-time university employee.

Thanks to all of you who helped us put together a tribute to Rosey. I surprised it with him during his last class period and it was one of the few times I've ever seen Roosenraad at a loss for words. It was a wonderful experience for me.

Several of you have asked to see the tribute. It's such a large file that I can't email it and I never seem to have the time to burn copies for people.

So I finally decided to post it on the department Web page. I hope you have time to check it out.

And thanks again for all of your help.

WILLIAM McKEEN, Professor and Chair
University of Florida Department of Journalism

You don't know Jon Roosenraad. But you've more than likely read a story or two or a thousand written or edited or photographed or designed by one of the young journalists who has passed through his classroom or office in the past three and a half decades.

That kind of impact is measurable only in the respect that his students return to him.

You can see for yourself. Here's the tribute to Rosey. You'll read lots of other stories from loads of other students who tell tales that sound a lot like mine.

Again, the point is proven: I am not special.

But you are, Rosey. And for that, I raise a glass to you.

Class of (summer) '89

Posted by Jeff at April 9, 2007 06:53 PM | TrackBack
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