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Remembering Mitch

Of all the nicknames and sobriquets that might be attached to Mitchell Charnley (and he hated labels), Mr. Accuracy would have been as apt as any other. It was his professional obsession that a writer's first job is to get the facts right.

by Phil Tichenor

Mitchell CharnleyWhen hundreds of friends and former students, including some top names in Minnesota and American journalism, gathered to celebrate Mitchell Charnley's 90th birthday in 1988, the venerated teacher listened patiently, and with good humor, as well-wishers showered him with superlatives and inventive phrases that might well have earned them F's as students writing about any other public figure.

In fact, Mitch would have red-lined this opening sentence as too blamed long.

It was all in good fun, of course, in this happy, light roast of a revered, longtime teacher whose insistence on precision and economy in writing style was wrapped up in pithy doggerel by former New York Times editorial writer Graham Hovey:

"Shun 'fine' writing," says Mitchell V., Beware the bogus analogy. Figures of speech are good, in their place, Along with color, and notes of grace, But never forget, in the Code Charnley, A governing rule is 'sparingly' !"

Hovey said far more, of course, but you get the idea. Lawyer Marshall Tanick praised Mitch's principles of accuracy, fairness and integrity. Sig Mickelson of CBS News thought Mitch should make the Guinness Book of World Records for the most attempts at retirement--a point we shall revisit later. Harry Reasoner, the famous ABC commentator, said his first news story in Mitch's class drew an F, although he finished the term with an A, and that nothing he ever did would have been "quite as good without Mitchell Charnley." And Paul Gruchow, former Minnesota Daily editor, worried that his postcollege essays might fail to pass muster with his esteemed teacher.

Of all the nicknames and sobriquets that might be attached to Mitchell Charnley (and he hated labels), Mr. Accuracy would have been as apt as any other. It was his professional obsession that a writer's first job is to get the facts right. Accordingly, to be certain that we wouldn't mess up his own life story, he thoughtfully put together his autobiography in 1945. That rich document made writing about his early life a piece of cake--another expression he might well have disdained. Or maybe not.

Mitchell Vaughn Charnley was born April 9, 1898, in Goshen, Ind., a place the local papers called "the Maple City." As the son of a lawyer buried in the tedium of property abstract work, young redheaded Mitch had little proclivity for writing. He found "Ivanhoe" dull, but good for cramming his head with strange words that helped him "stand up to the last" in a school spell-down. He was a Halloween prankster, swam in the Elkhart River and was invited to play on a baseball team, not because of any athletic talent, but because he was the only kid in town owning a professionally made uniform. Nevertheless, that team experience had a powerful effect on Mitchell Charnley's professional direction.

When the principal told him to take over the school's monthly paper, Mitch wrote a Christmas editorial that caught the attention of the third baseman. Pudge, as this muscular infielder was known, asked where Mitch had "found" that piece, because such fine writing just had to have been lifted from somewhere!

Left-handed as it was, this praise convinced young Mitchell Charnley that he must be "a writer born, if not yet made."

He entered Williams College in the bucolic Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts in 1915, wrote for the college newspaper and became its editor. He spent his summers back in Goshen with the local Daily News-Times as a neophyte reporter stuck with obits and accidents. He joined the Army in fall 1918, but the armistice arrived before he was commissioned; he recalled later that "No warrior was ever readier for peace than I."

With teaching in the back of his mind, he did his graduate work at the University of Washington's School of Journalism, where, again, he edited a student paper. He also met Ralph D. Casey, then a somewhat older graduate student and teacher and, later, director of the SJMC. Mitch enjoyed Washington so much that when he left there in 1921 he had done little on his master's thesis. (He would complete it, "The History of Sigma Delta Chi," four years later.)

His first professional journalism work was in 1921, covering the waterfront, literally, for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He returned to Washington a year later as news editor of the Walla Walla Bulletin.

Late in 1922, he talked his way into a job in the Detroit News's city room, where he did more reporting and a good deal of rewriting.

After this flurry of job changes--and advancement in the craft--over a two-year period, he crossed the street from the News to join American Boy magazine. And there began an exhilarating seven-year stretch of reporting, commentary and creative writing, about which Mitch's students and colleagues, such as professor Roy E. Carter Jr., would hear a great deal over the next decades. Convinced that American Boy was the best youth magazine ever published anywhere, he wrote scores of magazine articles and "40 or 50" short stories.

He was not tied down the entire seven years in Detroit. He spent a year freelancing in France, Algeria, Italy and other Old-World areas and even served as editor for a Doubleday pulp operation in New York. He decided that nonfiction was more his forte, though, and he returned to American Boy magazine and wrote "The Boys' Life of the Wright Brothers," a smash hit a year after Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic trip and a work you can still order online. He also wrote "The Boy's Life of Herbert Hoover," which, quite unlike the Wright article, was no more successful than Hoover's political career.

After nine years of varied--and almost exotic--professional writing, Mitchell Charnley decided that if he was ever to teach, he should start now. He taught at Iowa State College from 1930 until 1934, when his former teacher at Washington, Ralph Casey, brought him to Minnesota to join a faculty that by the early 1950s would include Raymond Nixon, J. Edward Gerald, W. Edwin Emery, Thomas Barnhart, George Hage, Harold Wilson, Robert L. Jones and Fred Kildow. Mitch's job was to establish a magazine writing program and teach reporting--whether for radio or print.

