Category Archives: Mount Mercy

Honoring student editors


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Connor Mahan, Outstanding Journalism Student, Mount Mercy University, 2018. Also editor-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times.

Honors Convocation was today at the university where I teach. And two students who served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during their time at Mount Mercy graduated. It made me think about learning from students, as I wrote the speech honoring one of them as Student Journalist of the Year, while also mentioning the other. Several people told me they liked my remarks, so I present them here—text of my presentation at the MMU Honors Convocation:

Each year, it’s a bittersweet moment when you have to say goodbye to your graduating students. For me, as the journalism professor and faculty advisor to the Mount Mercy Times, I’m often saying farewell to students who have worked hard in their classes, and also put in countless hours to serve this university as editors of student media.

It’s both my joy and pain to have that experience twice this year. Two great editors-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times are in the class of 2018.

Graduating nursing student Madison Coates led the newspaper in her sophomore year, and has continued writing for the paper. When something happened in the newsroom that she liked, Maddie’s response was to say “perrrfect,” with a drawn out R. Maddie, to me, you were darn near perrrfect to work with as a student and an editor.

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Maddie Coates, former Times editor-in-chief, won this year’s award from the nursing program. She receives it from nursing chair Dr. Mary Tarbox.

But today I’m here to honor the second editor-in-chief who is also graduating in the class of 2018.

As a transfer student from Kirkwood Community College, Connor Mahan began excelling early at MMU. In the fall of 2015, when our faculty series was about the legacy of the Vietnam War, Connor was one of five photographers and reporters from the Mount Mercy Times who covered the visit of the Moving Wall, a replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, to campus. During the wall’s visit, Connor made a poignant image of a young boy, holding his ears as he looked at the wall, seeking the name of a relative among the dead.

It wasn’t just any news image—Connor’s photograph was judged the best news photograph in an Iowa college news medium for the year 2015 by the Iowa College Media Association.

Anybody who has worked with Connor quickly recognizes his drive, intelligence and good humor. Life hasn’t given him all the advantages that chance doles out to others, and when he has to go somewhere to cover a story, the structure of his body dictates that it may take him a bit longer than others to get there. But that’s never held Connor back. He’s always willing to take on a new task, he is always pushing himself.

And when you compliment Connor on this hard work, his almost perrrfect answer is: “I do what I can.”

In 2016, the second potentially devastating flood in 8 years threatened Cedar Rapids, and the Mount Mercy Community joined the city in an emergency effort to erect barriers against the rising Cedar River. During that mostly successful, epic battle with rising water, Connor went to Ellis Park to cover the story. There, Connor made some news photographs of people from Mount Mercy who were filling sandbags. One of Connor’s images showed our own Father Tony Adawu handing a sandbag to an MMU student.

You probably can guess, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. In 2017, the best news photograph in Iowa, as judged by the Iowa College Media Association, was that picture of Father Tony made by Connor Mahan. Furthermore, Connor co-wrote the Times’ news story about the flood. That story was judged by the I-C-M-A as the best news story that year.

Connor had done what he could.

In fall of 2017, the Mount Mercy Times faced a leadership crisis when the previous editor could not continue. In the paper’s hour of need, two students stepped in—one, Madelyn Orton, was a sophomore English major who served as Managing Editor.

And the new editor-in-chief, who stepped into the role because he could and because he wanted to serve the newspaper, was Connor Mahan.

I like to think that I teach some lessons to my students, but there is a flip side. One of the joys of being a professor is that I can try to live out what we say about becoming a lifelong learner. And I find that I often learn lessons from my students.

I learned something about faith and joy, the power of a positive attitude and the warmth of a perrrfect smile from Madison Coates.

And I learned that the main challenge of each day that I am blessed with is to take what I have, whatever that is, and simply to get on with it. I need to do the work I am able to do. And I think we all agree that the world would be a better place, and we would lead better lives, if we all could simply say, at the end of each day, the words of Connor Mahan: “I do what I can.”

It’s my sincere pleasure to recognized Connor Mahan as the Mount Mercy University 2018 Outstanding Student Journalist.

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Maddie with me after the ceremony.

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Mahder Habtemariam Serekberhan is also in the class of 2018–she was opinion editor of the student newspaper.

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Planting Trees on Arbor Day, 2018


eco clubWe were lucky it was a warm day. Earlier this month, we had several snowfalls in Cedar Rapids, and it seemed the ground would be pretty frosty.

But a tree planting event was scheduled for Arbor Day, today, and as luck would have it, the weather has changed. I know, Iowa, right?

Anyway, the MMU ECO Club coordinated the tree planting events, bringing 17 trees and a DNR expert to campus.

The original plans were to start at 8 a.m., but the club wisely changed that to a 10:30 a.m. start, assuming that the club and volunteers might get the trees into the ground by the planned lunch at 12:30 p.m.

