A Thank You For His (83-Year-Old) Wisdom

In light of last week’s “Ode to Teachers,” a friend of mine passed along an article that serves the same purpose. Please enjoy Ryan Franks’ Dean Rea: Wisdom on news, teaching and marriage from my 83-year-old professor. It captures Dean Rea’s unique passion, unwavering devotion and, of course, his sense of humor. Even though I have never met him, I thank Dean Rea for creating wonderful journalists with his wonderful method of instruction. (I also have to thank him for his FANTASTIC advice at the end of Ryan Franks’ piece).

If you are lucky, you have a Dean Rea in your life.

Rea taught my Reporting II class 14 years ago at the University of Oregon. He’s been a part of my life ever since. Sometimes, he was there in person — at my wedding, at journalism school functions, on back-to-campus visits. Mostly, he was there in spirit. When I got stumped on a story or faced an ethical dilemma, I tried to think, “What would Dean do?”

Rea, now 83, mentored and nurtured hundreds if not thousands of journalists as a teacher and editor at the University of Oregon, the University of Montana and at newspapers across Oregon, including Eugene, Bend and Hood River.

As a teacher, he was famous for creating realistic exercises, attracting first-rate speakers and, occasionally, throwing his students straight into a story. In my Reporting II class, he got the police PIO to do a mock presser for a car accident and sent us to cover the governor’s campaign rally. Discovery learning is hot today but it was standard practice for Rea years earlier.

He retired from teaching at age 79. But he hasn’t retired from journalism. He still works as a freelance writer, photographer and editor. “You never quit,” he said. “Otherwise, you die.”

We met briefly last year soon after I moved back to Eugene but the visit was too short. Recently, I picked up a phone call and heard his classic direct, clipped reporter voice: “Ryan, Dean Rea.” We agreed to meet for coffee.

I toured him around our office. That was my first clue that Rea never stopped learning himself. He peppered me with questions about our plans for mobile and digital news. I showed him the screen where we track page views in real time. “Why do you care about page views?” he asked.

Over coffee (he took his decaf and black), we chatted about the old days and the future. A few gems:

– On a courthouse tour for class, he taught us that we should immediately know how to find two things: the pay phone and the bathroom. “You only need one of those now,” he said.

– At 83, why isn’t he among the traditionalists who resent new media? “Why? Why would you resent change?”

– There was a time when he didn’t recognize the coming computer revolution. He had a student named Paul Brainerd who wanted to go into computers. Rea told him: “Paul, save your time. There’s no future in that.” Brainerd become a pioneer in desktop publishing with his founding of Aldus Corp., a company he eventually sold in a $500 million deal to Adobe. “That taught me a lesson,” Rea said.

– The one thing Rea hasn’t adapted to yet is Twitter. He doesn’t want to know what everyone is thinking. But he also doesn’t want to give up learning. A few minutes later, he said: “Someday, I might even Twitter.” @deanrea is taken. But we can help find something else.

– If he were a college student, would he still go into newspapers? “Sure. There’s nothing else better in the world than being a news person.”

– What advice does he offer students? “It’s very simple: Follow your heart. If you’re not doing what you want to do, you won’t be happy.”

– Why did he change jobs so much? “What are you running from?” a student once asked him. Rea: “I didn’t have answer. I thought about it. I was running from boredom.”

– Rea has four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Life gets busy, he knows. But he passed along advice he got from a friend years ago about marriage: “Don’t forget one another. Keep courting her.” That’s what worked for him and his wife, Lou. “We married 61 years ago. I’ve been courting her ever since. That’s my only advice for you and Paige. Keep courting her.”

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