Green Ink and Cigarettes: Remembering Bill Glavin, Newhouse School’s Magazine Prof

Beloved Newhouse Professor William Glavin loved fly-fishing, Harry Potter, baseball and editing. His devotion as a writing teacher earned the school a $100,000 scholarship fund, a magazine lab named in his honor, and an endowed NYC magazine trip for students. His caring reputation and his love of language will forever be remembered.

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He looked just like a professor ought to. He wore a red sweater vest over a buttoned, plaid shirt. His scruffy beard brushed the edge of his neatly folded shirt collar. He sat in a small metal chair behind a faux-wood table at the front of the classroom. His left khaki clad leg folded over his right. He inclined his slight, narrow shoulders toward his students.  A green pen rested beside his stack of papers. He stared over wireframe glasses at the back wall and, in his deep, booming voice, he introduced himself.

Professor Bill Glavin’s voice drowned out the din of whirring camera equipment that leaked though cinderblock walls of a nearby broadcast lab. His enthusiasm for his Fall 2008 MAG 205: Introduction to the Magazine course syllabus reflected his fierce, guard-dog advocacy of the magazine department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, one of America’s top communications schools. But his new students, unaware of his passionate dedication to their curriculum and to them, hadn’t the faintest idea who he was. Yet. He mentioned he left his editor track at Good Housekeeping, one of the world’s longest surviving magazine brands, to teach at Newhouse in 1973.  But omitted that his editor was grooming him to take over as the magazine’s editor-in-chief. He glazed over his experience at The Boston Globe and a local Boston TV station. His gaze shifted to his 20 new students.

He spread his fingers wide and leaned forward with child-like delight. Each student introduced him or herself, where they were from, past journalism experience. Glavin absorbed every detail; his eyes memorized every face, every name. He pointed to his contact information on the syllabus: office phone, home phone, eight weekly office hours, a time designated for professors to meet with students (double the required four hours for a Newhouse professor), and email address. At which, his brow furrowed. “You might have trouble emailing me this week,” he said, pulling an iPod Nano out of his khaki pocket. “I got a new iPod. My email comes on here but now it’s gone from my computer.” He spun the white wheel with his big thumb, as it emitted a clicking sound. “I’m increasing office hours on Friday until someone fixes my email. I have no idea how this thing works, it’s so damned small.”

He spun some more and frowned at the small device. “Does anyone know how to turn that irritating clicker sound off?” he asked.

The class laughed. And with that, like thousands before them, they met Bill Glavin, Newhouse’s beloved writing professor.

When class ended, and no students approached him with questions, Glavin walked outside to the plaza between the Newhouse buildings. He sat on the low, gray stone wall and lit up a cigarette, inhaled deeply through the filter, coughed, then inhaled again. He’d talk with passing students about the latest stories they wrote, or about Harry Potter or JK Rowling—his favorite books and author. Or, he’d tease a colleague about Syracuse University’s lousy football team. Nearly everyone in the Newhouse community knew him. And nearly everyone knew he smoked there. Although he was loathe to admit it, Glavin was one of Newhouse’s most acclaimed teachers. He won the Laura J. & L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence award in 1995—the first Newhouse professor to receive this distinction.  In 2008, Stacy Mindich, Glavin’s former student, donated $100,000 for the Glavin Magazine Lab, a space with 20 computers that serves as a classroom and a “club house” for campus magazines. Mindich also endowed the annual William Glavin Magazine Trip that connects magazine students with top-tier editors in New York City.

But, in March 2010, everyone’s fears became reality: doctors diagnosed Glavin with lung cancer. He already lived with a rare form of blood cancer, Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, diagnosed four years prior. Seven weeks later, on Friday, May 7, 2010 Glavin died at Francis House in Syracuse at age 67. “It happened too fast. We knew he was sick, but the rate at which the disease progressed shocked us all. And then he was gone,” says Rosanna Grassi, Newhouse’s associate dean of student affairs. While his cancer stunned the Newhouse community, Glavin knew death approached. And he prepared. He left $100,000 scholarship fund to the magazine department to help students begin their careers, even though he’d never have the chance to teach them. Starting in May 2011, several students annually will receive Glavin’s financial help toward living in New York City during unpaid internships. At Newhouse’s 2010 Convocation, he won Teacher of the Year, voted by the senior class before students learned he was sick. In greater Syracuse, he left behind his crew of baseball fanatics, who rarely missed Syracuse Chiefs games and who played in Syracuse adult leagues, and fly-fishing friends, local men who’d spend Saturdays together at Troutfitters, a fly-fishing shop on Erie Boulevard.

Glavin spent most Saturdays and summers as a Troutfitters’ pseudo employee helping customers find the right reel. He also brought donuts and talked politics with fly-fishing pals. Troutfitters became his home, second only to the classroom. He’d sit on a chair on the 10×10 wooden raised platform behind the 12-foot glass reel case. From this stage, he’d defend his liberal views in the conservative group. Wayne Walts, Troutfitters’ owner and Glavin’s friend for 30 years, teased him saying that from his platform he looked like a judge in a courtroom. Every so often, Glavin left the conversation to light a cigarette on the front sidewalk, pulling through a pack or more per day. “Bill was a nervous twitchy kind of guy,” says Walts. “He was addicted and didn’t have any control of it.”

