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The Accidental Mentor

This article supplements a series of articles in the winter issue of JEA’s magazine — Communication: Journalism Education Today. To subscribe to the magazine, join today.

“I never thought of Mr. Sim as a mentor. I wasn’t a mentee. It is a pure accident that my career mirrors his. Now I am a mentor, an intentional, official JEA mentor to three new (or nearly new) advisers. I don’t feel suited for the job, but if my mentees have questions, I know how to find the answers. I have connections — Peggy (Gregory) and Nick (Ferentinos) and Linda (Barrington) and Julie (Dodd) and a host of mentors who are experienced advisers. They’re all part of a network with a long history of able leaders.”

THE ACCIDENTAL MENTOR
How stature shaped a career

STATURE SHAPED A CAREER

BY MARIE PARSONS, JEA MENTOR

Professor John Cameron Sim was my accidental mentor in scholastic journalism when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. I planned to make the newspaper business my lifelong career when Sim, an experienced country editor, helped me get a summer reporting internship at a small Iowa weekly.

I had no intention of ending up behind a dusty desk in a stuffy old J-school as happened to my accidental mentor. Directing statewide scholastic journalism conventions, as he did, was certainly not my plan. Speaking at JEA conventions? Not even close to my dream. Mentoring high-school advisers? Forget it!

Now, 50 years later, I have done all of those things. The stranger coincidence is that both Mr. Sim and I, graduates of Midwestern universities, began our journeys in the scholastic journalism business at the University of Alabama. He did not stay in the South. I did — after moving there in 1965. Mr. Sim was in Alabama before World War II. How he migrated to the South is unclear even to his daughter Erin Sim.

“I don’t know too much about those years except that he developed a love of grits and those crispy snacks that are like chitlins,” Erin said. After Alabama, her father went to war in Burma, then returned to his native Grand Forks, N.D., where he continued as editor of a weekly paper before taking the faculty job at the U of M.

I, on the other hand, arrived in Alabama via a series of reporting jobs Sim helped me find in Mississippi River towns, farther south each time. After a few job hops, I met Joe Parsons, a Tuscaloosa boy, at Southern Illinois University, married and went to work as a writer at The Tuscaloosa News and, later, as an instructor at UA. As a city girl from Minneapolis, tiny Tuscaloosa had not been on my life map.

Soon I discovered that turning college juniors on to journalism in the classroom was almost as exciting as turning out a good news or feature story in the newsroom. I felt like the editor of a small weekly with modestly talented reporters, a position Mr. Sim held in reality. I was a coach and a mentor. I loved it.

The other part of my job at the university involved directing Alabama Scholastic Press Association and planning a “tumble” of conventions, camps, institutes, clinics and road shows. There was a lot of paperwork. I was astounded one day when I stumbled across information in some old files that the director five decades earlier had been a John Cameron Sim. He also taught reporting.

Sources in Minnesota soon confirmed that Minnesota’s John Cameron Sim and Alabama’s were one and the same. My old professor and I had met again almost 50 years and more than 1,000 miles away from Minnesota in the dusty files of Alabama high-school press history.

Albert Tims, director of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, noted that Cam, as he is known “back home,” was involved with the Minnesota High School Press Association, the National Scholastic Press Association and the Associated Collegiate Press for 20 of his 25 years at Minnesota. During those years he managed national conventions.

Daughter Erin remembers those conventions when she was a preteen. “The family would take the train to Chicago at Thanksgiving,” she said. “At that time the convention was held at the Conrad Hilton. We were ensconced in a suite at the top of the Hilton, with a grand vista of Lake Michigan and baskets of fruit arriving at the door. I felt like Eloise.”

I’ve attended those conventions off-and-on the last 20 years and marvel each time at the logistic challenges of hosting several thousand high-school students and advisers. I managed only about 500 at a time at Alabama conventions. Erin remembers being recruited by her dad to stuff packets for Minnesota High School Press Association conventions. My children share those memories in Alabama.

I wonder now that his influence subtly eclipsed that of my favorite reporting teacher at Minnesota, on whom I had a crush. Sim was not the kind of faculty member females fell in school-girl love with. He was simply the man you went to when you had questions. He was the man with the resources. He had connections.

I easily envision him, a shy man in a dress shirt, perhaps with a V-neck sweater over his somewhat ample middle. He never wore a tie — hated them, Erin remembers.

I think he was short, but I’m not sure because I remember him only as sitting on the other side of a desk while he was shuffling through job openings and course offerings. He always seemed red faced, as though a little embarrassed to be handing me my future in the form of course assignments or a job application. Erin told me he had an extremely fair complexion so that might have been a good reason he chose Minnesota over a similar offer in Hawaii in 1956.

His daughter believes her father became weary of teaching, administration and heading up high-school press associations as it was not his nature to be in the limelight. I wonder if it was the endless cycle of conventions and workshops that wore him down. There was also academic pressure to publish. According to his New York Times obituary in 1990, Sim’s book, Grass Roots Press: America’s Weekly Newspapers, published in 1969, was ranked among the leading journalism textbooks.

The Times also reported that Sim wrote a history of the Minnesota High School Press Association and a book-length report on high-school press for UNESCO. I am writing the history of Alabama Scholastic Press Association in preparation for its 75th Diamond Anniversary. I have no plans to write for UNESCO, but I am compiling information for family records, as did Sim.

Erin remembers her father once saying that he never felt suited for anything he had done in his life. “I found that very sad. The more so after his death when so many people came forward … to say he’d impacted their lives for the better,” she wrote to me.

Sometimes it is simply doing a job and doing it well that makes a difference in someone’s life.

JEA MENTOR PROGRAM

The JEA Mentor Program, founded in 2007 and led by co-chairs Linda Barrington, MJE, and Julie Dodd, MJE, has served nearly 200 mentees in 16 states.

JEA accepts mentors recommended by state scholastic press associations. They participate in formal training in the methods and protocol of the New Teacher Center (newteacher.org). They also participate in ongoing professional development at Mentor Forums held on Thursdays before the JEA/NSPA conventions begin. The Forums provide an opportunity for sharing and developing a community of support for one another. The latest information about the program appears on the JEA website and the mentoring blog.

The program emphasizes multifaceted mentor roles:

  • Learner
  • Assessor
  • Trusted listener
  • Teacher
  • Resource
  • Problem-solver
  • Advocate
  • Facilitator
  • Coach
  • Collaborator

MARIE PARSONS, the founding director of Alabama’s Multicultural Journalism Program, won the JEA Diversity Award in 2011. She was awarded JEA’s Medal of Merit in 2010. Parsons is a member of the JEA Mentor Class of 2009. She is the mother of four women in communication fields: a journalist, a linguist, a speech communication professor and a clinical psychologist.