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Zachary Ceresa, president of MMU Eco Club, getting ready for tree planting.

Indeed, the planting went quickly. There were probably 5 or more volunteers per tree, and although tree planting can be work, if you only have to plant one and four other people get turns at the shovel, it’s a fairly quick, fun process.

I’m a tree person. My tiny yard is virtually a forest due to all of the trees my wife and I have planted—I’m not even sure what the current tree census is at casa de Sheller, but it is quite a few.

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Rachael Murtaugh, Mount Mercy director of sustainability. She uses dandelions in all of her decorating.

And I have always enjoyed tree planting. It seems like an intuitively generous act, in a way, in that you’re trying to benefit the future—both your personal future and the future that goes on beyond you. Not all trees last that long, but many might—the group I was part of planted a sturdy 6-foot oak that, I hope, will be around for many years.

The Eco Club is interested because trees create a cascade of positive environmental impacts. I was interested in planting partly because it’s just soothing for the soul.

The day was beautiful and the volunteers plentiful. It was a fun way to mark the spring.

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DNR expert teaches us how to plant trees.

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Brief Memories of a ‘Lovely Man’


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I was biking through Noeldridge Park March 4, and noticed a few memorial trees that were decorated in memory of the departed they represent. Image from one of those memorial trees.

My wife pointed it out to me in the newspaper. There among the obituaries—Robert Keith McMaster. Bob McMaster has exited the planet, and we’re poorer for it. A long-time faculty member at Mount Mercy College, he had moved on from teaching philosophy by the time I obtained a teaching position at the college in 2001.

Bob was, by then, the director of faculty development. He checked on me during that first year of my teaching career, serving as an important mentor.

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Another decoration in a Noelridge memorial tree.

By the time I met him, the Parkinson ’s disease he lived with had advanced to the point where speech was not easy for him. It could be a challenge for him to be understood. But, he was a bright and funny man, and enjoyed contact with others. He always displayed genuine caring and concern for the faculty members he worked hard to aid.

In those days, Lundy was “the commons.” There was a pool table there, and at times a few of the old faculty members would gather on a Thursday or Friday to shoot some. McMaster was one of the leaders of that pool club, and invited me to be a part of it. He had an easy way of making someone new feel at home and part of “the gang.”

About 10 years ago, Bob retired from what had become Mount Mercy University. But in the years since, especially at parties for retiring faculty members, he’d be back, and it was always good to see him.

I have a sister who teaches at Kirkwood, but before that was an IT specialist at Mount Mercy when IT and the library were located in Lundy. When I posted a link to Bob McMaster’s obituary, she noted: “He was a really lovely man. What a loss.” Well said. The flag on campus flew at half staff in February after the tragic shooting in Florida, but it seems a fitting image for this post, too:

 

It’s sad to say goodbye, but I am glad I got to work with Bob McMaster, at least briefly near the end of his career. His passing does feel like a monumental event, like an era in Mount Mercy’s history is marked by his departure.

The world has shifted and the Atlases who carried it in the past are letting others pick up the burden. May we bear it well, but I don’t think many of us will bear it with as good a heart as Bob McMaster did.

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March: The interesting transition to spring


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Frosty hillside at MMU campus, riding up Mercy Drive Friday, March 2.

Iowa in March: To start the month, we’ve had a string of sunny, warm days. Well, “warm” is situational—scraping car windows was necessary this morning as temperatures were in the mid 20s.

But as I biked by the Rockwell-Collins pond on C Avenue Friday morning, the ice surface has become again liquid, and two ducks were swimming. I hope they are there this weekend when I take my youngest grandson for a bike ride. He loves seeing the ducks.

March is a roller coast month. We’ve started high on the hill, but could easily swoop down. Despite warm sunshine here, it’s winter in other parts of this hemisphere—my oldest daughter in England is dealing with snow in a UK city with no snow removal equipment, because such weather is so rare there. A Nor’easter is pounding parts of the U.S.

We haven’t had the high school basketball tourneys yet, complete with their traditional tournament blizzards.

Yet, it’s still nice to see more sunshine and feel more warmth. The dominant outdoor color is a drab brown, but birds are getting busy and noisy. Change is clearly in the air. By month’s end, we should be enjoying the green outdoors.

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ICMA Day 2: American Heroes


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Art Cullen, Iowa´s most recent Pulitzer winner.

Art Cullen certainly cuts a dashing figure for an old man—and I can say that as a man of approximately the same vintage.

The editor of “The Storm Lake Times,” Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year, and spoke to the INA and ICMA conventions Friday. He won the prize for a series of editorials hat attacked Buena Vista County, of which Storm Lake is the county seat, for secrecy in a legal fight with the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution.

