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Legacy of a passionate professor

"Never write anything you wouldn't read yourself."

Among the many pearls of wisdom uttered by Syracuse University professor William A. Glavin, this simple dictum is perhaps repeated most often.

It's been ingrained into the minds of thousands of students, who, as they sit down to write newspaper and magazine articles, blog entries and books for outlets across the United States, repeat the professor's instructions as a kind of journalistic prayer.

On May 7, after teaching in the Newhouse School's magazine journalism department for 38 years, Glavin succumbed to cancer. He was 67. The lessons he left behind will continue to reverberate through the world of American journalism, from the halls of Conde Nast in New York City to the smallest local newspapers, for years to come.

I was lucky enough to take three of Glavin's classes during my time at Syracuse. It was there I began to learn what it is to tell stories in simple, compelling terms. I learned these lessons through a series of humbling remarks scrawled out with the professor's favored green, felt-tip pen, which constantly extolled simplicity and concreteness in language above all else.

Those little green words ("Write as simply and concretely as you can" and, if he was in a particularly good mood, "Some of this is fine.") echo through my head every time I stare at a blinking cursor and the vast expanse of empty screen that stretches before it.

A friend and a far better writer than I put Glavin's influence this way in an online tribute to the late professor: "You sucked all the doilies out of my writing. Thank freakin' god."

But Glavin was revered as much for his no-nonsense wisdom and the efficacy of his teaching methods as for the passion with which he lived and taught. The gods in Glavin's pantheon were writers like Gay Talese, Elmore Leonard, John Hersey and Tom Wolfe -- writers of brave and uncompromising prose who managed to combine an incredible work ethic with deep and penetrating insight into the drama of human existence. No stick in the mud, he was also a dedicated and unabashed fan of Nora Ephron and J.K. Rowling.

Glavin drilled the work of these writers into our heads, hoping, as if by osmosis, that the blend of rigor and compassion his idols evinced would seep into the work of his students.

Where ideology was concerned, Glavin was something of a latter-day E.B. White, another writer he revered and frequently taught in his classes. Here was a man deeply in touch with his inner child, unafraid to speak his mind on topics from fly fishing to Woody Allen or to tussle with his fellow professors and administrators in the Syracuse University magazine journalism department. But whatever Glavin said or did, wherever he directed his passion and intellect, he did so in the service of his students.

When the music critic and biographer David Hajdu came to Syracuse to interview for a teaching position, I mentioned to Glavin that I was a fan of "Lush Life," Hajdu's biography of Billy Strayhorn. Without hesitation, Glavin invited me to participate in a breakfast interview with Hajdu and a committee of tenured professors. I asked a timid question or two, which Glavin and Hajdu each treated with more gravity than I probably deserved, and the school eventually hired Hajdu.

This is to say that where his students took an interest, Glavin took an interest. And not only that -- he invited you to breakfast over it. The prime example of that approach could be found in the professor's nigh-obsession with the work of Rowling, whose "Harry Potter" novels and the films they spawned made up part of the curriculum for his popular criticism class. When Glavin saw his students reading the books in the late '90s, he read them, too.

All of this on top of the fact that, under his thin veneer of prickliness and straightforward manner, he was simply a good guy with something important to say. He was free of cynicism and embraced an enormous range of interests, from "Casablanca" to the Boston Red Sox. He encouraged us all to be similarly open, to follow our desires wherever they may lead, to be exactly who we are and not to ask permission. Just as long as we were good at it.

Natural-born teachers like Bill Glavin are hard to come by, a fact to which anyone who has been through high school or college can attest. If and when they appear, and if our reluctant young minds are able to let them in, these teachers manage to clear a small space in our lives and plant a seed. With Glavin, as with other talented teachers, the subject matter was almost secondary to the man himself.

The man is gone, but his passion remains.


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