« Remembering Mitch | Main | Recent SJMC grads reflect on their undergraduate experience »

He Wrote the Book

by Dave Mona

Mitchell V. Charnley was a legend in Murphy Hall long before I got there. He wrote the basic journalism textbook used at the University of Minnesota and most of the other journalism schools across the country.

Charnley was intolerant of spelling and grammatical errors. He liked factual errors even less. If you turned in a class assignment that referred to Northrop Auditorium as Northrup Auditorium, you received an F. It was a rather effective grading system, as students seldom made that error a second time.

He graded papers with a red pen. When you got a paper back from him, you knew that the more red it had on it, the worse the grade would be.

He also was more than willing to discuss his editing with you. He invited you into his office to argue cases where you thought he might have been too harsh. I had plenty of arguments with him. My record was perfect. I never won once.

In my junior year he dinged me half a grade for using “presently” when I should have used “currently.” That afternoon I was at his door, paper in hand.

“What can I do for you?” he said with a smile. “I assume I must have made some mistake on your paper.”

“I think I’ve got you this time,” I told him, my confidence overflowing. “You marked me down for using ‘presently’ instead of ‘currently.’”

“So I did,” he confirmed.

“Well,” I persisted, “they mean the same thing. You can interchange them.”

“And you of course looked this up before coming to my office. You probably have me on this one. Let’s just take a look at the dictionary.”

I knew from his tone that I was dead meat, and one look at his well-worn dictionary proved it.

“Currently” meant something that was happening in the here and now. “Presently” meant something that was about to happen, as in “He is expected presently.”

Refusing to admit defeat, I was back several weeks later with a column I had written for the Minnesota Daily student newspaper. It was about a longtime friend, Ken Jacobson, who played on the third team for the Gopher football team.

I was proud of the story and submitted it to a national competition, where it won first prize in a Hearst competition for feature sportswriting among college newspapers. I submitted it to Charnley for a class assignment, and it came back to me with twenty-three red suggestions for improvement.

After graduating, I began writing for The Minneapolis Tribune in September 1965. I had my first bylined article a few days later and was proud that the editors had chosen to display it on page one.

Two days later I looked in my mail slot and recognized the return address on one envelope; it was written with a familiar red pen.

I opened the envelope to find my story, neatly pasted onto a sheet of yellow copy paper. Above it, Charnley had written in red, “Mona. Nice yarn. Still having some problems with syntax. Mitch.”

From “Beyond the Sports Huddle: Mona on Minnesota” by Dave Mona, reprinted courtesy of Voyageur Press, © 2008. All rights reserved. Book is available at bookstores and online booksellers everywhere or from www.voyageurpress.com.