Check Your Sources – Remembering John Breen

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Courtesy of the Journal Inquirer)

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Credit: Journal Inquirer)

An icon of my life died this week.

Professor John Breen of the UConn Journalism Department left us far too early but also left a trail of students honoring him in their thoughts and posts.

More than anyone I’ve ever encountered, he taught me to love words. No matter my title or place in life, I will always be a writer deep in my soul. I have struggled to find ways to honor the man. Besides the obvious (there is a scholarship established in his name at the UConn Foundation), I have decided that the natural and right way to do so is through writing.

But first, I need a drink, and so a toast to him—a glass of Irish whiskey—sits beside me.

That I feel the need for a little alcohol-induced ease of mind tells the first part of the story about why John Breen mattered.

He was uncompromising. In the days before Microsoft Word marked all of your errors in red or, even worse, auto-corrected them, John Breen accepted nothing but quality. In one of his classes, he established a rule for assignments: for every typo, you lost a letter grade. Not a circle on your paper. Not a “fix this.” No silver star for “nice try.” He assumed you cared enough about your readers that you wouldn’t insult them. I feared the man and feared my grade. The lesson I carried with me was simple: quality matters. The small things matter. Detail matters.

I partly need the calming drink next to me to even comprehend the act of writing something about John Breen, for I know that this would probably end up with a ‘C’ if he graded it. That a grown man, a professional in matters of writing, can still feel this way should tell you something.

He taught me to be cynical. That’s usually a perjorative word, but I don’t mean it in that sense. Having bombed out of the engineering program, a 19-year-old me found myself in Professor Breen’s Journalism 101 class. On the first day, he told us that to be a reporter, you had to question assumptions.

“If your mother tells you that she loves you, check your sources.”

He said that. He really said that. It’s a remarkably cynical statement, but it is also remarkably true. I don’t think he literally meant that you can’t trust your mother, but the lesson I carried from it is held deeply today.

Question assumptions.

Assume nothing.

Inquire.

Dig deep.

Check your sources.

I know it is the trend today to talk about the decline of a liberal arts education; STEM education will rule the future. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But can there be a better lesson for life, or a better education (in the philosophical sense of the word), than “check your sources?” With more information available to us than ever, can there be a better requirement for critical thought than “question assumptions?”

Lastly, John Breen taught me the beauty and grace of words. He taught me that my writing will touch people and that there is an awesome responsibility in the act of writing about them. This doesn’t mean that, as a reporter, you should go easy on your subjects. It means you should be fair.

He was a man who seemed to me to be out of place in the modern world, even in 1990. He smoked at his desk. He used a manual typewriter. If he could have worn a fedora with a small piece of paper on the band that read “Press,” he would have. He was more or less straight out of central casting for “All the President’s Men.” With stacks of newspaper everywhere, his office space always seemed to be one poorly thrown cigarette butt from a towering inferno.

I loved that.

The world is worse without John Breen in it. Today’s journalism students—while bright, smart and so capable—are poorer than I was. He last taught me more than two decades ago, but I feel him around me every time I write something.

And although I haven’t spoken to him since the year I graduated UConn, I suddenly miss him.

Critical Thought and Astronomy

Had such a great time talking about astronomy to the 5th grade class at Plantsville Elementary School today.

Kids get the wonder of the universe easier than adults, I think, because they haven’t yet been trained to spend 90% of their days worrying about car payments, jobs, stress and all of the things that keep adults from stopping, looking up and saying, “Woooowwwww.”

I have done these presentations for three years in the Southington schools, and also have done stargazing nights at the local YMCA camp for about that same length of time.

There’s something amazing about watching a kid just GET the massive concepts that are involved with astronomy. There’s something amazing about having a kid look through your telescope, see the rings of Saturn and realize that it’s REAL. Not a video game screen, not something you see on TV, but real. That dot up there…it’s got rings when you look at it closely.

To me, the highlight of today was one particular student, an otherwise quiet girl, who raised her hand when I asked the class why Galileo’s observation of Jupiter was so important.

She said, “He saw the moons.” I told her that was right, and then asked her why that was so important. She said she didn’t know, and I said, “I think you do, if you know that he saw the moons. Why was it important that he saw moons?”

You could see she was really puzzled. I went to another kid with his hand up, who didn’t know. Finally, the girl literally jumped up and said, “I remember! It’s because if Jupiter has moons, Earth isn’t in the center of everything.” Gave her a big thumbs up and she was beaming. Truly, it was incredible.

A 5th grader comprehended something that complex so easily. It’s not amazing until you realize that thought was the basis for massive, societal understanding, just a few hundred years ago.

