Wider Horizons

The teacher who changed my life failed me on my first writing assignment. It was in a class called Feature Writing taught by the inestimable Wilmot Ragsdale. At the time, Rags (as everyone called him) was in his late 70s. He had flunked out after his first year at university in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington, and went on to work as a logger, merchant seaman, oil driller, miner, gardener, amateur boxer and more before turning to reporting. Rags was among the journalists who met weekly with President Roosevelt during the war, and he was on Normandy Beach filing dispatches for Time magazine on June 7, 1944.

After the war, Rags roamed the world, writing memorable stories everywhere he went, before settling down for 20 years to teach a generation of journalists at the University of Wisconsin. As he approached his 70th birthday, he returned to Tacoma to retire (but certainly not slow down) and arranged to teach one writing class each semester at the University of Puget Sound. In his contract, he inserted a clause stating all classes he taught must be held in the same second-floor classroom where he had failed his first-year English class.

And that is how, 62 years after flunking out, in that high-ceilinged, ivy-framed room in Jones Hall, Rags came into my life – and changed it. I took notes as he went over a few rules on that first day. Be bold, he said. If you want to be a writer, write – write as much as you can, write as often as you can, and read even more. Deadlines must always be met, because a newspaper had to go to press, even if you had a cold. And don’t forget that accuracy is the number one rule of good journalism, which meant that one inaccurate fact would fail a whole assignment.

I worked so hard on that first assignment. I turned in four pages of my best writing, filled with active verbs, concise and compelling details and great quotes. And, at one point, I made the mistake of calling one of my sources a lieutenant instead of a sergeant. So I failed. There, on the last page, was the “F,” a letter which I had never before received on a writing assignment. I was shocked, stunned…and never again made that mistake.

Rags taught me a lesson that day which has stayed with me throughout my career – and so many more lessons beyond that. I still hear his voice in my head, urging me to strive for a memorable introduction, to notice the small details of smells and sounds and colours to illustrate my story, to omit needless words and, of course, to be accurate. Even though he passed away in 2009 at the age of 97, his work lives on in the work that I and all of the students who had the honour of being his students do.

Teachers like Rags can change lives. So, too, can the staff members who support the students during the years that college becomes their new home. This issue of Wider Horizons is devoted to them, the fabulous faculty and stunning staff members who, in ways large and small, pass on essential life lessons that stay with students well after they cross the stage at Convocation.

We hope you enjoy reading about some of those great teachers and staff members in this issue, and be sure to check out some of the comments from our alumni in the “Where Are They Now” pages on the Lethbridge College people who changed their lives. If you’d like to contribute comments for a future issue, just drop me a note at [email protected].

And because we don’t say it often enough – thank you. Thanks to all who teach, who support, who shape and who guide our students season after season, semester after semester. You may not know it – but you are making a difference.

Here’s to the start of another great school year!

Wider Horizons
Lisa Kozleski
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