Ed Grisamore

RIP, Professor Wally, I will miss you

Wally Eberhard
Wally Eberhard

Dr. Wallace Eberhard’s office was on the second floor of the journalism school at the University of Georgia, and I spent half my senior year there.

He was my college adviser. I would knock before entering because there were so many piles of paper on his desk I was never sure he was on the other side.

“Come in, Mr. Grisamore,” he would say. I swear I could pick out that voice in any lineup.

I would sit down, his eyebrows barely visible across the desk, and marvel about how every square inch was covered with stacks of papers to grade, newspapers and periodicals to read.

He was a news hound and a pack rat. He bought ink by the barrel. There was no telling how many trees had to die to reach that small office.

On the edge of his work space were these words: “The sign of a cluttered desk is the sign of an uncluttered mind.”

It has been a week of sadness and fond remembrances of the man who mentored me in his classroom and for the more than four decades since I left it.

Wally Eberhard, professor of journalism emeritus, died last Sunday in Athens on his 87th birthday. He was born Oct. 7, 1931 and died Oct. 7, 2018. There aren’t many epitaphs that repeat the same date, so there must be a special copyediting mark reserved for those that do.

He was my favorite professor. He brought a wise and witty Midwestern sensibility to a college town in the Deep South.

Of course, I called him Dr. Eberhard, out of respect. Later, I knew him as “Professor Wally,” with even more respect. It was a term of endearment. (And now, as I write out that title, I can almost sense his correction. It’s Prof. Wally, according to the AP Stylebook.)

He was old school, but not old-fashioned. (In recent years, he would email me from his iPad.) He was an uncompromising fundamentalist when it came to facts and fairness. There was no indoctrination in his curriculum, no blurry lines or partisanship printed anywhere in his textbook.

No matter how you felt about a story or subject, he never allowed it to sway your words. Objectivity and ethics were his tenets. He hammered them home with zero tolerance. It was no coincidence the last four letters of his name were “HARD.” He was my toughest professor, and I loved him for it.

He began teaching at UGA in the 1970s, a time when journalism schools were flooded with applications. In those post-Watergate years, everybody wanted to be an investigative reporter, the next Woodward and Bernstein.

But, at the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication, you had to get through Prof. Wally. He was there to separate the contenders from the pretenders. He set the bar high and kept it there. The rides at “Wally World” had a height requirement.

I once went to see him about a story I was working on for his class. I already must have known what he was going to say by virtue of his one-word answers.

“Exactly,” he repeated after each question.

He had real-world experience. Before his 30-year career in teaching, he wrote a column for a community newspaper in Michigan. Even after his retirement in 2000, he never stopped writing, researching and editing.

He was a fervent supporter of the Athens-Clarke County public libraries. In 2007, he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Journalism Historians Association. He offered classes in column writing through the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation. He taught a “Freshman Odyssey” seminar called “A Short History of Long Journalism.”

In high school, I had an English teacher, Mrs. Janet Atwood, who encouraged me to pursue newspaper writing. One of my regrets is she did not live to see me have a long career in journalism.

Prof. Wally, however, was there for every step of my post-graduate work in the School of Life. I often would see him at homecoming or drop by for a visit whenever I was at the Grady. We met for coffee at Jittery Joe’s in Athens.

He sent supportive letters and emails. He wanted to know about my family, my job, my books. He lamented … between each ellipsis … about “how time flies.” He never stopped giving me homework, either, assigning me to give him a full report when time permitted.

I wasn’t the only former student whose busy life he kept up with and continued to encourage. Although he was a humble guy, he took pride in each of their successes, much the same way an artist reflects on her painting in a gallery or a carpenter steps back to admire his handiwork.

When I left my full-time position at The Telegraph, he was pleased to learn I would be teaching journalism and continue to write.

“Keep at it,” he told me.

An economy of words. I still hear his voice in my head.

R.I.P., Prof. Wally. I will miss you.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.