Paris Goodnight: Wonder if they still have professors like Shumaker around?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 24, 2022

This is the time of year young folks start thinking a little more earnestly of graduating and moving on, either into the real world or if not right in, at least a step closer after leaving high school for a brief stop in college.

It reminds me of my time in Chapel Hill and one particular professor who enjoyed relaying the events of the campus that Jesse Helms once said you could put a fence around and call it the state zoo. Jim Shumaker wasn’t far from disagreeing with that in some of the columns he wrote for a statewide audience back in those days, detailing some of the stranger things that went on among the young at heart trying to find their way in academia.

He also gained some form of fame as being the not-too-subtle character in the “Shoe” cartoon strip that still runs in the Post on Sundays as it has for decades after one of his former students started drawing caricatures of him. Jeff MacNelly’s widow, Susie, is the current cartoonist who carried on her husband’s work after his death in 2000.

But back to Shumaker. He tried to get journalism students to understand that no matter how hard they worked, they were generally going to get little pay, lots of grief from the public and work weird hours if they took up the career. He dissuaded plenty from carrying on the pursuit, and if he didn’t, he at least could be remembered for giving what I always called the “get out of journalism” speech. I used to give the same speech to young writers when they first arrived at the Post. The wording was simple: get out of journalism. Then with a chuckle, the rest of the saying was, if you don’t, then you can’t say no one ever warned you.

We also never knew for sure if it was true, but we heard he never had a degree from UNC because he refused to take the swimming test, and back in his school days it was a requirement to graduate. Either way, his years of real world experience were apparently enough to get his position that he kept as long as he wanted. He knew enough of the business to impart his knowledge in a way students could understand, without getting bogged down with things like the future of newspapers or what would happen if someone invented the internet one day.

He would circle questionable words like “irregardless” if they were included when a student turned in the required paper. I always thought it was funny that some smart aleck opened a restaurant of just that name in Raleigh, probably to get back at an English teacher somewhere I’m sure.

Some of Shumaker’s columns were compiled into a book that I still have on a shelf. He had written entries on how the fraternity brothers might bay at the moon or how the nightly crescendo outside his home often hit its peak around 2:30 a.m., just to give all the parents who were reading his words a chance to wonder about their impressionable offspring studying at that zoo in the middle of the state.

Around here, we already have the wheels in motion on putting together our annual high school graduation section. If you can imagine what it might be like to put one of those together, it’s a lot like a Friday night of fall football when everything comes pouring in at once right about deadline time. Although we do have more time to prepare and work on it, sometimes it feels like one of those Friday nights on steroids.

One of Shumaker’s fellow professors at UNC, Philip Meyer, wrote a book long ago that calculated 2043 as when newsprint would die in America. I think he pointed out later on that no one seemed to remember he also noted that date was only if newspapers didn’t change anything about how they were doing things. Believe me, they have.

That’s why I wonder if they still make professors like Shumaker any more, since nowadays people in the business are trying to increase digital readership and improve video production qualities or such things as that. Of course, I wonder sometimes what kinds of other things teachers are imparting on young minds these days. Shu, as many called him, would likely be amused by whatever it was and find something funny about it to turn into column material.

Paris Goodnight is interim editor of the Salisbury Post.