Remembering James Tidwell
by Stan Zoller
If you were to make a list of the amazing advisers who grace the walls of journalism scholastic education notoriety, odds are you would start rattling of the awards he or she has won.
Pacemakers, Write-off winner, state JOY winners, Best of Show winners, etc. And the list would keep on going.
Dr. James Tidwell
Recently, journalism education paid homage to a journalism educator whose program never won an award.
But there’s a reason for that – he never taught scholastic journalism.
That, however, did not stop James Tidwell, chairman of the Journalism Department at Eastern Illinois from taking the lead as an advocate for student press rights in Illinois. Nor did it stop him from heading up the Eastern Illinois Scholastic Press Association and being Executive Director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association.
Oh, by the way, he was also instrumental in starting the Illinois High School Association’s state journalism tournament.
Although his “home” was the college campus, Tidwell knew journalism education began in high school.
So when pancreatic cancer beat Tidwell April 12, it was a loss for journalism and journalists everywhere – high school newsrooms, college newsrooms and professional newsrooms.
Tidwell quite simply not only talked the talk but walked the walk.
“James worked with high school journalism from his earliest years as a professional, but the fact is that his love of high school journalism started with his experiences as a high school journalist in Oklahoma, “notes Sally Renaud, IJEA Executive Director and professor of Journalism at EIU.
“He always talked fondly of his own high school adviser and her tremendous influence on his career, which included work on his campus newspaper and for professional newspapers. He has used his respect for his adviser and the passion she helped instill in him at an early age as motivating forces in his career in regards to high school journalism,” Renaud said.
How much so? Just ask longtime adviser Randy Swikle.
“In the mid-1990s, no one worked harder on state legislation defining scholastic press rights in Illinois than James. I know,” Swikle said, “because I was at his side as he lobbied from office-to-office in the Capitol building. Hundreds of hours were spent devising strategy and campaigning for HB 156. At day’s end, the House passed the legislation 109-4, and the Senate approved 57-0. Unfortunately, the governor unexpectedly vetoed the bill.
Why? Because Tidwell believed in a free and responsible press for scholastic journalism. It was his passion.
And he instilled that passion through not only his knowledge, but through an uncanny ability to take – or rather make – time to work with advisers and journalism teachers.
“James was often called upon to offer his expertise and advice in such areas as prior review, copyright and libel. I often heard him on the phone with high school advisers who sought his counsel, who asked his advice on a concern or problem in their school,” Renaud said.
“He always made those of us who had the privilege of serving on the IJEA board as though we were a part of his family,” IJEA President Sarah Doerner said. “It will be difficult to imagine IJEA without him.”
Fittingly, the IJEA has renamed its annual Educator of the Year in Mr. Tidwell’s honor as the “Dr. James Tidwell IJEA Educator of the Year” Award.
It will be difficult to imagine the battle for press rights without him. Tidwell was a rare breed. Awards and honors were not a motivating force for him. Preserving the First Amendment and making sure scholastic journalists had a foundation steeped in press rights from which they could build a journalistic future was all the motivation he needed.
Awards? They may look good on the wall, or on your desk.
But having the opportunity to work with James Tidwell and absorb his warmth, knowledge and passion was an award I know I will cherish.
The challenge I, and my guess is most journalism educators, face is how we can embody and continue the spirit and passion for journalism education and student press rights that James had.
I guess I just need to heed the advice of the late David ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister who once said “this is the land of miracles; the miraculous we can do today; the impossible will take a little longer.”
Emulating James Tidwell will take a little longer.