Glavin was a dry fly-fisherman, whisking bait only across the water’s surface—the most challenging type of the sport. If fish didn’t rise to bite, he’d watch other fly-fishermen from the banks. This happened often. “Bill was more into the going than the doing of fly-fishing,” Walts says. “It was very visual for him. He’d delight in others catching fish, so he watched a lot.” Glavin also helped Walts lead two-week summer fly-fishing trips to the Missouri River in Montana. “He’d adopt a mother hen role looking after all these guys,” shared George Temnycky, Glavin’s friend and fellow fly-fisherman, at Newhouse during the second of two memorial events for Glavin. Not consumed by the puffy-chested nature of fly-fishing, Glavin marveled at mountain streams, beautiful trout, and mayflies. He’d never get territorial over water. Instead, he’d scout out the best fishing spots reporting in detail to the other fishermen. In the evenings, when the fishermen relaxed together, Glavin talked about his students with passion and devotion. “He’d never brag about his students’ successes that he had a part in, and I had no idea [of his lasting impact on students’ lives] until I read their posts online when he got sick,” said Temnycky. To honor Glavin, Temnycky intends to plant a Red Bud, Glavin’s favorite tree, in springtime on the Missouri River. Court Reed, a fly-fisherman, made a collage of photographs of Glavin fishing that now hangs on Troutfitters’ left wall.

When he wasn’t on the river, Glavin spent weeknights playing or watching baseball. He loved the Syracuse Chiefs and the Boston Red Sox, a loyalty that sprang from his upbringing in Massachusetts. He rarely missed a Chiefs home game, and he enjoyed exchanging insults with Hart Seely, a feature writer for The Post-Standard, a die-hard New York Yankee fan, and Glavin’s long-time friend and mortal baseball enemy. For 20 years they dueled over scores, players, stats, strategy. “When anything bad would happen to the Yankees, the phone would ring and I’d yell out, ‘Don’t answer, it’s Glavin!’” shared Seely at Glavin’s Newhouse memorial. “The Yankees had a real bad night last night, they lost eight to nothing, and I stayed up for an hour after the game waiting for a call that never came.”

Marcus Hayes, a former student and a fellow baseball fan, writes features for The Daily News in Philadelphia, covering the Phillies and Eagles. Hayes’ remembers playing softball on the Syracuse University campus with Glavin and a few friends one day. Glavin, then 49, covered first base. He played shallow, and when the batter hit a ball on a one-hop toward him, it hit him square on the shin. “It made the most sickening thud,” says Hayes. “He went down like he’d been shot.” Glavin rolled over, picked up the ball in his bare hand, and crawled 10 feet to the base tagging the batter out. Fascinated with his injured shin, he called Hayes three times a day that week reporting on his bruise changing colors from blue to black to purple to yellow, and that stitches from the softball were still embedded in his skin. “I’m not sure his shin ever went back to normal actually, but he played again the next week regardless,” Hayes says.

Glavin brought that hardheaded tenacity and passion to the classroom in a string of obsessions. Beyond baseball and trout, he loved Harry Potter, Mark Twain and smoking.  He taught three classes per semester for 37 years—a rarity among professors who typically teach five per year. Before he became ill, he missed class twice—for each of his parents’ funerals. In teaching writing, he pushed clarity and structure. He urged students to stretch for the perfect word and reject the most fancy word. “He’d taste that word, agonize over that word,” says Hayes. But, Glavin spent 20 percent of his time teaching clear writing and 80 percent of his time buttressing his students’ work. “He was wonderful at finding strengths and reinforcing those,” Hayes says. Glavin handed back graded assignments, his neatly penned notes in the margins with his signature green ink. Pete Thamel, former student and sports reporter for The New York Times says, “He’d eviscerate you gently. Young writers cling to what they write, and he’d target that through his green pen.” Glavin felt students’ frustrations, helped them develop their ideas, and faded to the background as students triumphed.

Last year, while students traveled on spring break, Glavin went to the emergency room for his relentless smoker’s cough. Doctors removed fluid from his lungs, which they used to diagnose him with lung cancer. From there, his condition deteriorated rapidly. Melissa Chessher, his magazine colleague and friend, became his primary health aid and ultimately his health proxy. Chessher drove him to doctor appointments and chemotherapy treatments, camped out in the hospital, delivered food, and washed his laundry. On Fridays she’d bring him his favorite steak from Saratoga Steaks and watch movies with him.

His cancers seemed to run on the academic calendar. After a severe nosebleed on freshman convocation four years ago, doctors diagnosed him with blood cancer. He went into the hospital at the end of spring break 2010 for lung cancer. And on the last day of spring classes, Chessher helped him leave his small, 1950s, sparsely furnished house for the last time. “It’s hard to watch someone leave a house they know they’re not coming back to,” said Chessher. He moved to Francis House, a hospice in Syracuse.

