Catching up with Stuart Sechriest
Upon his retirement in 1977, after more than three decades as a journalism professor at UNC-CH, Stuart Sechriest was ready for a different perspective on the news.
"Well, I wrote it for awhile, I taught it for awhile, and now I'll read it for awhile," he said at the time.
All told, Sechriest has spent more than 65 years writing it, teaching it and reading it. Today, at the age of 86, his interest in news and the news media remains as keen as ever. In fact, one of the beauties of retiring, he said, is that he can "sit down at the breakfast table and read the whole paper."
Despite his continued fascination with journalism, though, Sechriest has never liked the term "journalist."
"Skipper Coffin used to say a journalist was a fellow who borrowed money from a newspaperman and forgot to pay it back," he said, referring to the late Oscar "Skipper" Coffin, former dean of the UNC-CH Department of Journalism. Sechriest got his first taste of the newspaper business in a class taught by Coffin in 1933, Sechriest's sophomore year at the University.
"Skipper Coffin was the one-man department when I came to the School," he said.
A lot has changed since Sechriest's days as a student. Back then, he said, Carroll Hall "was a muddy parking lot," Bynum Hall was home to the journalism department, and his 1935 graduating class consisted of just 450 students. The town of Chapel Hill comprised only a fraction of its current population.
"When I came here as a student, I think there were 3,000, including students," he said, and after a short pause, added, "Is big good?"
Sechriest also sees major changes in the news business in recent years, especially campaign coverage, and he's not impressed.
"They do terrible jobs on campaigns, I think," he said. A free press is important, he added, but "sometimes they get careless as well as free."
Particularly in the wake of the recent, closely contested presidential elections, Sechriest said he lost interest quickly, getting "bored the day after the election."
Perhaps the biggest problem he sees in today's campaign coverage is too much reliance on polling during the course of the race.
"Polling has ruined a lot of things for me," he said. "I think they're trying to make a science out of it. They took all the joy out of watching an election."
To fight back against the pervasiveness of polling, Sechriest employs his own method of civil disobedience: He lies.
"I always on purpose give them the wrong information," he said. "I lie to them. Lying to a pollster is an art form. You don't have enough good pollster liars."
When he's not keeping an eye on today's journalists or keeping pollsters at bay, Sechriest also maintains strong ties with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
"He continues to be a familiar face around the School," said Associate Dean Jan Yopp, one of Sechriest's former students. "He's always in attendance at alumni events."
At the Howell Hall blowout in April 1999, Dean Richard Cole asked Sechriest to discuss the early history of the School - perhaps, he said, "because I am the oldest surviving rat in UNC's journalism barn."
He also contributed to a book about Coffin called Shucks and Nubbins: The Wit and Wisdom of O.J. Skipper Coffin. The book, edited by Wint Capel and published in March 2000, was underwritten by money from Coffin's son Wilson and the School.
It's not surprising that Sechriest was more than willing to help pay tribute to his former mentor. In his speech at the Howell Hall celebration, he said he regarded Coffin as "one of the finest human beings God ever created." And when Sechriest returned from World War II looking for a change from his old newspaper jobs with the Greensboro Record and the Daily News, it was Coffin who gave him a chance to try teaching:
"I taught news editing and photography," he said. "In fact, I didn't know it at the time, but I taught the first course in news photography."
Each year, in recognition of Sechriest's 31 years of teaching photojournalism, the School presents the Stuart Sechriest Award to the Outstanding Graduating Senior in Visual Communication.
In addition to teaching Yopp, Sechriest also taught Jim Shumaker and numerous others who have gone on to excel as journalists or as teachers themselves. But his favorite former student undoubtedly is his wife Carolyn. He jokes about the trouble the two had staying awake during the early-morning class in which they met.
"We were both asleep in that 8 o'clock class, and we've been sleeping together ever since," he said.
Zach Hoskins is assistant dean for communication.