The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

Filling Shu's Shoes Is a Dif_cult but Essential Challenge

The memorial service for legendary journalism professor Jim Shumaker, who died of cancer Dec. 19, lasted all of 30 minutes in a small Baptist church that didn't even fill to capacity.

The pastor, God bless him, did his best to eulogize Shu and comfort his family by reminding them that he was in a better place.

But I suspect many sitting in those uncomfortable wooden pews, especially his former students and colleagues, wanted one last chance to hear about what the old man did before heading off to the hereafter. They wanted a few stories to make them laugh and help them remember this unique man and how he made them feel about themselves.

They didn't get it.

What they did get, I imagine, is exactly the kind of affair Shu would have wanted.

No gushing eulogies, no frills, no fuss. The closest thing in the service to gushy was a brief, anonymous poem. The closest thing to frilly was the American flag that Shu earned the right to have draped over his coffin for his service in World War II.

This was appropriate for a man who shunned the quasi-celebrity status that accompanied his affiliation with the comic strip "Shoe" and his popular columns in The Charlotte Observer.

Robert Friedman, who occupied an office next to Shu's when Friedman worked here as a doctoral student many moons ago, said Shu never talked about his alter ego in the funny pages or his service in World War II, in which he was taken prisoner and held captive for more than a year.

But to hear Friedman tell it, Shu's humility had more to do with his innate bovine excrement detector than with sheer modesty. "Shu had the best eye for talent and the best nose for bullshit," Friedman said.

It is this trait that so guided Shu's life that it even manifested itself in his funeral. It's also what made him a great journalist and a beloved professor.

There was no question whether Shu was a talented journalist. He was.

Friedman told of Shumaker's brief stint as editorial page editor at the Wilmington Star-News where he did everything -- wrote 21 editorials a week, fielded phone calls from irate readers and performed various other administrative duties -- all by himself.

His columns in The Observer were always favorites among readers and were collected into an anthology when he retired.

But there are plenty of good writers out there. The problem is that most don't supplement their talent with that uncanny combination of tough-nosed honesty and homespun modesty like Shu did.

That's why his death is such a blow to the field of journalism.

Friedman said Shu was one of the last of a dying breed of crusty, no-nonsense newspapermen, and that's too bad. In my short time in this profession, I've stumbled across more flaming egos, know-it-all prima donnas and naked ambition than you can shake a stick at.

And I've caught myself on more occasions than I care to admit exhibiting these nauseating characteristics.

We journalists need people like Shu to call us on our pretension and ego-driven behavior so that we can do the job we are called to do -- tell the truth.

Too bad folks like him seem to be the exception nowadays.

It is for this reason that Shu's death should give pause to folks in the J-School and anyone else who teaches for a living. Who will be the next Shu?

And I don't mean the "that guy that cartoon's based on" Shu.

I mean the Shu who singled out the stellar students in his class, took them under his wing and made them better journalists and people.

The Shu who cared more about helping ragamuffin college students make names for themselves than making one of his own.

And, yes, the Shu who, with like-minded folks like Friedman, sat in the back of faculty meetings and rolled his eyes when the bullshit was flying fast and furious.

There are folks at this paper and everywhere else, I suspect, that desperately need that loving kick in the pants Shu was willing to give the kids that would understand and benefit from it.

Not everyone can have each of the unique mix of traits that made Shu special.

Few do.

Not everyone can be that gruff nurturer who can motivate with a few words, a glare or, as countless students found out, with a heap of red ink.

And too few of us have the guts to stand up to authority on paper and in life the way Shu did.

Maybe it was that year as a POW in Germany, or maybe he had a similar editor back in the day that shoved him in the right direction.

Who knows why Shu was the way he was.

What I do know is that this profession, and by extension the whole lot of us, is on its way down the tubes without people like him to tell it straight and, in his own way, help out his fellow man.

I'll close by confessing that I am not even close to the best person to be writing this.

Shu was out sick the semester I was supposed to have him for editorial writing, so I never knew him very well. (I hope none of his former students deduced that by reading this column).

But I could not ignore the fact that this paper lost one of the best things that ever happened to it. Countless DTHers have benefited from Shu's curmudgeonly wisdom, and this paper is infinitely better for that.

With the Pulitzer Prize winners and hundreds of other top-tier professionals who owe Shu a debt of gratitude, a tribute from our humble publication might not seem like much.

But it means a lot to us that our paper often bore the first saplings of the seeds that Shu planted in his students.

Here's hoping someone picks up where he left off.

Matt Dees is a senior journalism and political science major from Fayetteville. Reach him at mbdees@email.unc.edu.

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