As Cullen says, it´s pretty self evident that Iowa´s waters are badly polluted, but it takes some courage for a small-town journalist in Iowa to point out that unpleasant reality. In that place, it´s a gutsy thing to do.

Cullen represents a pure view of what a journalist is and does. He and his brother John, who publish the paper, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, although Art noted he handles more of the afflicting. “I am the bad cop, he is the good one,” he said.

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Art Cullen.

Bravo for Art and his little paper. But even with a Pulitzer Prize, he notes his readers care more about whether he has spelled their daughter´s name correctly. And he says the challenge for the Times is to figure out how to appeal to a growing Hispanic population in the paper´s market, or it will be game over in five years.

I hope he manages it. He´s a heroic journalist, and I wish him the continued success he deserves. Watch for his book, coming out this fall.

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MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan listens to Art Cullen speak.

A somewhat different brand of courage was on display in the morning, when Jim Olson, a retired CIA spy from Iowa, entertained the INA and ICMA crowd with his tales from his exciting careen. Olson noted that spying is an important service to the country, and one that will always be needed. But, in response to a question at the end, he also noted that our current president is doing a great disservice by attacking the intelligence agencies because he doesn´t like some of the information they are finding.

Sure, the memo, but that´s fake vindication from a lying party. I would dearly love to hear what Art Cullen says about that.

The new motto of “The Washington Post” is that “democracy dies in darkness.” In their own ways, I suppose, both Olson and Cullen worked to dispel darkness, but I do have some fondness for Cullen´s way of serving the country. It is easy to honor a public servant like Olson, but there is the complication that not everything our government did or does is honorable. Of course, not all journalists are honorable, either, but the way Art does it, journalism is.

We finished the ICMA convention with ice cream. Instead of attending a final session, I offered students with me a chance to go tour the Iowa Capitol. Which we did, and we had a great time.

It felt like a fitting end to our ICMA experience. Now, it is time to get back to work, to again start comforting and afflicting, each in our own way aiding democracy.

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As Art Cullen speaks, Brian Steffen of ICMA and Simpson College, covers the event on Twitter.

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Fairy Tales and Poignant Memories: ICMA Day 1


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MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan and Managing Editor Madelyn Orton at ICMA conference.

We had some great presentations on the first day of the Iowa College Media Association Convention in Des Moines. The most memorable moment came after the ICMA awards ceremony, when the state media’s association annual Eighmey Award, for a person in Iowa who has aided college media, went to Pat Pisarik of Loras College in Dubuque.

The award was voted on before Oct. 30 of last year, when sadly and unexpectedly, Pat passed away. His family was there to receive his honor. And ICMA renamed it’s “student journalist of the year award” as the “Pat Pisarik Student Journalist of the Year.”

It was a touching event, and his family received a standing ovation from the association.

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Son of Pat Pisarik at ICMA ceremony.

Earlier, Tim Harrower, a national icon in the world of newspapers who wrote the classic text on design and also a popular text on reporting, gave ICMA’s keynote address.

Using a fairy tale theme, Harrower retold stories such as “Chicken Little” to be entertaining fables about modern journalism (Chicken Little ends up working for a conglomerate that produces fried chicken and finds “another way to serve readers.”).

In his version of the “Fox and the Grapes,” the fox gets angry that too many grapes lean left, so Fox plants his own vineyard where all of the grapes lean right.

Yes, I loved it. A keynote address full of the kind of “dad jokes” that make my wife and children chuckle or groan, but it was also full of insight and wisdom.

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Hand of Tim Harrower.

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Tim Harrower.

Harrower had us all raise our hands and swear never to lie lest we be eaten by wolves. In today’s world of social media alternative facts, it’s more important than ever that journalists be truth tellers, even if the audience seems to be struggling to distinguish truth from Fake News of the kind perpetrated by Foxes and fake presidents.

At one point, Harrower gave advice to students on how to land a job. He noted that he was in a position to hire for the largest paper in Oregon, and he confessed he never cared about GPA nor even which school an applicant came from. There are two keys to landing a media job, he says: “10 great clips and a pleasant personality.”

“I’ve talked with a lot of talented geniuses that I would not hire because I didn’t want to have lunch with them,” he said.

As a professor, I would hasten to add that grades matter to some employers, and certainly have some impact on scholarships and recognition, so don’t totally relax too much, students. But the importance of grades really is whether they are symptom of learning—if they show that you got out of each experience what you could. Because, frankly, Harrower is right—they may be part of some employer’s screening of applications, but for the most part, they don’t really matter in terms of getting a job.

It’s more than journalism. For PR, graphic design, technical writing, TV, radio—any form of professional communication, remember his advice. The “clips” may be a photo gallery or web site or audio stories or a demo “tape” (we really have to work on updating that language, even “clips” these days are usually PDFs), but you land that first job with a smile and conversation and 10 great samples of what you can do.

