I recently spent 24 hours in New York City.
My main purpose was to attend the Peabody Award luncheon on Monday, May 20. The Peabodys, administered through the University of Georgia, were originally founded to honor excellence in radio. Now they encompass all forms of electronic communications.
I wish I could tell you that I went to the Peabodys to accept an award! Not yet.
I went because this year is the final one in which my former graduate-school professor, Horace Newcomb, will serve as the director of the Peabodys. Once he moves back from Athens, Georgia, to his home in Austin, Texas (and stops making Peabody-related trips to New York City), I’ll be unlikely to see him.
So I decided to attend the ceremonies, to which Horace has invited me every year for more than a decade. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to talk to Horace or his wife, Sara, in the hubbub of awards, congratulations, and food. I didn’t. But I wanted to talk to them one last time. I did.
My father always said that if one is truly lucky in higher education one will find at least one professor who really matters, who teaches one to think and encourages one to do one’s best work.
For me, Horace was one of those professors.
He is pretty much the founder of television studies in the United States. He began by teaching in an English department, in fact, since early in his career few official departments existed in which one could study or teach television.
By the time I got to the University of Texas, where I got my Ph.D. in American studies but specialized in media history, he was a well known figure in the university’s Radio-TV-Film department.
He never completely shook off his English department roots, however, which meant that in a pinch I could discuss my American literature reading list with him as well as the one for television studies. He taught me to appreciate Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well as Stephen J. Cannell and Tom Selleck. (Okay, I admit I didn’t need a lot of teaching to appreciate Tom Selleck, but Horace helped me understand WHY I appreciated him beyond his good looks.)
I wasn’t Horace’s best or even favorite student. He was always generous with his time, however. He inspired me to hone my writing and my analysis of stories told in any medium.
And he occasionally talked me down from the metaphorical ledge when I was feeling stressed out by life as a Ph.D. candidate.
When I decided to ask outside readers to give an honest appraisal of my new memoir, Pulling Taffy, Horace was one of the few people to whom I sent the manuscript. He offered insightful suggestions for reshaping the book. I didn’t implement them all, but they set me on the path I ended up taking.
I was happy to hand a copy of the book to him and Sara after the Peabody luncheon.
I was also happy just to be there for the awards, which went to a remarkable bunch of people and radio/TV/web productions. Some of these (Lorne Michaels, HBO, Doctor Who) were known to me. Others were new. These included Filipinos who had created a video exposé of child malnutrition in their country and a Phoenix news station crew whose in-depth reporting on the cause of a local automobile accident eventually led to a federal inquiry and the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.
I left with a happy feeling from having encountered Horace and Sara; a few celebrities (I saved a departing elevator for Judd Apatow!); the glorious art-deco palace that is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the hustle and bustle of New York, which always invigorates me.
I also left with a piece of chocolate shaped like a Peabody Award and a bouquet of aromatic flowers that survived the bus ride back to Massachusetts and graced my table here for more than a week.
Most importantly, I left with inspiration. All the people accepting Peabody Awards were passionate about their work, and all of them had told stories that mattered.
I hope that my next big story will matter, too. I’m not sure what that story will be, of course; I’m running around like a crazy person publicizing my current book! But I’m cogitating. Stay tuned….