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May 5, 2014 7:48 PM by Jeanette Trompeter

Professor Hayes: The Final Assignment

Oh, the pressure of high expectations. I've been feeling it for a few weeks now after getting assigned to do a story on my former Cal Poly professor, Jim Hayes. It's not easy doing any kind of project on the person whose opinion matters most to you on the given subject. And for me when it comes to the subjects of writing or journalism, that man is Jim Hayes. It's like commissioning an apprentice artist to paint a masterpiece that encompasses the life, talents, and influences of Michelangelo on the world of art. Good luck with that.

But 88-year-old Jim Hayes has a story worth telling. And so I will try, because I want people who weren't lucky enough to know this man to get a sense of the impacts a life well-lived can have.

Jim is dying from what doctors believe is brain cancer. Yet even as he drifts in and out at home in Hospice care, lessons from him keep coming.

Jim taught me and journalists of multiple generations to find, research and craft a story. His tough standards, and high-expectations of anyone aiming to call themselves a journalist have given his alumni the abilities to succeed in a business that is tough to break into, and even harder in which to make a mark.

At least part of his legacy will be the tough love he doled out and the difference it made. "Students seemed to really want to perform for him." said Dr. Randall Murray, former department head of the Journalism Department at Cal Poly. "You know he had something that drew students out, that they wanted to do well for him."

Tales and testimony about his role as professor and coach are being well documented these days: An article in the Los Angeles Times, stories by former students like me, and a Facebook page created in his honor. A book is even in the works. Ever hear that saying "If you're going to be a bear, you might as well be a Grizzly?" Jim was a Grizzly.

"The L.A. Times would bring him in to coach their own editorial staff," said former Telegram-Tribune reporter and Jim Hayes alum Tom Fulks.

Former student and Sacramento political reporter Kevin Riggs pointed out Jim's enormous impact on the shaping of news coverage in this country. "Because his students populate news rooms now from coast to coast," he said.

One of the first problems I had in doing this story is how personally connected I am to it, and feeling the need to be up front about that. I adore this man. He is largely why pursued a career in Journalism. He has shaped who I am today in more ways than how I am as a reporter. But right off the bat, I faced the reality of Jim's high expectations.

"Well putting (or) inserting yourself into a story is probably one of the most egregious offenses that he ever took issue with," said Fulks. "He was a tough son of a gun" affirmed Dr. Murray.

Even Jim acknowledged the challenge of the task my boss had given me. FIRST he rolled his eyes, calling all the attention of late "embarrassing."

Then, he upped the ante, instructing me to do more than find people to sing his praises, but find an enemy or two. "The people who love you have their reasons," he explained. "So do your enemies, and both are valid." Even on his deathbed, profound words of wisdom were just rolling off his tongue.

As I left him I realized I had received something else that made my heart smile: a final assignment from my mentor ... one he thought might be kind of "fun" for both of us. "Find the dark side of Jim Hayes," he challenged with a twinkle in his eye as he struggled to lean forward and meet me eye-to-eye. Of course he would hand out a nearly impossible one.

What has unfolded since news of his decline spread is an outpouring of appreciation for the man. "If every American journalist practicing today had been through the 'Jim Hayes School of Journalism' at Cal Poly, American journalism wouldn't have the (poor) reputation it has today," said Fulks when asked about the impacts of Jim's teachings.

Even one of Jim's former supervisors said he has been blown away by the posts on the "We Love Jim Hayes" Facebook page. "It's unbelievable. Never seen anything like this in my life." said Dr. Nishan Havandjian, former Department Head of the Journalism Department at Cal Poly, and one of the people Jim could butt heads with.

But Havandjian said even in arguments, Jim was dignified. "Extremely dignified," he added. "He didn't like people who just didn't try to do their best who just settled for the lowest common denominator."

Those high expectations led Jim's alumni to some of the best newsrooms in the country. "I give Jim Hayes such credit for giving me the foundation to do a broadcast journalism career for so many years that I loved." said Riggs.

Almost all of the statements of appreciation for the "Hayes Influence" come with painful tales of lessons learned.

"I have been under the impression that I was the only one who got an 'F' on a major paper. He gave me an 'F' on my Reporting 2 final!" said Tom Fulks with a sense of pride decades later. "I misspelled Nikita Khrushchev, the spelling of which I got from the department head of the Cal Poly history program. It knocked me down from an 'A' to a 'B' in the most important class for my program. It was a lesson I will never forget." he said.

