By Michael Freeman, Managing Editor
In August 1912, student Arthur Slater of Clyde distributed the first copy of the Optimist to Childers Classical Institute students. He worked on the first issue as a reporter, copy editor and typesetter. Ninety-six years later, the kind of dedication shown by Slater still materializes in modern Optimist staffs.
The history of student media at ACU begins with that first issue Slater made, which mostly featured religious commentary, encouraging letters to the school and brief news pieces. For reasons unknown, he named the paper the Optimist. The name stuck as students joined to help produce the monthly newspaper. Slater was the first editor for issues produced on the old campus on North First Street. D.L. Petty, who later died fighting in World War I, became the paper’s second editor the following year.
A few years later in May 1916, the first student yearbook was published. Named after the common West Texas cactus with pear-shaped fruit, the Prickly Pear, complete with 125 pages and a royal purple front cover, began being printed annually, highlighting student groups and events. In the early 1920s, class editions of the Optimist were made as a competition, where each class of students elected a temporary staff to put together one issue of the paper.
As student media at ACC continued to grow on campus, so did its influence off campus. In November 1919, members of the Optimist and Prickly Pear formed the Press Club and joined the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association, the oldest collegiate press association in the nation.
Although the newspaper was primarily an extracurricular activity, students devoted their time and effort to it, including Wendell H. Bedichek, who served three years as editor during 1921 to 1924-still the longest tenure in school history.
In 1925, the staff moved out of the administration building and into the science building, thus beginning a trek around campus that included producing the paper from Daisy Hall, Sewell Auditorium, the basement of McKinzie Hall, Chambers Hall, the basement of the Library, in a barracks building where Christian Village Apartments currently stand, in the basement of the Campus Center and finally to the Don Morris Center in 1978, for 20 years on the third floor, and now in the new JMC Network Student Media News Lab on the second floor.
The constant moving did not pose the only obstacle to the staff; a few controversies arose along the way. On March 15, 1932, a faculty publications committee urged that a popular column, called Hoots of the Owl, be canceled. The unsigned column began running in 1928 and was written by a variety of staff members. The article featured an owl who said he roamed the campus, spying on people. But the committee said the column “had become too juvenile and undignified for a college newspaper.” The column was canceled. But a few weeks later, the Optimist started a new tradition on April 1 called the Pessimist.
“The Pessimist was a happy tradition for many years,” said Charlie Marler, professor emeritus and senior faculty member of journalism and mass communication. “It was buffoonery, satire, slightly veiled personal attacks and silliness all meant in fun.”
Early editions of the special issue had columns printed sideways and upside-down, and featured stories, often ridiculing faculty members and administrative policies. The edition died out when the potential for libel became an issue in the early 1980s.
In September 1941, the Optimist began printing its issues on campus and continued until the late 1960s when the paper was shipped to various nearby towns, such as Stamford and Anson, before the Abilene Reporter-News took over the job.
The newspaper and yearbook were not the only forms of student media on campus. In August 1950, on-campus radio station KACC-AM began its inaugural year. The station’s first manager was Bill Teague, future president of the university. Three years later, KACC started serving live and recorded broadcasts, ranging from political reporting to light-hearted comedy, to Abilene and surrounding areas within a 40-mile radius. Control rooms and equipment were located in the basement of McKinzie Hall and in Sewell Auditorium before being moved to the Morris Center in 1978.
As different media appeared on campus, so did an official department of journalism. In September 1955, Drs. Heber Taylor and Reginald Westmoreland directed the creation of the Department of Journalism, which was spun off from the English Department, but the department was short-lived. In June 1964, Taylor and Westmoreland left ACU, resulting in its closure four years later.
But the department would not stay dead for long. Marler, along with Dr. Chapin Ross, Dr. Lowell Perry, Dr. B. Edward Davis and Clark Potts worked to establish a mass communications degree within the Department of Communication, an important step in the process of building a nationally accredited journalism program.
