Scholastic journalism loses a friend

Barbara Mack, center, moderates soapbox debate during  First Amendment Day ’09. (Photo by David W. Bulla)

By DAVID W. BULLA

Word comes from Iowa that Barbara Mack, the press law professor at Iowa State, died this week. This is sad news for everyone in journalism and academia. It’s also a setback for scholastic journalism.

Mack was a passionate defender of the student’s right to express herself/himself freely. She helped write Iowa’s protective law in the wake of the 1988 Hazelwood U.S. Supreme Court decision.

She  was a role model, too, as a teacher and story teller. Indeed, she was a master technician when it came to the art of teaching, using both love and fear to motivate her students.

I once watched her teach for an hour about why it was important to obey Associated Press style and not call a woman by only her first name in a story. She had thought of every argument, and her students were totally tuned into her spiel.

My favorite Mack story is when she gave a cake to a member of her class after he had kicked the Cyclones past Iowa in a football game the previous Saturday. This young man, to that point, had been about as reliable as a Ford Maverick, but his aim was true that weekend.

And Mack rewarded him.

Professor Mack had been a journalist and attorney before joining the ISU journalism faculty. She was a reporter at the Des Moines Register, including a stint as the restaurant reviewer. In those food pieces, she showcased her wit and humor. Later, she was the newspaper’s attorney.

At Iowa State, her media law class was legendary, and she was an annual presence at First Amendment Day. She would moderate soapbox debates, and even take part in them. One year, the First Amendment Day Committee asked her and colleague Kim Smith to debate something to stir the pot, so to speak. They argued about the relative value of cats v. dogs.

Mack knew Iowa’s history well and enjoyed talking about the state’s relatively progressive stance on civil rights. She easily rattled off the details and significance of Re the Matter of Ralph, an early Iowa Supreme Court decision that found a slave became free once he stepped on Iowa soil. This decision was 22 years before the Civil War even started.

As a Civil War historian, I loved it when I came for my job interview to Ames and she showed me an old Lincoln Highway milepost, one of the few that still exists along Highway 30 (in this case on Business 30, or Lincoln Way, not far from Hilton Coliseum).

In addition to teaching and press law, her other passion was horses.

All of us in journalism education owe her a debt of gratitude. It’s too bad she will never get the farewell party she deserved once she quit teaching for good.

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