Fulks is hardly alone in wearing such failing marks from Jim as a badge of honor in hindsight. "I got the red F for mis-spelling a name," recalled Dave Wilcox, another alum and former Telegram-Tribune reporter.

Riggs even kept the paper that earned him an F. "Back then Cal Poly was apart of what they called the C-S-U-C system. Now it's just C-S-U, but back then it was California State University and Colleges System. I pluralized university." Riggs chuckled as he remembered. "I got that 'F' and a 'see me' across the top and I was petrified." But like the others, Riggs says the tough standards worked. "Although he was tough, he also was constructive and productive because he wanted you to remember the lesson and to do well."

Jim Hayes has always felt the title of journalist came with huge responsibility. "Well he would give you an 'F' if you misspelled a proper pronoun. Period!" said Fulks. "He always said 'If you can't get the name right, why are readers going to think you can get the more difficult details right?'" Wilcox explained.

Jim's expectations also came with a profound gift: His confidence you could do better. "So you walk in there totally intimidated, and then you walk out realizing, 'Hey, I can do this.'" said Wilcox.

The lessons didn't all focus about writing. There were pop current events quizzes at least once a week, and mock interviews aimed at teaching us to ask the right questions, the ones that were usually the least obvious. There simply wasn't any phoning it in with Jim Hayes as teacher.

Jim's toughness and drive likely evolved at an early age. Born in 1925 in South Pasadena, he contracted Polio as a child. His mother, a nurse recognized it early and got him vaccinated. He got through it without too many long-term physical ailments. "Except I could never run," said Jim when asked about it.

He entered the military before he graduated high school. "I went to the Junior-Senior Prom and took a gallon of Port and mixed it with soda and sold it for 25-cents a shot," he explained. "The school administrators didn't appreciate it too much when they found me passed out in front of the school and they kicked me out."

He managed to get enlisted in the Navy underage. He says he was 16 when he went to boot camp in San Diego. He spent all his time in the South Pacific in World War II, and was what was then referred to as a "Frog Man" or combat diver.

He received a Purple Heart after getting caught in the water in the middle of a battle between ships, and almost dying. While his kids say he never talked much about it, they do remember how he could hold his breath for 3-minutes underwater when he took them swimming at Cuesta College pool. "He would challenge us to swim two laps with only two or three breaths, and then he'd sit at the bottom of the pool and wait, and the lifeguards would often get a little worried." said Dayle Hayes, Jim's daughter.

After the war he was stationed in Tokyo and did a lot of writing for an admiral. He also did some writing for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Jim eventually got his high-school degree, and undergraduate degrees from San Jose State before a masters in journalism from the University of Florida.

He taught at universities from Minnesota to Cairo, before taking the job at Cal Poly in 1969. When he did so, he brought years of experience as a journalist.

"He's a master teacher and when you are an administrator and have a resource like that you just ... you just let that run you know and you bask in that glory," said Dr. Murray.

As for Jim's instructions to find his dark side? "Oh, I don't think there is one. If there is one I haven't seen it. He's hid it well," said Dr. Havandjian.

Jim did struggle with alcohol early in his career and talked openly with it about students, again using his life stories to teach rather than impress anyone.

He had two previous marriages before marrying his current wife Ellen in 1964. One of his previous marriages ended with the death of his wife, another with a divorce. Jim and Ellen will be married 50 years this summer.

I wasn't able to find a real dark side of any sort. The closest I could come was his passionate defense of principles in which he believed. "Well I'm sure I have not only one, but many," he said to me when I reported I failed my final assignment.

But he didn't offer up any, either. Not because he was hiding anything, I believe, but simply because he was too tired to talk anymore. That, and it really was MY job to find it as the reporter. "You really shouldn't even need to be talking to me if you do your job right," he pointed out.

He was right. I could get all the information about him I needed if I had talked to the right people, asked the right questions, checked the right sources. But I'd take one more failing grade from Jim Hayes if it meant a few more minutes with him, and the kind of wisdom you don't find elsewhere.

I can't do the story of Jim Hayes justice ... in a few minutes on T.V. or now as I bang out this web version 30-minutes before air-time. But it being told through the lives he changed.

"I think you just sometimes you get really lucky in life and you don't know it at the time, but that was certainly the case when I walked into Jim Hayes classroom at Cal Poly all those years ago," said Riggs.

"There are so many protégés of Jim Hayes that we will continue to teach young people what the principles of good solid journalism: Again, it's honesty, honor, professionalism, dignity." said Fulks.

Leave it to Jim Hayes to construct a beautiful ending without ever writing a word.

To see the "We Love Jim Hayes Facebook Page", click here.

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