All for the students

Susanne Shaw retires after almost five decades devoted to being a teacher, mentor, adviser and friend

Summer 2019 Edition


Over four decades at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, deans and faculty have come and gone, curriculum has evolved, Stauffer-Flint has been remodeled, and thousands of students have graduated. But one thing remained constant: Susanne Shaw.

Former students returning to the school were always comforted to see Shaw sitting at her desk in her first-floor office, advising a student or on the phone, probably working on an internship or job for a current student or checking up on a former student.

Shaw’s office is unrecognizable now, the walls torn down for the Stauffer-Flint renovation. Shaw retired last spring, but her legacy will always loom large inside the J-School, and it extends far around the world with the army of students Shaw taught, mentored and dispatched to make their mark in the field of journalism.

Shaw officially retired from the school after the 2018 spring semester but remained on as director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, a title she had held since 1986 until July 1, 2018. Her retirement ended a nearly 50-year career, most of it at the J-School.

Shaw was born into a newspaper family. Her father was an editor at the Wellington (Kansas) Daily News, and while in high school Shaw worked summers at the newspaper. Girls couldn’t have a paper route, so she did a little of everything else that was needed: tending to the mail, waiting on customers, proofreading or doing sports or obits.

She decided to study elementary education and came to KU, attracted in part, she said because KU had a good basketball team, and Shaw, who played basketball in high school, has always been an avid sports fan. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1961 and taught English and journalism at Wichita Heights High School. She returned to KU and earned her master’s degree in journalism in 1967, then went back to Wichita to be the publications adviser while teaching journalism at Wichita South High School. In 1970, she came back to KU to become managing editor at Kansas Alumni magazine. After a year, she was convinced to join the faculty of the J-School, becoming an assistant professor in 1971.

Shaw was one of few women professors at the J-School and taught alongside some KU J-School journalism legends.

“I was forever grateful that I had John Bremner, Calder Pickett and Del Brinkman as my mentors,” Shaw said.“They taught me the right values.”

Shaw worked with colleague Dana Leibengood to start the Kansas Scholastic Press Association for high school journalists and drew on her experience as a high school teacher to help recruit students to the J-School. She made sure that once those students got here, they had a contact and someone to offer advice and a place to go to ask questions during their first two years before they were allowed to get into the school.

Stephen Wade (j’90), publisher of the Topeka Capital-Journal, said he had a rough transition from high school to KU and was floundering and disillusioned as a freshman. Shaw was his J-School adviser.

“Susanne convinced me to stay, convinced me that there were opportunities and that I could do this,” Wade said. “I’ll never forget it, and throughout the rest of my tenure here, the number of discussions that Susanne and I had were countless. She’s somebody whom I have bragged about for years and years and years.”

Shaw was news adviser for the University Daily Kansan from 1972 until 1975, and when Brinkman became dean, he asked Shaw to become associate dean, a position she held from 1976 until 1982, and it was a job that she loved.

“Being Del Brinkman’s associate dean and working with Dana (Leibengood) was the best job I ever had,” Shaw said.

Her KU career was interrupted twice, for a one-year stint as associate editor at the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, and for two-and-a-half years when she left to become editor and publisher at the Coffeyville Journal in Kansas. Each time, she returned to the J-School because she missed the students.

“Students give me rewards that money can’t buy,” Shaw said.“I love the students.”

And the students felt the same way, eventually. Most students, when they met Shaw, admitted that they were scared. Former students lovingly described her as tenacious, imposing, demanding, tough and intimidating. She was gruff and brutally honest in assessing their skill level or work ethic. But they quickly learned that was her way to push them to realize their potential and not waste the talent that she saw in them. She knew what the job of a journalist required, and she did her best to prepare them and set them up for success.

Colleen McCain Nelson (j’97), vice president and editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star and opinion editor for McClatchy, recalls how it felt to walk by Shaw’s office.

“From the very first day that you walk into the journalism school, you know that you need to know Susanne Shaw,” Nelson said. “You’d walk by her office, and she kind of scares you, but also more than anything you want her approval, and you want her help, and you want her guidance. And so I remember walking by her office on my way to the Kansan newsroom and I wanted to talk to her, but I also was scared to talk to her.”

Jerry Seib (j’78), executive Washington editor at The Wall Street Journal, admitted that Shaw terrified him when she tested him as a transfer student so he could pass from Reporting I to Reporting II.

“I passed, but the first thing I learned was that she was tough as nails,” Seib said.“It took a bit longer to learn the rest of Susanne Shaw: She cared deeply about her students, understood the real world of journalism and what it required better than anybody, and she was a lot of fun. She was my mentor, my adviser and my friend, all in equal measure, and I'm proud and thrilled to say the friend part lives on, after all these years.”

