Former J-School dean Nathaniel Blumberg dies at 89

2012-02-15T05:58:00Z 2012-02-15T06:13:45Z Former J-School dean Nathaniel Blumberg dies at 89By VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian Helena Independent Record
February 15, 2012 5:58 am  • 

No journalist who trained under him is likely to be surprised to learn that Nathaniel Blumberg wrote his own obituary before he died.

He wanted it done right.

The legendary former dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism passed away Monday in Kalispell, five days after suffering a stroke at his home in Bigfork.

He was 89.

Blumberg left indelible marks on the J School as dean. He began Dean Stone Night more than half a century ago, and started the Montana Journalism Review, the nation's first such publication, two years before Columbia University debuted a similar magazine.

KUFM Radio, the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame, UM's radio and television department? All were begun under Blumberg's watch as dean, from 1956-68.

His tenure at UM spanned 35 years.

A Rhodes Scholar himself during his student days, Blumberg was also instrumental in helping UM foster an inordinate number of Rhodes Scholars (28) for a public university.

But it was his years in the classroom where Blumberg probably had his biggest influence on a generation of journalists.

"He was a very demanding teacher," says Carol Van Valkenburg, professor emerita at the School of Journalism. "He just got after you. He wasn't worried about hurting your feelings, he was worried about your being the best you could be."

"He had us all terrified," says Printer Bowler, a J School student from 1959-64 and now a visiting lecturer there. "I remember when I was editor of the Kaimin we had a bad typo on the front page - I think we misspelled somebody's name - and we could hear him stomping down the hall as soon as the paper came out.

"He came in the Kaimin office and ripped us all up one side and down the other. I was so shook up I went home, drank half a bottle of wine and never went back to school until the next day."

But guess what?

"We never had another front-page typo again while I was there," Bowler says. "I'm so happy he was that way. He wanted it done right and done well, and that was to our good fortune."

Graduation provided no escape.

As new reporters headed out into newsrooms, Blumberg - and his equally demanding colleague, the late Robert McGiffert - stayed in touch.

"They'd write notes, they'd call us and yell about what we did wrong," says Ginny Merriam, public information and communications director for the city of Missoula and a former Missoulian reporter. "They were so exacting as teachers, and so hard on you - and later on, you were so glad they were."

Merriam says while the criticisms could continue after graduation, praise and encouragement joined the mix for stories Blumberg and McGiffert felt were well-reported and well-written.

"They stayed in touch with everybody," Merriam says. "They stayed so close with so many people, and did so through decades. They kept all of us connected in a way."

"He was a guy you wanted to avoid if you hadn't done a good job," says current Dean Peggy Kuhr, who was also taught by Blumberg. "He was very public in his criticisms, and very loud. But we all continued to get notes and letters after we left. I'll bet he wrote hundreds of thousands of notes in his lifetime."

In fact, as Blumberg penned his own obituary, he wrote this about his students:

"(I) took great pride in their professional success, their contributions to journalism in Montana and the nation, and their strong sense of public service in their chosen careers."

"Scores of his graduates," he wrote about himself, "became lifelong friends."

"Sacred cows make the best hamburger," Blumberg would tell his students, encouraging them to go where some newspapers never tread.

Once there, make sure you've got the facts, he would add.

"If your mother tells you she loves you," Blumberg would tell them, "check it out!"

Merriam recalls one of Blumberg's pet punctuation peeves.

"When does the punctuation go outside the quotation marks?" he would ask his students.

"NEVER!" he'd answer himself, and repeat it so often in classes that - if it still happened on a story a student turned in - Blumberg would just circle it and write "When?" and "Never!" next to it.

Rich Kaudy only spent four years in the newspaper business, three at the Montana Standard, before quitting to attend law school in 1980.

But the Denver attorney says Blumberg had such an influence on him as a teacher, he was moved to donate $25,000 to the Journalism School to establish a fund in Blumberg's name.

"I was this pimply faced kid from Butte who was greeted in college by a Rhodes Scholar who glared at you while he stroked this white beard," Kaudy says. "He pushed you and stretched you and never apologized for having high standards."

Some students called him a bully, Kaudy remembers, and some accused him of teaching by fear.

"But he never taught anyone to fear failure," Kaudy says. "He encouraged you to push yourself to do your very best. He was a forceful personality, and a force of nature."

Kaudy made the donation - "I'm embarrassed it's all I could come up with," he says - while Blumberg was still alive.

Kuhr says at Blumberg's request, the endowment bearing his name will be used to fund investigative projects by undergraduate students.

Retirement didn't silence Blumberg.

In addition to the steady stream of correspondence with former students, the World War II combat veteran published "Treasure State Review, A Montana Periodical of Journalism and Justice" for several years.

He also founded WoodFIREAshes Press to publish the books he hoped to write, minus those pesky commercial publishers, editors and agents.

The one he did publish, "The Afternoon of March 30," put a dent in Blumberg's reputation with some people.

Blumberg called it a contemporary historical novel, and it centered on his belief that Neil Bush - son of President George H.W. Bush - and his wife Sharon were co-conspirators in John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

George Bush was vice president at the time, and would have become president if Reagan had been killed. Blumberg based his belief in part on reports that Hinckley's brother Scott knew Neil Bush - indeed, that they were scheduled to have dinner together the night after the assassination attempt - and that the media covered it up.

"He got on a conspiracy kick," Van Valkenburg says. "He was very proud of the book, and I think he was hurt it wasn't well-received. He became someone some people took less seriously, and I think that hurt him terribly. But the truth was it was not up to the standards he would have expected of other people."

Born in Denver, Blumberg was educated at the University of Colorado and Oxford, schooling that was interrupted by World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

He taught journalism at the University of Nebraska and Michigan State University before president Carl McFarland named him dean at UM when Blumberg was 34.

He had three daughters - Janet, Jenifer and Josephine - with his first wife, Lynne, and married Barbara Farquhar in 1973, gaining a stepdaughter, Nina, in the process.

Josephine, in 2001, and Barbara, in 2007, preceded him in death.

While some students couldn't handle Blumberg's teaching methods and left, Van Valkenburg says, the many who stuck it out came to revere him.

"To a lot, he was a god," she says. "He was truly a mentor we looked to for advice, and he helped elevate the national reputation of the journalism school."

He made better journalists out of them than they might otherwise have been, his former students say, and one of his legacies is that after chewing them out through their college careers, he often became a friend for life.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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