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Dan Rather returns to SHSU, recalls experiences and gives advice

Associate News Editor

Published: Thursday, September 29, 2011

Updated: Thursday, September 29, 2011 12:09

Curiosity made the Kat/9-29-11

Jessica Gomez | The Houstonian

Dan Rather returned to his alma matter to discuss the events that shaped his life and to give advice to students.

A young man came to Huntsville attending Sam Houston State Teachers College on what he "believed to be" a football scholarship.

In the fall, the coach called him to his office and said, "They tell me you're interested in journalism."

Then the coach said, "I'm here to tell you, you should go with that."

Sixty-one years later, Dan Rather came back to his alma matter to share his knowledge and opinion on that career his coach jokingly urged him to pursue.

He was the guest for the Mingling with the Media event hosted by Priority One and the President's Office Wednesday night.

"My most indelible memory from my time at Sam Houston is how much the teachers cared," Rather said. "They cared first and foremost about molding you as a person…and shaping your character."

Rather said his journalism professor, Mr. Cunningham instilled in him, the belief that he had the ability to achieve great journalistic heights.

"He told me on graduation day in 1953, ‘You have what it takes to make it to the top,'" Rather said.

Rather did eventually make it to the top of CBS news, he served as the anchor for 24 years from 1981 to 2005, and 20 years as a correspondent before that.

Out of that experience, he said journalists just starting out of college are entering a "rough and tumble" career field. However, his biggest advice had nothing to do with courage, instinct or grades.

"Writing is all important…it is the bedrock of anything now called media," Rather said.

"To anybody looking for a job outside of college I can't guarantee you'll be rich and famous, but if you can write….you will be able to get a job and be able to keep a job."

But, Rather said, just learning how to write isn't the only step to be taken.

"If you dedicate yourself to a lifetime of ever improving as a writer, you will improve yourself…not just your craft," he said.

He didn't speak only to journalism students in the packed room in the Performing Arts Center. The most important trait to have, Rather said, is curiosity.

"Wanting to learn," Rather said. "Be curious about physics; be curious about journalism, whatever it is."

Because of that trait, Rather said his favorite course was library science, because it "taught you how to follow your curiosity.

"To this day, it was probably the most important course I took [at SHSU]," he said.

In addition, Rather spoke about the current state of the press, especially for new reporters.

"In journalism, the biggest change is in the deterioration in ethics," Rather said. "[It's] the lowering of standards in what is ethical, what is moral, what you should and shouldn't cover, and how you cover it."

He attributes the change to the increase in technology and the "competitive pit," referring to increased competition for news stories.

Over his career, he covered five international wars, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and interviewed every President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

However, Rather said the events that changed him the most was the civil rights movement.

"It was the end of institutionalized racism," Rather said. "We had and still have racism in this country, but we are a better country. But it was remarkable to watch the end of the legal racism."

When he attended Sam Houston State Teachers College from 1950 to 1953, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Houstonian, the college only had an enrollment of 900 students. He said the small classes and professors made his education unique.

"I was given to believe you could do anything you set out to do," Rather said.

In addition to his career at CBS, Rather has worked for the Associated Press, United Press International, and currently HDNet on his show "Dan Rather Reports."

The future of journalism, Rather said, is unclear, but he has high hopes.

"I'm an optimist by experience and by nature," Rather said. "The journalist is in what the Catholic Church calls an interregnum, where the old order is gone, and the new order is not yet in place."

Approximately 150 people attended the event that featured Rather being interviewed by University President Dana Gibson and former deputy press secretary to Ronald Regan and mass communication professor, Peter Roussel.

The idea for the event began last year in February  as a class project for the students of Priority One, a public relations firm headed by students in the mass communication department and other students who take the class.

 "The press' independence, fiercely independent status is the red, beating heart of freedom and the kind of government we have," Rather said.

"At its best, journalism is a noble craft…one absolutely vital and absolutely essential to the innards of a free people."

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