Mitch saw accuracy as the most bedeviling problem of the media. In 1936, he conducted and published, in Journalism Quarterly, a study of newspaper accuracy that is still cited today. (Slightly more than half--54 percent--of the 591 stories in his sample were "entirely accurate"; how would that compare with today?)

His first book, "News by Radio" in 1948, was welcomed by a Public Opinion Quarterly reviewer for "thoroughly and expertly describ(ing) the mechanics and functions of a radio station's news organization." One of his radio reporting students in those years was an M.A. student (and future SJMC professor) named Donald M. Gillmor, who remembers Mitch's insistence on absolute perfection in use of words and, especially for radio, pronunciation; it was BURserk, not berSERK. (Don also remembers Mitch as fully capable of putting students on a bit, as when he claimed to be the inventor of the martini, the origin of which Italians have been arguing about since long before Mitch was born.)

Another student of the early '50s was future SJMC professor Jean Ward, who remembers well Mitch Charnley's emphasis on interpretation of critical events.

Many a well-known journalist has testified to Mitch's unforgettable influence on his or her professional life. Former Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar said this about Professor Charnley:

"When he talked writing in Murphy Hall, he talked with a soft precision and passion and with utterly no attempt to conceal his love of the business. Much of that involved what was then called radio writing, and he would often affect the voice of an announcer, pronouncing the word 'news' as 'nyews,' which is what they were taught in the radio institutes of the time. One day in class at Murphy Hall he sent us out into the community to gather material for a feature story.  I took a streetcar to a pool emporium on Hennepin and wrote of an old man asking for an autograph from Minnesota Fats, pretending it was for his son. Mitch discussed the piece in class. His critique found a few nits, but he finished by calling it 'a tremendously warm piece.' I think I decided right about then to go into daily journalism. It was actually a day that shaped my life."

Mitch's list of students, including those named above, is a Who's Who of mid- to late-20th-century journalism: Vic Cohn (Minneapolis Tribune and Washington Post science writer), Eric Sevareid (CBS), Chuck Roberts (Newsweek), Tom Heggen (author, "Mr. Roberts"), Max Shulman (author and humorist, "Barefoot Boy with Cheek") and Otto Silha (publisher, Minneapolis Star Tribune and SJMC benefactor), among others. One of Mitch's first students in 1934 was George Hage, later a faculty member who continued teaching in the Charnley tradition. Still another was Jean Clifford, who would later become Mitch's spouse.

Testimonies to the influence of Mitchell Charnley on professional journalists abound in the files of Murphy and Johnston Halls.

The Mickelson jibe about multiple retirements struck a well-known but delightful nerve in University and professional journalism scuttlebutt. Mitch retired from the School faculty in 1966, although not quite. Many individuals, including former students of Mitch, faculty members, and spouse Jean prevailed on then-president O. Meredith Wilson to question the age 68 mandatory-retirement rule. Wilson agreed. In 1968, the School established the William J. Murphy Chair and appointed Mitchell Charnley as the occupant for two years.

So in 1970, he retired a second time--but not quite. He next served a year as acting associate director of University Relations, retired a third time and still wasn't through. He worked with several deans in the College of Liberal Arts, including E. W. Ziebarth, Frank Sorauf and Nils Hasselmo, the conclusion of this service producing a fourth retirement, when Mitch was well past his 75th year.

In summer and fall of 1969, he returned to the classroom as a student; he took graduate courses in anthropology, pursuing his lifelong interest in human origins.

He eventually slowed down from all that activity but continued to be ubiquitous on campus, to the point where people wondered whether he would ever finally retire.

He died of heart failure in winter of 1991, following a remarkable career of writing, teaching about writing and writing about writing.

At his memorial service, Mitchell Charnley's contribution to the College of Liberal Arts was remembered fondly by Linda L. Wilson, an administrative assistant in the dean's office in the early 1970s and later assistant to SJMC director Jerry Kline. She said that Mitch's editorial pencil "became sharper as it got on in years . . . I was not spared ... (but) ... I loved it and learned a tremendous amount about writing ... (from)... this wonderful colleague and friend."

The list of Charnley sobriquets is long, another being "journalism's godfather," accorded him in 1979 by Cynthia Hill, then an SJMC student, in Minnesota magazine. Her warm story told how he could put "a somewhat nervous journalism student-interviewer at ease ... his famed affinity for students (was) immediate and genuine."

Personally, I came to know Mitch when, as editor of Journalism Quarterly in 1959, he published my very first academic article. His textbook "Reporting," first published that same year, was later translated into Spanish and became known worldwide.

In the mid-1980s, at a journalism workshop in Bogota, Colombia, I learned the full measure of that international reputation. A journalism teacher from Medellin, hearing I was from Minnesota, told me that she required her journalism students to read three North American authors.

Those authors, she said, were Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and Mitchell V. Charnley.

During his 30 years at the SJMC, emeritus professor Phillip J. Tichenor taught public opinion, science writing, media and social change, and opinion writing. Research by Tichenor and sociologists George Donohue and Clarice Olien, on media distribution of knowledge and the community press, is known internationally. In 1994, this "Minnesota team," as it was known, received the Paul J. Deutschmann Award for outstanding contributions to research from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. After retirement, Tichenor wrote "Athena's Forum," a novel about an immigrant editor family on the Minnesota prairie during the decade before World War I.