By Jade Mardirosian
In 1961, John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president of the United States, the film “West Side Story” was released, Abner McCall assumed the presidency of Baylor and the university’s journalism department gained a new professor whose teaching would leave a mark that has lasted decades.
David McHam arrived at Baylor that year, and over the course of the next 50 years became one of the most respected journalism teachers in the nation.
The journalism, public relations and new media department recognized McHam’s storied career, which began at Baylor and later took him to Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Houston, with the first-ever Legacy in Journalism Education Award on Thursday during a dinner and ceremony in the Barfield Drawing Room of the Bill Daniel Student Center.
McHam was presented with a crystal vase engraved with the name of the award and date. He then gave a speech, reminiscing on how he came to Baylor as an undergraduate, graduating in 1958, his time at Baylor as a professor from 1961 to 1974, and thanking those in attendance.
“Neither of my parents graduated from high school and they would be kind of surprised to know that all of you have come here to see me tonight,” McHam said. “Thank you all for coming, people came from Alaska, Long Island, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and I appreciate it and thank you so much.”
Charles Overby, chairman of the Freedom Forum Newseum and Diversity Institute, spoke at the dinner and said McHam’s great teaching has affected students on a national level.
“He’s done what the best journalism educators do,” Overby said. “To open the eyes of students to a greater, larger world, to help them to see beyond the status quo, questioning authority and understand how much there is out there for them if they are willing to apply themselves.”
McHam has won numerous awards throughout his career, including being named the outstanding journalism teacher in the nation by the Society of Professional Journalists in 1994.
Many of McHam’s students are now part of the journalism faculty and still remember the impact his teaching had on their lives.
Mike Blackman, the Fred Hartman Distinguished Professor in journalism, had McHam for three classes as an undergraduate. Blackman remembers the day McHam read an assignment of his aloud to the class, giving him confidence he was lacking.
“One of the first stories we wrote in class was an autobiographical piece, something from our childhood,” Blackman said. “I remember being so embarrassed to turn it in and I didn’t think it was very good. The next class McHam read passages from two or three stories and he read several graphs from mine. I was just overwhelmed; it was quite a shot of confidence that maybe I could do it again and write something as good or better next time. I just never forgot that.”
Blackman said writing and the art of storytelling was something he always admired but didn’t think he was capable of, but McHam had a way of stirring students to work hard and do better.
“He saw certain things in people and thought he could bring it out,” Blackman said. “He clearly must have seen something in me I never saw, and he stuck with me and taught me how to write and eventually make a living.”
Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism, also reflected on an election assignment from McHam’s class that instilled confidence in him as a reporter and writer.
“My first semester at Baylor, he had students dropped off all over town at the precinct conventions and we were to stay there until the votes were counted, then we were supposed to call in the results and get quotes,” Darden said.
Darden said he was dropped off past Bellmead, where there were few street lights and few people’s votes to count. Unsure of where he was, he finally asked somebody driving by where the nearest payphone was to call for a ride. After this assignment, he said he was not intimidated to go out, find and report stories.
“[That experience] instilled in us [students] a confidence that this is what we do,” Darden said.
Both professors describe McHam, an exmarine, as a serious and strict teacher.
“He has a discipline and a sternness that tell you immediately: ‘Hey, I’m all business. If you want to learn, then do what I say and follow what I’m going to tell you and you can do it,’” Blackman said.
Darden explained McHam’s unique presence as a lecturer.
“He was different than any teacher I had at Baylor or North Texas,” Darden said. “His bearing was different. He walked into the classroom, stood at the front of the class and began talking in a very conversational voice most of the time with one or both hands in his pockets. There was a quiet confidence about him as a professor, that he could see what we were capable of even if we didn’t know it yet.”
McHam balanced his firm demeanor with a nurturing side.
“He would kick you in the rear and he knew when to reach a hand out, and if you stumbled, get you back on your feet and on your way to doing good work,” Blackman said.
Both professors also explained a desire to gain approval from McHam.
“He had such high expectations of us,” Darden said. “I wanted to please him, I wanted him to point to me and read one of my stories, which I don’t think he ever did. He didn’t give out praise easily, but when he did it really mattered.”
Blackman believes McHam deeply cared for his students. “He worked [students] hard but there were little ways he let you know he had your interests at heart and he wanted you to succeed,” Blackman said. “There was something about that I think made the clueless among us reach down and try a little harder and try to please him.”