Saving my skin — and getting under it

Thanks Dave, Flip and Alan
By Patrick Butters ( '83 )

Originally published in Summer 2006, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

Flip DeLuca, Alan Neckowitz and Dave Wendelken

Veteran print journalism troika Flip DeLuca, Alan Neckowitz and Dave Wendelken.

It was the spring semester of 1982 at JMU, and I was miserable. I was clinically depressed, though I didn't know it at the time. I also I hadn't decided on my major. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated. Enormous anxiety shrouded me. I was a mess. I was a second-semester junior, and I was running out of time. It got so bad I couldn't think of anything else, could hardly eat, and I let a wonderful relationship disintegrate. Even the days were dark. Then I took a feature writing class in old Wine-Price Hall. I met my college best friend, Jim Denery ('83), and the man who saved my skin, journalism professor David Wendelken.

Wendelken and I knew each other slightly from The Breeze, the JMU student paper. I started out as an artist, became art editor (a useless position, I soon discovered) and drew a really bad comic strip, Stars on Campus. Yet I still didn't feel like I fit in.

One day after the feature writing class started, though, Wendelken called me into his office.

"You know, Butters, you should set aside those pens and pencils and think about becoming a writer," he said.

I couldn't believe it. Direction. Nirvana!

I had written an article on Father Bill LaFratta, the Catholic campus priest, describing how he had gotten to JMU and built up this incredibly dynamic ministry. (Amid my interview, in the middle of vocational anxiety, I even considered becoming a priest. Yeah, right.) Wendelken seemed very pleased with it, so pleased that he even read my query letter aloud to the class as an example. It's a small thing, but I hadn't expected it, and I still remember that wonderful moment. (Father Bill would proudly and repeatedly tell me later that he heard Wendelken used the story as a class example, too.)

Little things like that, casual comments and public praise can mean the world to a student who might be unsure of himself. Wendelken was very funny, too, as was his officemate, the equally legendary journalism professor, Albert "Flip" DeLuca. It was like walking in on a crossfire — two fraternity brothers, only with wit.

I did an article for class that really stunk, and the next time Wendelken saw me he remarked in his baritone, "Well, Butters, I guess Father Bill was a fluke!" Denery, likewise, stayed up all night to write a fascinating feature about his 24-hour road trip to Georgia Tech. I don't remember his grade but I do remember Wendelken's written comment next to it: "What a gift."

The man was hilarious but he also taught me to be serious about writing, editing and thoroughness. For an editing class he gave out a sheet with 100 great works on it, like Guernica, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sun Also Rises, and you were supposed to name the creator. It was a bear. Wendelken said only one student actually got a 100 on the test. Denery mumbled, "Yeah, you remember Norman Mailer." But Wendelken made the point: A good editor has to be on top of culture as well as the news, to know what kinds of things people are reading about. He also taught me something that I didn't realize until way after. He told me it was the work that mattered. He was right, very right.

DeLuca and Alan Neckowitz [who has announced he will retire next spring], the journalism department head, were the same way. DeLuca was very, shall we say, direct in his criticism and sarcastic. He didn't take himself too seriously. And he was always there, no matter the time, checking the galleys of The Breeze, making crucial points. Neckowitz was the most opinionated, and I like the way he read me the riot act when I suggested that George Washington was a terrorist. Talk about a lesson in accuracy in journalism.

There was a lot of fun in those classes. A lot of journalists get into the business because they don't fit anywhere else, or they don't know what they want to do. So the atmosphere in some of these classes were akin to a zoo, with all the animals out of the cages.

The best class was Wendelken's Curio class. Curio was [and is] a student-produced magazine, and students were involved in every phase of production.

After college, I kept in touch with DeLuca, Wendelken and Neckowitz. Neckowitz got me my first job, in Natchez, Miss., as a sports writer. Natchez was a small, romantic but cosmopolitan town with antebellum homes and steamboats. It was a wonderful experience.

DeLuca would ask me to speak at journalism conferences, which was incredibly flattering and stimulating. And Wendelken was always there when I needed him. I changed careers once, and he talked for a long time just about how that it was OK, that you're supposed to search for what you want. Wendelken and DeLuca even showed up at my wedding. The hors d'oeuvres aren't as good as the pizza after a long day at Curio. And for those good memories, I have Wendelken, DeLuca and Neckowitz to thank.

Editor's Note: Pat Butters died unexpectedly on May 12, 2006, just as Madison was going to press. This Professors You Love paean to his journalism professors is perhaps his last article in print. Butters' professor, David Wendelken, in turn, shares some thoughts of his former student. "Students like Pat," Wendelken says, "are what make my academic career at JMU worthwhile."