Most of us who have managed to put together a career have a laundry list of people to thank, or blame, according to how you look at it.
While many have “educated” me in many ways — some easy and some hard — once my journalism career officially began, there were some who influenced me deeply before I ever cashed my first paycheck.
While I sincerely believe any teacher who ever had to undergo the “blessing” of having me as a student deserves some sort of ribbon, there are a handful who stand out for pointing me in the direction of journalism.
In order of when they first touched my life, they are: Mrs. Jayne McKay, my first grade teacher; Mrs. Judy McLeod, my 8th grade English teacher and sponsor of the eighth grade paper (yes, we actually had such a thing); the legendary Tommy Joe Miles, my freshman English instructor; Mrs. Jean Hendrix who taught me sophomore English, as well as speech; and Miss Martha Nabors, who taught me journalism my senior year in high school.
To be honest, each of these deserve a column all to themselves, but for now I’m going to share a few highlights of their impact on my life.
Before I begin, let it be known that the purpose of this column is threefold. First, to pin a few roses on some folks and honor them for their unmistakable contribution to my life. Secondly, to perhaps cause you to reflect upon those who had a strong positive influence upon your life and to encourage you to take the time to honor them. Thirdly, to cause you to realize there are those who you either are, or could, influence and how much it really matters for others to know you believe in them. Encouragement has immeasurable value and is something we all need.
We are going to meander this path from the most obvious to the least. The thing that makes this list interesting, is that none of them would have ever imagined they would be on such a roster.
There is no doubt that without Miss Nabors I would not have spent 45 years in the business that has become a large portion of my identity.
She saw something in me that most didn’t. I was just basically another 17-year-old boy trying to escape high school when I signed up for journalism class as a senior. I quickly was on staff at the school newspaper, the LHS Review, of which she was the sponsor.
There is one thing she told me and one thing she did for me that literally changed my life.
She would always ask for us to come up with story ideas for the paper and I would walk around school each day and see just about everything as a story and come back to her room and just spew out whatever was running through my head. She told me I had “antennas on my head,” and could see a news story in just about anything. That has always stuck with me, and to be honest still rings true. I believe everybody has a story, or two, or three, or a thousand and they all deserve to be told.
I once encouraged a young reporter who worked for me, Monique Harrison Henderson, to go to the Neshoba County Fairgrounds and try to write a story from the perspective of an old tree that was standing in Founders’ Square. I don’t think she ever did, but I’m sure it would have been good.
The thing Miss Nabors did for me may seem simple, but it wasn’t. At Awards Day my senior year, she honored me by presenting me the Journalism Award. I was far from the best writer in my class, and certainly not the most intelligent, and maybe not even the most deserving, but she saw something. She believed in me. And for once in my life I felt like a winner. It mattered.
Of all the teachers I’ve ever had, none encouraged me to be creative more than Mrs. Hendrix did. I loved the assignments she handed out during speech class, especially the impromptu stuff.
She loved the unusual, unexpected, and bizarre. Hmmm, can’t imagine why we would have connected so well.
A journalist without creativity doesn’t last long, you have to be willing to look at things differently, and she certainly taught me how to see the world through that set of lenses.
My favorite Mrs. Hendrix story was actually part of a class project. I’m not sure exactly what we were doing, but the class was broken up into teams and we had to do skits of some sort. Well, we decided to do it about our class, and of course someone had to play Mrs. Hendrix.
You get one guess as to who got the part.
I donned a curly gray wig, a bathrobe and a pair of furry house slippers — all unbeknownst to Mrs. Hendrix — and at the appropriate time in the skit came busting into the room from the hall in all my glory.
I truly have never seen a grown woman laugh so hard in my entire life. As I get older, I wonder if her feelings may have been hurt. If so, she never showed it. In fact, it may have been the only “A” I ever got in her class.
She encouraged me to be me and if I had an idea to go for it.
There are likely more people influenced by the life of Tommy Joe Miles than Father Abraham had children.
Many know him as a baseball coach, especially at Nanih Waiya. In fact, in the spring of 1989 at the age of 39, he died of a heart attack while working on the school’s baseball field, which is now appropriately named Tommy Joe Miles Field.
He was never my coach, but he taught me ninth grade English at Louisville. While a year earlier I had begun to discover journalism, it was Mr. Miles that fanned that flame.
He was a prolific writer, who loved both the written word and sports. That was a new concept for me. He would tell me stories and I would soak them up like a trainee sitting at the feet of a master.
It was the first time in my life that I understood the mathematics of my potential in journalism — writing plus sports equals career.
It was in the eighth grade that I crossed paths with Mrs. McLeod. She was in charge of putting together an eighth-grade newspaper. I think it probably came out four times a year, not sure.
They used a very scientific way to fill out the newspaper staff — by election. As you can imagine, I WAS NOT elected. But as you can also imagine, most of the elected folks soon got bored with the idea of journalism. Hey, they were 13, what did you expect?
So, when I said I would like to help, she put me to work — laughing directly in the face of the eighth-grade school paper electoral process.
Her willingness to let me get involved opened a door that still hasn’t been shut.
And then there is Mrs. McKay.
Unlike the way it is in 2021, in 1964 you didn’t learn to read until the first grade. And to write. In fact, that is where you learned your letters. There was no kindergarten, Or pre-school, or pre-preschool. It was all on the first-grade teacher.
Mrs. McKay taught me absolutely nothing about journalism, but a lot about responsibility.
You are to do your work, you are to do it correctly, and you are to do it promptly.
She also taught me that your behavior has consequences. There is no doubt her style would not be appropriate in 2021, but it most certainly served its purpose in my life.
Her philosophy was simple — cause and effect. If you pinched somebody, you got pinched. And sometimes she even delivered the pinches.
Shake your head if you wish but I guarantee you I haven’t personally pinched anybody with my fingers since the first grade. In other words, she taught me life stuff. Sure, I got my ABCs and 123s, but I also learned how to treat others well and what to expect if I didn’t.
And that has weighed as heavily on my career as any English, speech, or journalism class I’ve ever taken.
Thanks for taking the time to allow me to honor some of those who helped pave the way on my journey; now you do the same for yours.
Austin Bishop, AKA The Old Sports Dude, has been covering high school, college, amateur and professional sports since 1975. He will be retiring from the journalism business at the conclusion of 2021. He is currently pastor of Great Commission Assembly of God in Philadelphia and may be contacted by email at email@example.com.