By Kailey Davis, public relations student
Baylor alumnus and former Baylor journalism professor, David McHam, received an award for his distinguished career at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s alumni weekend on Saturday, April 16.
McHam is one of only five alumni who received the award, which is distributed annually for a distinguished career in journalism. Award winners were honored for this outstanding journalistic accomplishment at a luncheon in the Low Library at Columbia University in New York.
In addition to the award, McHam has been recognized for several other achievements in his career. Named the outstanding journalism teacher in the nation by the Society of Professional Journalists in 1994, McHam said he “didn’t ever intend to teach.”
McHam attended Baylor to receive his undergraduate degree from 1956-1958 and during his most recent trip to Baylor in November of 2015, he told students the story of how he initially got involved in teaching journalism and communication law.
At a Baptist retreat center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, McHam met Bill McCormick, who at the time was sports editor of the Baylor Round Up. With McCormick, he hitchhiked all the way up the East Coast for 30 days and had a “great experience.” Along the way, McCormick told McHam about an editing professor he had taken at Baylor, Dave Campbell.
“This was a chance,” McHam said. “Life is full of chances.”
The next year McHam took his chance, wrote Campbell a letter, and drove across the country to Waco for what he thought was a job opening at the Waco Tribune Herald.
“I came all the way to Waco for a job that turned out not to be there,” McHam said. Although the job was not available, McHam said Campbell quickly became one of his “best friends and most important mentors.”
In time, McHam finally landed a job at the Waco Tribune Herald where he came to know Grober Andrews.
After meeting Andrews, McHam attended NYU for a short time, the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and then took a job at The Houston Post.
“One day Grober calls me out of the clear blue and says ‘There’s a job open teaching. Are you interested?’ and I said no,” McHam said.
“Eventually Grober urged me to come and visit,” McHam said. “The Lariat just kind of ran on its own and there was no adviser or anything. Things were not like they are now.”
During his visit, McHam spoke with Campbell, who convinced him to take the job.
“I took an absence from the Post and I came up for one year,” McHam said. “Thought I’d go back and here I am all these years later.”
McHam received his first teaching position at Baylor in 1961 and according to him; “the best thing that happened from then on” was all the “wonderful” people he met.
Two of the people he met during his time at Baylor were his students, Robert Darden and Richard Bradfield, who both now serve as professors for the Baylor Journalism Department.
Darden, who was a student of McHam’s during his time at Baylor said, “He was not like any professor I ever had before or ever had after.”
“He put his hands in his pockets, talked with a soft voice, and within minutes I was hooked,” Darden said. “He exuded a very quiet, calm center, he spoke conversationally, and he insisted, in fact demanded, that you do excellent work from day one.”
Darden said he “distinctly remembers” his first impression of McHam because a fight broke out between two of his classmates on the first day of class.
“One of them threw a punch and then they grabbed each other cursing and rolled out of the room knocking over tables,” Darden said. “The guys came back in laughing and David said, ‘Thanks guys. Alright class, you’ve got 40 minutes, write up what happened.’”
“I’ll never forget what I learned from this,” Darden said. “Pay attention to detail. Everyone has an agenda and everyone has a point of view. It’s our job is to make order out of chaos.”
While at Baylor in November, McHam emphasized his most important piece of advice is finding a mentor and becoming friends with those who surround you.
“Use the opportunity when you find someone who cares about you,” McHam said. “When you find someone who’s special, get to know them especially well.”
“He is absolutely right. He mentioned it; you keep up with the people you care about,” Darden said. “McHam told us that we would remember the times we worked together for a common cause. I remember in great detail what we did together when we tried to make a difference or a change, and those people are the ones I keep up with.”
Darden still has contact with Rick Bradfield, a former classmate of his from McHam’s class.
Bradfield, who now teaches a course for broadcast reporting and writing at Baylor and serves as a news director for KWTX Channel 10 News had McHam as a professor in one of McHam’s final years at Baylor.
Bradfield said his first class with McHam was “focused on very basic writing tools, word use, precision and accuracy. It was a lot of basic writing tools that at the time seemed almost remedial but since then it has really been something I have fallen back on a lot. It was very foundational. The course was one of a couple that really stuck with me.”
Bradfield said the things McHam taught were “so permanent, lasting and fundamental that people in the profession remember it 20, 30, or 40 years down the road. When I started teaching at Baylor 20 years ago I thought that if I could have that kind of effect on anybody I would really be a happy camper.”
Darden said following in the footsteps of McHam and becoming a journalism professor is “very intimidating. I don’t teach like he does, but the things that he taught me were important and that’s what I try to teach as the most important things in my classes. Whatever he did, it worked.”
McHam stayed at Baylor until 1974 when he accepted another position at Southern Methodist University. After teaching at SMU from 1974-1997, he then moved on to teach at the University of Texas at Arlington from 1998-2001, and the University of Houston from 2001 until his retirement in 2015, after 54 years of teaching.
During his time at the University of Houston, McHam received two awards honoring his remarkable career. In 2001 the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication gave him the President’s Award, and in 2011 he was honored at Baylor with the Legacy in Journalism Education Award. In addition, the Society of Professional Journalists honored McHam with the Distinguished Teacher in Journalism Award in 1994.
While visiting Baylor in November of 2015, a student asked McHam to comment on his professional legacy and McHam said, “You make your own luck and success is determined by one’s efforts to improve.”
“Things usually work out; they just don’t always work out the way you want. Sometimes even the things that didn’t happen for you can be good,” McHam said.