“If the School of Journalism had a memory, it could recall many who have been students or faculty members. But the one individual who would probably occupy the most space in that memory is Walter S. Spearman.”
So wrote student Azalea Mackey for the October 1982 edition of the UNC Journalist.
No one then or now would disagree with her.
During his 45-year teaching career, Spearman taught more than 5,000 students. His non-traditional students included participants in the Chautaugua Writers Workshop in New York in the late 1950s; thousands of teen-agers in the N.C. Scholastic Press Institute, which Spearman directed for 30 years; and scores of senior citizens in UNC’s Elderhostel program in the 1970s. The exact number of his “regular” students at the UNC School of Journalism is difficult to calculate. It seems that many claim to be his students, if only by desire and admiration.
During his years as a full-time faculty member, he was an adviser to the UNC Press Club, Sigma Delta Chi, the Carolina Symposium, the UNC Fine arts Festival, Chi Psi Fraternity, the Publications Board, the Toronto Exchange program and the Order of the Golden Fleece, an honorary society on the UNC campus.
Among Spearman’s Honors were the Tanner and Valkyrie awards for outstanding undergraduate teaching and the University’s Thomas Jefferson Award for dedication to the community. His other honors include the Carolina Playmakers Alumni Award, the Chi Psi Distinguished Service Award and the N.C. Press Association Award for his work with the high school press. He is a member of the N. C. Journalism Hall of Fame.
Spearman wrote two books, Racial Crisis and the News and The Carolina Playmakers, The First Fifty Years, four plays, a film script and television show. He acted in more than 80 Carolina Playmakers roles.
He was instrumental in creating the Walter Spearman Collection in the School of Journalism, a collection of more than 400 books written or edited by alumni of the School. That special collection continues to grow as new books are added to the illuminated glass- fronted bookcases in Carroll Hall’s entry way to The Park Library.
Spearman earned the respect and admiration of his students and colleagues. Some of the names of people quoted below remembering Walter will be easily recognized as notable beyond the University campus.
MEMORIES of MR. CHIPS, EGG-BEATERS and PLAYMAKERS
“I was editor of The Daily Tar Heel, and about to be impeached. A committee of the Student Legislature accused me of not accurately reflecting student opinion on the editorial page. (I had been writing editorials urging racial integration of undergraduates and similarly misusing the office of editor in ways I have now forgotten.) A hearing was held. I went to it prepared to argue that I was reflecting student opinion pretty well, that the committee didn’t know student opinion in the first place, and that the editorial page of The Daily Tar Heel was none of the Legislature’s business.
“Luckily, Walter Spearman showed up and asked to testify, and luckily, he testified before I did.
“‘An editorial page shouldn’t be a mirror,’ he said. ‘If it’s passive reflection you want, a mirror does a good job, and you should circulate a mirror on the campus every day, not a newspaper. An editorial page should be an egg-beater, stirring things up! This Kuralt is running a pretty good egg-beater.'”
“The legislators voted to postpone the inquiry, and I never heard any more about reflecting student opinion.”
William C. Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system:
“Always a defender of freedom, always the loyal University man, ever ready with that quip and quick wit, his sharp and agile mind stimulating and challenging his students at all times.”
Vermont Royster, Wall Street Journal editor and winner of two Pulitizer Prizes:
“In fact, he (Spearman) had become ‘Mr. Journalism’ to the hundreds of UNC graduates from the mid-thirties onward, many of them editors and publishers on North Carolina newspapers, . . . . So it was hardly surprising that in 1983 he was elected to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame, where he is enshrined with such other Tar Heels as Tom Wicker, Charles Kuralt, Gerald Johnson, Roger Mudd and Ed Yoder. Except for Gerald Johnson, all of these were once youngsters for whom Walter had been a guide along their way.”
Jim Shumaker, JOMC teacher, editor, columnist:
“He was probably as close to being Mr. Chips as anyone this old Journalism School will ever get. It will be a long, hard day accepting that he is gone.”
Gail Godwin, a Spearman student and best-selling novelist:
“Walter has been, from the very beginning of our friendship, an inspiration, an example and just plain good fun. First he taught me book reviewing, and then later he reviewed my books (glowingly, when he felt they deserved his glow; sternly, or with reservations, when they failed to meet his expectations). As my professor in the late 1950s, he read my first attempt at a novel, in which he was a character, and managed to be both encouraging and intelligent about what I needed to do to make it better. (It was never published, but maybe I had to go through the experience of writing it and rewriting it in order to teach myself to write.)”
Rich Beckman, photojournalist and JOMC teacher:
“Even today there are isolated pockets of humanity who, when photographed, feel they have been robbed of their souls. Wouldn’t it have been nice if I could have shared some of Walter’s wonderful soul. I photographed him dozens of times and always wished I could steal a smidgen of his compassion for teaching and living. When I was the new kid on the block in 1978, I approached the legend, Spearman, for his teaching secrets. He said about students, ‘Either love ’em or hate ’em; there’s nothing in between.'”
Tom Wicker, a Tar Heel native, a UNC alumnus, a Spearman student, author, and former New York Times political columnist:
“You couldn’t help but like and respect Walter Spearman because he liked and respected you; he cared about you; and he went out of his way to make that care mean something in your life. Of course, he couldn’t have done that unless it meant something in his, too.
“But I was young and went my way. Then, about 10 years after leaving Chapel Hill, I encountered Walter in a different circumstance. He was a Ford Fellow and I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard for the 1957-58 school year. The two groups of fellows formed one rather small band of maybe 15 men and one woman, all strangers to Harvard and a little intimidated by it. We went to lectures together, held seminars, partied often, talked endlessly about the news (that was the year of the Soviet sputnik and Orval Faubus ‘ defiance of school desegregation), [and] got to know each other’s families. . . .Walter Spearman has been an unfailing friend, a continuing inspiration, a marvel to behold in his energy, enthusiasm and warmth. . . . Walter Spearman was a part of my life. He always will be.”