By Daniel Johnson-Kim, Editor in Chief
Dr. Charlie Marler returned to Abilene Christian College in the fall of 1974 to find an Abilene “newspaper man” eager to re-ignite the ill-equipped mass communication program.
Marler, professor emeritus and senior faculty member of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department, came back to Abilene after completing his doctoral studies at the University of Missouri, and the publisher of the Abilene Reporter-News, A.B. “Stormy” Shelton, donated $10,000 to equip the program with 15 “state-of-the-art” IBM Selectric typewriters for reporting and copy-editing courses.
Before Shelton’s generosity, journalism students at ACC had only pens, paper and four dated, manual typewriters to record and report campus news – Marler said the IBMs were a gift from above.
“The 15 IBMS were delivered fairly early in the semester; it was like Christmas morning,” Marler said.
Fast forward to 2008, and it is Christmas again for journalism students at ACU as the Morris Center is now equipped with cutting-edge technology and a JMC Network Student Media News Lab. But beneath the new toys and fresh paint on the walls lies the faith of foundations and the individual donors willing to put their wallets behind the JMC Department and its vision to rethink and revamp how journalism is taught to prepare students for the ever changing industry.
“It had to; it just had to happen,” said Dr. Cheryl Bacon, chair of the JMC department. “I just believed that we would eventually make it happen.”
The university approved a proposal Dr. Susan Lewis, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication, wrote for the construction of a converged student media news lab in January 2001. After approval, the JMC faculty estimated it would take nearly $1 million to make their dream of a converged media news lab a reality. The only problem was figuring out where to find the funds.
“The university has a policy that doesn’t allow you to begin a construction project until it’s fully funded, and we were living under that policy,” Lewis said.
The first victory in the battle to raise funds fittingly came from The Shelton Family Foundation, named after the same West Texas philanthropist and former Abilene Reporter-News publisher who gave Marler his “state-of-the art” typewriters. The Board of Trustees for the foundation begun by the late Shelton approved a challenge grant the ACU development office applied for in 2004. The foundation initially committed to give $250,000 to the department’s project.
“They said we’ll give you a certain amount of money if you raise ‘x’ number,” Bacon said.
After the Shelton Foundation’s initial donation, several individual donors and other foundations began to join the JMC dream. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Zoe Foundation followed in the Shelton Foundation’s footsteps. In addition to the foundation funds, Russell C. and Jane Varner Beard of Abilene, and Paula and Sterling Varner of Wichita, Kansas, and other individual donors made substantial gifts to the cause. But the funds were still not all there for construction to begin in the five-year time frame the department had initially planned for.
In the end, it was the foundation named for Shelton that put forth the funds to begin the planning, construction and fine tuning of the converged media news lab, putting the grand total it donated to the project at close to $900,000 of the more than $1 million project and ending the fundraising effort in February 2007.
“I kind of look at it as it all happened when it was suppose to happen,” Lewis said, adding that although it took the department longer than expected to raise the funds, the longer time period was a blessing in disguise; without the delay the newsroom could not have been equipped with the technology that was available when construction began.
David Copeland, president of the Shelton Family Foundation, said the foundation’s donation is miniscule when compared to what the money was used for and what students will be doing in the new newsroom.
“The real focus really ought to be on the university and what they’re trying to do because that’s really the hard part,” Copeland said. “To make a grant is in the big scheme the easy part; the hard part is taking the money, building the right facilities and really equipping the students with state-of-the-art knowledge as they go out in the world.”
Although the donors are humble, Bacon said the department will be forever indebted to the list of donors for their kindness and courage to support this project.
“It was essential to provide [students] with what they need,” Bacon said. “I didn’t see it as optional. To me having this facility and using it well is a great opportunity and it’s also a absolutely essential opportunity.”
The IBM typewriters Shelton provided increased the quality of Marler’s students’ education and training. Bacon was one of those students, and in 2008, Marler hopes students also turn their “Christmas morning into producing great journalism.”