Shaw knew what students thought about her, but she also knew her tough love approach worked. The students she advised and mentored won prestigious national awards while at the J-School and went on to work at the top news organizations in the world.

“I was always told I was intimidating, but they came around after the fact, years later, and said ‘Geez, we learned a lot, but you were intimidating,’ ” Shaw said.

Traci Carl (j’95), director of partnerships, commercial and digital markets at The Associated Press, said she appreciated Shaw’s “straightforward, no-bull form of teaching.”

“She always broke down your strengths in honest, authentic ways,” Carl said.“A compliment from Susanne was real and well-earned. But she never let me sit back and settle.As soon as I reached a goal, she set another and coached me on how to achieve it.”

“She saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Carl said.“She expressed it in a way that made me believe I could achieve goals I hadn’t even dreamed of previously.”

DeNeen Brown, a reporter for The Washington Post, said she was a shy student when she arrived at KU in 1982. She planned to go to law school, but after she took a writing class in the J-School, she met Shaw, who became her adviser. Shaw convinced her to pursue a career in journalism, and when Shaw left to become editor and publisher at the Coffeyville Journal, she hired Brown for a summer internship.

“When my mother expressed concern about me leaving home for the summer, Susanne personally called my mom to assure her I would be well taken care of,” Brown said.“Then Susanne found a family in Coffeyville with whom I could live for that summer.”

When Brown graduated in 1986, she got an internship at The Washington Post.

“At the end of that summer internship, Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee hired me to work full time. I have worked as a reporter for The Washington Post for more than 32 years. Along the way, Susanne has been there at every twist and turn, still giving me advice about life and journalism,” Brown said.

Shaw was a master of networking long before that word even came into common vernacular in the 1980s.

Because of the connections she made inside the school and with the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and the relationships she kept with the successful journalists she sent out into the world, she became a one-person ad hoc journalism career center at KU. Editors would call Shaw and tell her they needed a reporter or an editor, and Shaw would look for the right fit for the paper and the student. Former students now in the workforce sought recommendations from Shaw, and her connections grew exponentially each year.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

EDUCATION
• B.S., education, University of Kansas
• M.S., journalism, University of Kansas
HONORS
• Presidential Award, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications
• Al Neuharth Teaching Professorship
• Del Brinkman Teaching Professorship
• Lifetime Achievement Award, The Freedom Forum
• H.O.P.E. Award nominee
• H. Bernerd Fink Award for Distinguished Classroom Teaching
AT KU
Shaw served as news adviser and general manager of the University Daily Kansan, as the J-School’s graduate director, and twice as associate dean of the school. She was managing editor of the Kansas Alumni magazine, 1970-71. She also was the inaugural recipient of the Bengtson Faculty Mentoring Award.

She kept close track of her students’ careers and lives and had an uncanny ability to remember what seemed like all of them, almost as if she had a Rolodex in her brain.

“Her memory of students and her interest in where they are and what they are doing — I’ve never seen anything like it,” recalls John Egan (j’86), a freelance writer and editor. “She has been so committed to this journalism school. It’s like when Bremner retired and when Calder Pickett retired, it’s like how are things going to go on without them?”

Shaw’s connection with students continued long after they walked down the hill. As ACEJMC director, Shaw would find her students everywhere in her frequent travels all over the world.

“Throughout my career, as she traveled the world for work, she always looked me up to chat,” Carl said.“In Mexico City, we would meet near my office, and she would give me advice as a young reporter and then manager. She watched me get married and have two children. In addition to being a mentor, she also became a close family friend.”

After she started as ACEJMC director in 1986, Shaw had to stop teaching because her new position required her to travel so much. When she took the job, there were no international journalism programs accredited, but now there are eight. Even though she stopped teaching classes, she was still advising students up until she cleaned out her office last spring, helping them get internships and jobs.

Her role at the ACEJMC made her an experienced world traveler, jetting off to all parts of the globe dozens of times a year. She never minded long flights to Dubai or China, so she still travels frequently in retirement. She volunteers on several boards and has more time to devote to those pursuits. She said she “plans to go where I want to go, when I want to go, and that’s probably what I’ll do.”

Students and alumni lament that her retirement is an enormous loss for the J-School.

“Susanne Shaw has shaped so many journalists who have come out of the William Allen White School of Journalism,” Nelson said, “and so we are all better for having known Susanne Shaw.”

– Julie Adam

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