Part Three of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.
The exception was writing—and it was more a pledge than a practice. About two years into an enrollment at Ohio State that had yet to yield a pattern of progress toward a degree in any subject, and to meet one of the University’s general-education requirements, I signed up for a Journalism class. It was by a wide margin the most enjoyable experience of my academic career. It was experiential rather than theoretic; practical rather than abstract. Suddenly, writing became the noblest profession. The “muckrakers” were my heroes. Heywood Broun’s columns, and later Mike Royko’s, became my favorite reading. The newspapers in Mississippi and Georgia that were pointing out the civil rights inequities in the South became the employers of my dreams.
Almost immediately, my classroom and “field” writing performance seemed to the Ohio State faculty to warrant my designation as campus political and governance reporter and then columnist for the university’s Daily Lantern. (In those days, the Lantern published 15,500 tabloid copies a day, 5-days a week.) I dropped everything else to indulge this new passion. I ended the year-long run of my dance band, The Bill Vern Quintet, and cancelled its remaining “gigs”; withdrew from the ROTC intercollegiate rifle team; resigned as “social director” of the Scioto Club, one of a dozen residential units built into the Ohio State Football Stadium “horseshoe”; stopped doing the home work for my other courses and organized what remained of my life around the publishing schedule of The Lantern.
Within a year of almost daily front-page bylines and bi-weekly columns (during which my sympathy was solicited by every one of the conspiratorial revolutionary and reform groups that were vying with each other to lead the University into the ferment of the ‘sixties, the dean of the School of Journalism noticed that I had become “dogmatic” in my published criticism of the University—its Woody Hayes-protected and coddled athletes, the “white bars” in several of its fraternity constitutions, its hesitation to embrace the lunch counter sit-ins that marked the infancy of the civil rights movement, and the refusal of the Fawcett Administration to grant even the least of the petitions made by campus governance in behalf of students.
He was right. The notoriety of my reporting, the interest in my column “Framework”, and the lionization by the cabals had conspired to create of me a self-important ideologue loyal to the ideas of those whose association I cherished. And I knew it—but I could neither confess nor repent of it. As soon as my reports and columns were no longer acceptable to the The Lantern editors, I sold everything I owned and started my own weekly news magazine, The Spokesman, to publish “alternative” opinions on public life—such as the Castro and Che Guevara insurgency in Cuba, the “fact” (as I saw it then) of American “imperialism” in Latin America and Asia, the “rabid” conservatism of the Republican Party, etc. I hoped these public “positions” would sustain the standing I had acquired through my Lantern reportage and “Framework”.
Publishing the 8-page magazine—and distributing it after dark without license on the University campus to the applause of those who thought as it did, and the bitter criticism of those who leaned as it did but who preferred a harsher language, an even more radical stance, and—above all!—their own sole proprietorship—exhausted me. Each week of The Spokesman’s 12-week life span consisted of four days of research, composition and design culminating in thirty-six hours of printing, collating, stapling, and circulation and a day and a half of physical and psychic recovery. Topics for upcoming issues were selected willy-nilly. Not enough attention was paid to soliciting advertisements or sponsors, and in three-months The Spokesman was out of money and I was out of anima. I had abandoned the Christian persuasions of my youth upon entering college and had not yet found an alternative philosophy for sustainably rebalancing life and ambition, for reconciling success and failure, and for shrinking the psychic distance between mania and depression. At the end, I was entirely exhausted and utterly alone.