I don’t think there are many people outside my family who made a bigger impact on my life than Charlie Marler, who passed away last week in Abilene, Texas.
Decades after my last journalism class with him, I hear his voice in my ear when I write, and sometimes I still stop to justify myself when I know I’m breaking one of his rules. (Yeah, Doc, I know that “hold” should be reserved for something you can hold in your hand, but my clients insist on “holding” meetings!)
Of course Dr. Marler mentored me in my work as a student journalist on The Optimist at Abilene Christian University. He also got me a well-paying job producing the weekly bulletin for the University Church of Christ (using all the ACU journalism production facilities). And he made it possible for me to quit that job too, when I was hanging on by my fingernails.
Just before beginning my senior year of college I learned that I was losing access to a lot of my expected student financial aid because of changes in my father’s job status the previous year. Those changes actually made it less likely that my parents could help support my education, but apparently, it didn’t look that way on paper. I remember sitting in the office with the financial aid officer, in tears, begging to be able to borrow money so I could finish my senior year. He just told me there was nothing he could do.
A few months later, Dr. Marler came to me and told me that he thought the weekly bulletin job was too much for me on top of my job as the managing editor of the Optimist and all my senior classes. He knew I was barely sleeping and barely holding it together some days. I agreed but said I needed the money from the bulletin job to have any chance of staying in school.
Not long after that discussion, I was notified that I would be receiving a large scholarship from ACU — just because. I didn’t need to do anything different, didn’t need to fill out applications or take specific classes or make any promises about anything. The scholarship was more than enough to replace the money I was making in the bulletin job and more than the student loans I had been asking for. And I wouldn’t have anything to pay back! I don’t know what strings Dr. Marler pulled, but I will be forever grateful.
In his classes, Dr. Marler taught me grammar and AP style and how to avoid logical fallacies and how to make a well-supported argument and the importance of New York Times v. Sullivan. With his life, Dr. Marler taught me you can be demanding without being overbearing, that you can be challenging and still show how much you care, that you can disagree without being disagreeable.
Just last month, I was listening to an author / college professor, who explained her goal in the classroom is not to push her students to believe all the things she believes but to teach them how to examine ideas and make connections and come to their own conclusions. And I realized more clearly than ever that this was what I had learned in my journalism classes at ACU, especially from Dr. Marler. He helped me learn how to think — not what to think — but how to think. That it’s OK to challenge long-held ideas and beliefs as long as you know what questions to ask, where to look for the answers, and how to verify your sources.
Those lessons have served me well throughout my career, which has taken different paths than I ever expected. And those lessons have served me even better in my life, which has also taken me places I never expected.