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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Life + Arts

The McHam, the myth, the legend: Journalism professor retires after 54 years


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David McHam kicks his feet up at the copy desk of The Waco News-Tribune. | Courtesy of David McHam

When Cara Smith first met David McHam, she left his office crying.

She was enrolled in his Intermediate Reporting class — required of all journalism students at UH — and McHam had just told her that she would have to leave the Opinion desk, where she had worked as a top writer since she joined the paper, and start writing for News.

“I thought it sounded like the most boring thing on the planet,” Smith said. “Honestly, he put up with me fighting back against his curriculum. I remember him asking me, ‘Do you want to grow up and be a blogger?’ He said that’s what would happen if I didn’t learn how to write a news story.”

One year later, Smith was chosen as editor in chief of The Cougar, largely due to the news stories McHam forced her to write.

After 54 years of teaching and countless other student experiences similar to Smith’s, McHam will no longer be around to influence the next generation of journalists.

“I set the record for the longest teacher in journalism,” McHam said. “Nobody has taught for 54 years; I’m the only one in Texas, and I’m proud of that.”

As one of the most prolific journalism professors in the country, his retirement marks the end of an era at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.

McHam’s early years

  • David McHam was born July 27, 1933 in Inman Mills, S.C. He started his writing career at The Spartanburg Herald at 17 years old when he was still a senior in high school. He has written for newspapers all over the nation, including The Waco News-Tribune, the Dallas Times Herald and the Associated Press.
  • McHam earned his bachelor’s from Baylor University, where he would return years later to begin his teaching career. He received his master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and worked at the prestigious Houston Post. 
  • “I covered the presidential election in 1960. That was a big deal,” McHam said. “I covered police, criminal courts, civil courts; I covered city hall — I did a little bit of everything.”

McHam was working at the Houston Post in 1961 when he was offered a teaching position at Baylor University. He thought he would try it out and took a one-year leave of absence from the Post. He said he was surprised by how much he grew to love teaching and hasn’t stopped since.

“I was in charge of all the student media — the newspaper, the yearbook, the student directory and a magazine,” McHam said. “When Kennedy was assassinated, we won the national award for reporting. I was so young, I just took it all in stride.”

While McHam was at the university, Baylor earned countless awards, year after year, drawing attention to the department.

“Everybody would say, ‘How do they keep winning?’” McHam said, laughing. “One year, when we won just about every major prize in magazines, photography and newspapers, this one Texas woman said, ‘Who are these people?’ We just swept the whole thing. It was kind of embarrassing; we were just really good.”

McHam stayed at Baylor until 1974 when he left to teach at Southern Methodist University. In 2011, he was honored at Baylor with the Legacy in Journalism Education Award.

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McHam said the greatest part about teaching is seeing his students’ work get published and watching them go on to lead successful careers. | Pablo Milanese/The Cougar

“Baylor has never been the same without David McHam,” Houston Chronicle sports writer John McClain said. “I can say that unequivocally. I’ve never seen anyone who knew more about journalism than David McHam.”

While at SMU, McHam served as chairman of the journalism department two separate times but mostly taught. After teaching there for 23 years, he left for the University of Texas at Arlington and arrived at UH in 2001.

TSU journalism instructor Michael Berryhill first met McHam in 1979 after seeing him on the cover of the Sunday magazine of the Dallas Morning News. Berryhill decided he wanted to meet the “best-known journalism teacher in Texas” and reached out to McHam.

“He was very friendly, had a great sense of humor, relaxed, not pompous,” Berryhill said. “I just went to meet him to learn more about journalism.”

McHam’s list of awards and accomplishments is endless, but he said the most rewarding thing about teaching is seeing his students’ bylines in print.

“That’s what pleases me, to see (students) do well,” McHam said. “My favorite thing about teaching is meeting wonderful people and watching them succeed.”

Much of his students’ success is due in part to his influence.

“Editors respected his judgment so much about references,” Berryhill said. “If he said a student is ready to go work at a newspaper, people would hire them.”

McHam doesn’t rely on textbooks, usually writing his own lessons. His book, “Law and the Media in Texas,” which covered the fundamentals of libel and how to cover crime in courts, was in every Texas newsroom before it went online.

McHam has had one student win the Pulitzer Prize and taught a few best-selling authors, including Thomas Harris, who wrote “The Silence of the Lambs.” While these successes are nothing less than impressive, McHam said he is most excited that he has officially set a new record.

As for his retirement, McHam said he decided to stop now while he is still in good health and that he is looking forward to doing absolutely nothing at all. After writing countless articles, breaking a record and teaching thousands of students who will always remember him, it’s safe to say he deserves it.

“I hope people at UH understand the kind of professor they had, the kind of students he puts out and what an asset he’s been to the University,” McClain said.

“There’s never been a better journalism professor than David McHam.”

—Additional reporting by Luiza Braga

Former students share their stories

Platts managing editor, Americas Petrochemicals

“One thing I admire most about professor McHam is his ability to turn a situation into a teaching moment. When I think of professor McHam, the first thing that comes to mind is a late evening in the fall of 2001, if I am not mistaken, when I approached him after media law class to apologize for a missed assignment and overall poor performance. I was going through a trying time. He said, ‘You’ll get a C. Things happen. I had a student once in a similar situation – his mother had died.  I can’t think of a worse thing that could happen.'”

“I thanked him for his understanding but couldn’t mumble much else. See, not only had he shown me an empathy I didn’t expect, but with his response he reminded me of this life lesson: No matter how heavy the cross or burden is you carry, there’s someone out there carrying a heavier one. I’ve mentioned this story to him several times; he says he doesn’t recall it. Obviously, I do. I needed that perspective, and to this day I thank him for it.”

Houston Chronicle reporter

“Being a student of professor McHam has opened so many doors for me. Not only has it shaped me into a better thinker and journalist, but it has allowed me to tap into a huge network of people, many of whom he has taught in his more than five decades as an instructor. In fact, my supervisor at the Houston Chronicle was a McHam student at Southern Methodist University nearly two decades ago. That’s a rare personal connection that you could only tap into with a professor like McHam.”

“The Jack J. Valenti School of Communication won’t be the same without him… But I’m glad he’s taking it easy after so many years of hard work.”

Associate editor for print, Houston Business Journal

“I first had him in reporting, and I was already news editor (of The Daily Cougar). It was odd because I was already working with all the students, and he reached out to me before I even had him as a professor. He was very dedicated… I had him around constantly giving me career advice. He’s a well of knowledge. He knows which students are passionate about the industry.”

“I don’t think my experience at UH would have been the same without him. You won’t have that many professors who care as much as he did.”

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