I was in my second year when I saw a listing for a class entitled “News writing,” taught by Bill Fishback, a former reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch who went on to serve as the chief spokesman for the University for twenty-five years. I signed up thinking I could make some headway on my writing requirement and showed up the first day of class curious but a little nervous. This was way out of my comfort zone.
The year was 1983, well before laptops were on the scene. In those days, most students at U.Va. owned a portable, manual typewriter and a bottle of White-Out, to use when they typed their term papers. There was no such thing as Word for Windows, or cutting-and-pasting text, or even a delete button. Google was still more than 20 years away.
Mr. Fishback’s classroom had two long wooden tables with five really modern-looking IBM Selectric typewriters on each. (“Really modern-looking” means they plugged into the wall.) We had been told to bring a long, thin, spiral-bound reporter’s notepad, a pencil and a stack of paper. Mr. Fishback had a wry smile on his face, and then said to the ten of us, “Today I’m the fire chief. There was a fire last night. Anyone have any questions for me?”
One student raised her hand. “Where was the fire?” Others followed: “How did the fire start?” “Was anyone hurt?” We all scribbled with our pencils in our notepads. Exactly fifteen minutes into the class, Mr. Fishback told us there would be no more questions. We were to type up our news stories and put them on his desk by the end of the hour. No homework, see you next class.
“How great is this?!” I thought to myself. No homework! No textbooks! No lecture! Wahoowa! But then as I stared at the blank paper in my typewriter and the ticking clock in front of the room, I realized what I was facing. Pages and pages of notes about every aspect of the fire awaited. There wasn’t time to hand-write a draft in my reporter’s notebook, then clean it up and type it onto paper. I would have to compose it and type it at the same time. Needless to say I didn’t finish, and turned in a half-empty sheet with my name on top.
The ten of us returned three times a week for the rest of the semester. Sometimes Mr. Fishback was a local businessman. Sometimes he was a Senator. Sometimes a victim of crime. You never knew from class to class. Sometimes we wrote solid news stories, sometimes we didn’t — but each time, because of his edits and notes in the margins, we got a little better at writing quickly, accurately, and on deadline. It wasn’t easy but I came to love it.
By the next semester, I had joined the staff of the University Journal and later, the Cavalier Daily. And when I graduated, I had a folder full of published columns that I had written for the newspapers. Employers know that there are a lot of great writers in the world, but not all of them can meet a deadline; Mr. Fishback taught us to write quickly and accurately, to get it right the first time. That folder full of articles was the reason I was hired for my first four writing jobs after college. By the way, I’ve never been asked for a transcript of my grades at U.Va. Not once. Don’t tell my parents.
They still offer a news writing class at U.Va. No matter what your major, I’d urge you to take it. The world will always need people who can write on deadline — and who get it right the first time, quickly and accurately. Who knows — maybe there’s still no homework.
I’m a professional writer now. Years after I graduated I went to visit Mr. Fishback after he had retired, and told him he had changed my life. I’ll always remember the wry smile he gave me.
Post by Mary Kate Cary (CLAS ’85)
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