In his four days of hospice care, friends surrounded Glavin. Among them, Nancy Griffin, his oldest friend courtesy of alphabetical seating in English class at Northeastern University. She drove from Maine and stayed until he passed. Bob Lloyd, former student, long-time sports editor at The Post-Standard and Newhouse professor, with his wife, Carla, also a Newhouse professor, came. Fly-fishing friends, baseball friends, and more Newhouse colleagues passed through.

The first night of hospice, Chessher tucked Glavin into bed at the Francis House. They played a Harry Potter game on his laptop before he slept. And after that night, he moved in and out of consciousness. Chessher remembers Glavin’s wet, raspy gurgle as he struggled to breathe and how he seemed scared, nervous. On the third night in hospice, Glavin opened his eyes at 2:30 a.m., and told Chessher, “I gotta go back to school. I gotta go back to school.” He died later that morning at 9:30 a.m. peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by friends.

In a farewell email and Facebook message to his students, colleagues and friends Glavin wrote, “I know that I could never have found another job so rewarding, because in no other job could I have met all of you.” Shortly after he passed, graduating students and a handful of faculty organized a memorial service at Hendricks Chapel. Irish music played during a slide show of pictures of Glavin on a big screen. His colleagues gave remembrance speeches. “He touched so many lives, I’m just glad he was able to touch mine too,” says Leah Goldman, a then-graduating senior. David Rubin, Newhouse dean from 1990-2008, nicknamed the students who baked Harry Potter cookies for the reception “Glavin’s Girls.” Students designed a memorial bookmark with a picture of Glavin and a quote from one of the Harry Potter books: “We teachers are rather good at magic, you know.” At the end of the ceremony, students brought carnations from Hendricks and laid them on the plaza wall outside Newhouse where he smoked, joked, and talked with students.

As part of Glavin’s last requests, he asked for two memorial events—one in New York City and one at Newhouse—and insisted they be happy events. During both October 2010 memorials, colleagues, former students and friends remembered him as someone who cared intensely about his relationships. And that Glavin’s passion lay in editing—not writing, even though he co-authored a text on magazine writing used for Article Writing. He put all of his energy into editing his students’ work. He built a relationship with each student from the moment he met them in MAG 205: Introduction to the Magazine. He kept in touch with most after graduation and followed their careers. “He saved his writing for us,” said Allison Glock, Glavin’s former student and the first woman to write a cover story for ESPN The Magazine at the Newhouse memorial. His writing came through in wisely crafted responses to hundreds of students’ letters and emails about frustrations with editors, job uncertainties, insecurities in freelance paychecks, troubled marriages, difficulties balancing a career and family, breakups—no issue was too trivial. Whether students needed help with writing, or with life, Glavin gave it to them. “He took our struggles and gave them a place to play out; he took our triumphs and celebrated them,” wrote Patty Adcroft, Glavin’s former student, in her memorial speech delivered by Chessher at the New York City memorial. Adcroft recalls a telling “Glavin moment” when she told him doctors discovered a lesion on her brain. He calmly responded, “Adcroft?” He paused. “The brain is overrated.”

Glavin, a bachelor, collected women who needed help: single mothers, women in abusive relationships, workaholics, women with illnesses. Mylinda Smith, single mother and events program coordinator at Newhouse, was one of a handful of women he’d call every night around 11 p.m. to make sure they were okay. “He was the best girlfriend you could ever have,” Smith says. “Our conversations were like a nightly sleepover on the phone.” She wipes a mascara tear from her cheek and turns her open face to the gray sky. A small crinkle forms between her eyebrows. “He wasn’t a normal guy, ya know? Guys can be really stupid,” she says. “Billy was different. There was no pussyfooting around; he loved me, and each one of his friends in a different, special way. He got us like no one else did.”

A month into his 2008 MAG 205: Introduction to the Magazine class, students felt as though Glavin understood them, too. He passed back his first graded writing assignment. Penned in green ink, Glavin’s comments about adverbial sins, rhetorical questions and passive voice lined the margins. Ignoring advances in technology, Glavin flicked on an overhead projector. Students shifted uncomfortably in their seats. He placed a transparency on the overhead: a selection of sentences and paragraphs from students’ work, names blacked out with permanent marker. He pointed out the positives, and asked his class how the writing could improve. In a collective release of tension, students realized he wouldn’t tear their work apart; he’d build it up. And then together the students dissected every sentence with him, entering into his beloved vortex of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and diction. When class ended, he walked to his favorite spot on the Newhouse plaza. Sat. Lit up a cigarette.

Now, nearly a year after his death, a small memorial plaque replaces the man who sat there. An inscription by Mark Twain, one of Glavin’s favorite writers, reads: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.”

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Click here to read about this year’s three Glavin-scholarship recipients:

Opportunity granted: Scholarships set up by deceased professor help students fund summer internships

 

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