“We needed journalism and mass communication,” Marler said. “The church needed it; the Christian universities needed it, and the secular media needed more Christians on their staffs because they had good work ethics and they were committed to truth.”
After the degree was added, student interest shot up from about 25 students enrolled in the program to about 125 students within a three-year period. By the mid-1970s, a professional journalism curriculum was formed in the Division of Mass Communication.
In 1978, Optimist editor Ron Hadfield and his staff moved from the musty basement of the Campus Center lined with lime green shag carpet to the third floor of the newly built Morris Center. With the move came new technologies. The staff began using Compugraphic’s Unified Terminal System video display terminals instead of typewriters. Despite the new system, articles still needed to be printed out on film, cut up with X-Acto knives, run through a waxing machine and placed on paste-up sheets in order to be put to press.
“It was a lot of busy work,” said Doug Mendenhall, instructor of journalism and mass communication and Optimist editor in 1980-81 and 1981-82. “Most of it was done over two days.”
The staff grew busier as the Optimist added a second weekly edition on Tuesdays in August of 1981. Before, issues ran only on Fridays.
“In some ways, it was a lot harder,” Mendenhall said. “But in some ways, it made things a little more sensible. You wouldn’t have to wait a week to report on certain things. It certainly helped in that way.”
The mid-1980s saw a plethora of progress in the field of broadcast student media. In November 1983, ACU-TV began broadcasting on-campus talk shows; the next year, it produced Visions, a video yearbook. On June 2, 1986, KACU-FM, which had changed its name from KACC to stay in concordance with the university’s name change in 1976, began broadcasting; two years later, the on-campus television station KUF-TV7 went on air.
In September 1990, the JMC department received a Macintosh SE computer lab complete with 17 computer stations. Four Macintosh IIex machines and several laser printers were then installed in the Optimist office, and staff members started to use QuarkXPress system software to produce the paper. Student media had reached the digital age, and on May 1, 2002, the Optimist launched its Web site www.acuoptimist.com.
“The Internet was creating a whole new medium,” said Cade White, instructor of journalism and mass communication and director of the photojournalism program. “For the visual journalist and former photojournalists, it really presented an amazing opportunity to add some very powerful tools to your toolbox-the storytelling tools of sound and motion.”
Since then, the Optimist switched its focus to convergence, the combination of print, audio, video and online journalism. ACU student Jamin Blount, ’05, helped set up the Optimist’s server, which was stored in White’s office, for the hosting of online videos.
“It was very cool, very exciting,” White said. “There’s a lot of technology out there that really makes this a lot easier.”
However, as the server aged, it slowed down, forcing the Optimist to look elsewhere to post videos online. On September 7, 2006, the Optimist began publishing news videos on www.youtube.com/acuvideo.
After the renovation to the Morris Center in 2007, the JMC department now offers KACU-FM, a 33,000-watt National Public Radio station serving West Texas, KUF-TV, a LPTV station broadcasting to the Abilene area, the Optimist online, a Web site that features articles, YouTube videos and podcasts, and the Optimist, a twice-weekly broadsheet newspaper that has been rated All-American every year since 1975 by the Associated Collegiate Press. The Prickly Pear published its final edition last year.
During the history of ACU student media, the program produced many alumni such as minister and best-selling Christian author Max Lucado, ’83, CBS Emmy Award-winning producer Lance Barrow, ’81, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Leeson, ’78. The department as a whole also has won thousands of state, regional and national awards since the mid-1980s.
ACU’s student media has advanced significantly since its inception in 1912. And despite the sudden and rapid growth, students of journalism and mass communication always will be needed, Marler said.
“The delivery systems are changing,” Marler said. “What we’ll have 25 years from now is not going to look like today. But the basis is that the population of people in a given community doesn’t have the time, so they need some institution that’s playing the role of gathering, analyzing, synthesizing, reporting and evaluating information for them,” he said.