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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

A Good Teacher Can Last Forever   

Carl Stepp has a reach that is national, and like a deep spring.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Henry Adams said it: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

A teacher's legacy exists mainly in former students' minds or is buried in their perceptions and values, in their lives.

Just as learning is mysterious, what makes a great teacher is elusive and enigmatic. We learn in different ways, at unpredictable times, and we may not know it when we do.

It surprised us none when Carl Sessions Stepp of the Maryland faculty received the Distinguished Teaching Award of the Newspaper Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Carl is a multimedia teacher, which is to say he does it by sound, sight and heart. He does it one on one, or in the mass, in the classroom or as a coach in the newsroom, in comments cited by William Safire and William Raspberry, in books or in the pages of AJR. (See "Then and Now.") As an editor and writer at the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, Carl excelled as a mentor/teacher. Sixteen years ago he took a pay cut to teach. In the Journalism Building at Maryland, students mention him without using his name. What would He do? What did The Man say about that? Sometimes they refer to him as Himself. They may think of another professor as God, but in this building Stepp is the nameless one, the Holy Ghost.

Slim and limber as a palmetto tree, with a face that still looks 16 and a brain that wraps around ideas or new media techniques with equal dexterity, this South Carolinian teaches editing, writing, beat coverage, investigative reporting and life.

He sits in on others' courses when he can: literature, history, psychology, art history, music and business. Was that Stepp going into "The Sociology of War"? It was.

His first book was "Editing for Today's Newsroom" (Erlbaum). Coming in the spring will be "Writing as Craft and Magic" (NTC/Contemporary).

Alumni at the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Seattle Times, Raleigh's News & Observer, the New Haven Register, New Orleans' Times-Picayune, Newsweek and the Durham Herald-Sun suggest his legacy's range.

It wasn't always a lovefest. "There were days when his assignments made me cuss up and down, but I appreciate him now," says the Inquirer's Mark Binker. They learned from the automatic "F" for making a factual error or misspelling a name. They also remember the undivided attention he gave them when they came by.

"My preference is to frame the issues for them, without telling them what to do," he says.

There is no better example of a deep-running spring that sparkles because it is constantly refreshed by the interplay among teaching, writing, reading (everything, with Proust and Emerson the favorites) and coaching professionals on scene.

Like some of his reading, he's a classic.