And samples from student media, the MMU Times, and an internship or internships, always mean way more than any class work.

So what do you with the advice? Mr. Harrower offered further words.

“When a good story comes along, jump on it with both feet,” he said, adding that you report the heck out of it and produce a great story, great pictures, an online video, etc.

“That gives you one,” he noted, going on to repeat that you need to do it nine more times.

For me, the great disappointment of the day was that MMU did not win any ICMA awards. I need to find out what happened—I’m hoping there was not a glitch with our entries, but I am suspicious, because we’ve never been totally skunked in the past and there were good stories and materials in our contest entries. In particular, the winning front page displayed at the contest was, in my very biased opinion, not better then the page we had entered. Assuming we were in the running for awards, that there was not glitch, however, the take away is that we need to up our game, especially online.

Earlier in the afternoon, we participated in a media tour, and chose to go to the Register’s downtown newsroom. I had been there before, but it was worth seeing their Star Trek like control area and the banks of desks with a window view of the Capitol’s golden dome. The students who were with me really enjoyed it.

And one of our tour guides was Kyle Munson, whose “Kyle Munson’s Iowa” is one of the highlights of The Des Moines Register. I got to take a picture of him perched on a chair in a hallway to speak to an ICMA crowd. It was a totally fan boy moment, and I loved it.

All in all, day one would have been better with a few awards for Times staff writers, but it was still a day with many outstanding events. I’m glad we came, and I have just one thought about the contest: 10 great clips—we need to produce multiple, better stories. Students, they can get you a job, and, it is to be hoped, they can get your newspaper some prizes.

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Connor and Maddie listen at ICMA.

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Sisters are Doing it for Themselves


 

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MMU President Laurie Hamen speaks about Sister Shari Sutherland Dec. 12, 2017, in atrium of Busse Library.

When you think of a Catholic nun, what picture comes to your mind? A “penguin outfit” and a strict disciplinarian like from “Blues Brothers?” Or is it something cute but out of place in the modern world like a sister from “Sister Act?”

aa01We had a reception today at Mount Mercy for a complex, intelligent woman who has left her mark on the university. Sister Shari Sutherland is retiring at the end of the year as VP of mission and ministry.

MMU President Laurie Hamen told a little story about Sr. Shari. The then newly minted leader of MMU was to travel with her to Omaha to be presented to a Sisters of Mercy leadership group, and thus got in a car with Sister Shari on a cold winter morning. As they started off, however, they saw someone dressed in scrubs out in the cold. Sister Shari directed Laurie to stop the car and asked, “Where are you going, friend?”

The stranger was headed to HyVee, but didn’t have any money. Sister Shari gave them some of her own, and someone got a ride to the grocery store before a new university president and nun left town.

Of course, when you think of the story, your heart is warmed by the goodness it displays. Then again, it’s also a story of quick decision making, taking risks, facing life with courage and swift action. How typical of a Sister.

I recently read an article that, sadly, as I wrote this I could not find again. But it was a reflection of how the Christian view of Mary, mother of Jesus, is sometimes flawed because we seem to think of her as meek and passive. But in the Gospel, when an angel comes to tell Mary she’ll have a baby, she doesn’t just say, “sure,” she first asks some pointed questions. And when she says “OK, God, we’ll do this,” she says it on her own, without consulting anybody. Sort of like a Sister.

Sisters are doing it for themselves. I’m not sure why Sister Shari’s retirement made me think of Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, but it did. And while I didn’t find the most recent article on Mary that I was thinking of, I did appreciate this similar essay by Father James Martin in Slate.

Sister Shari was an encouraging presence at MMU and also a force to be reckoned with. She has spunk, intelligence, humor and backbone. I felt honored that I rang with her when there was a bell choir and occasionally was blessed by her during Mercy Week ceremonies. She was an early supporter of the idea of a Fall Faculty Series, and one of the hidden movers and shakers that helped that effort take off.

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Photo from event celebrating Sister Shari’s 50th anniversary in Sisters of Mercy.

There was another theme at the retirement reception, too. It doesn’t end here. The mission of the Sisters of Mercy is carried on by those of us who attempt to understand the spirit of Mercy, and who work and teach at a Mercy University.

Sister Shari, you were part of the gas in the tank at MMU. Your smile and grace and humor and strength will be sorely missed. On the other hand, if the baton gets passed, the next runner must run. The university, like the dude, abides. And the best way to honor you Sister Shari, I suppose, is to keep the faith, light the fire, work the mission, teach the students and carry on.

Before that, however, let me pause and say thanks for the help you gave me and all of us at MMU in ways big and small.

And, also, a song that makes me think of both Mary and of you, Sister Shari:

 

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