I got my telescope for free from a friend, who told me that the price for it was that I use it to show the heavens to kids. Every time I do one of these presentations, I think how much I truly owe him myself.

The Power of our Peers

Spent the last few days at the CASE District 1 annual conference in Boston. What an honor to be able to present the work that we’ve done at UConn with student philanthropy, and I’m so proud of the team of people who worked on it. From my co-presenter (the brains, the driver of the process and the hardest worker ever) to our data team, our background support, our talented student marketing worker, and even the group of peers who evaluated the presentation in advance…not much to say but that there is amazing talent all around me. Truly blessed.

The presentation itself went great, with one small technical hiccup at the end (curse you, PowerPoint), but the in-person reviews were positive and the follow-up questions were great. In fact, I’d say that we received more questions than any other session I had been in.

So, that was great.

It was also an incredible conference for a little “small world” experience. But, first, a little background.

About a month ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a person I did not know, who informed me that I had been recommended by someone (let’s call him David) to present at a conference in March. I didn’t know David’s name, and a quick Google / LinkedIn search revealed no obvious direct connection to him. But, I like challenges, so accepted the offer and didn’t think much more about it.

Flash forward now to the conference. I pop into an interesting-sounding session at CASE and just am blown away by how great it was. I found myself thinking, “These presenters GET IT. How awesome.” It’s about my loves…analytics, marketing, data-based decision-making, social media. Just great stuff. And then I see that it’s David co-presenting!

I introduced myself after the session and start with a sheepish admission that I don’t know how we’re connected or why he’d recommend me.

He says, “You presented in New York in 2012, right?”

“I did.”

“I was in your session, and I left there thinking, ‘Wow, UConn is doing great stuff in this area.’”

So, the presentation he gave, that I randomly stopped in for, was inspired by our very own from two years earlier.

Wow.

Wow.

The lesson is that we’re not alone in anything we do, and our peers build us up, make us who we are, and turn us into better professionals and people. We’re all in this together.

An Explosion in M82

A star just exploded nearby, in one of the galaxies in our “Local Group.” It’s all relative, of course. The galaxy, M82, is about 11.5 million light years away, so the tiny dot that is the supernova is light that left M82 right around the time the Amazon River was forming, and long before people existed.

It’s humbling to think about, which is one of the reasons I love astronomy so much. Your own life is so fantastically insignificant in the big picture that it staggers the imagination we care so much about it.

Many people think that the reason we’ve never encountered intelligent life from other planets is that supernovae like this one have wiped them all out over time. Possible, I suppose. It’s as good a guess as any I’d have. Another reason for humility at our plight here on this little rock orbiting the sun.

Big questions, but right now the biggest question for me is how many cold nights I can take looking at the supernova. I saw it tonight, and it’s clearly visible, lighting up the little blur that is M82, far brighter than all the billions of other stars in that galaxy…combined.

It’s an amazing universe, and all we need to do to see that is look up.

Leadership in the Snow

Spent the snowy weekend in the woods, working with young people on their leadership skills or, more precisely, watching them learn those skills themselves.  The formal curriculum was the Boy Scouts of America’s Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops, but the lessons were learned as the groups worked together for the non-formal parts of the day.

And isn’t that exactly right?  Because there are a lot of “leaders” out there who sit through an awful lot of trainings like that (not to mention offer those trainings)!  And there are a lot of MBAs churned out annually. How many are truly leaders, in the sense of being able to work in a team, inspire others, and put the group above self?  Not many.  Not a huge percentage.

But what I saw in this group of 12- to 16-years olds was largely leadership. Like cooking dinner on a propane stove for their small groups, when it was snowing and their hands were cold and the wind was blowing.  Or making sure that the group assumed responsibility for cleaning the site and leaving it better than we found it. How many politicians or CEOs would do that?  Would they even call it leadership?  Would they recognize it?

And why not?  And if we answer that question, have we identified what is wrong with so many of our major societal institutions today?

It didn’t all go well. Some meals were barely meals. Some food was ruined. Some stoves took a long time. Not everyone pulled their weight. Tempers were frayed. Relationships strained.  Part of the lesson.  But, overall, I walked away impressed at what we show when we don’t know what we’re supposed to.  Leadership and integrity come when no one is looking, or when you don’t know enough to care whether someone’s looking.

Just a thought.

Student Philanthropy

My favorite work project has been our success with student philanthropy at UConn.  Part of that is because I have been able to work with some great people on the initiative, but I also love it because it highlights the eternal role of philanthropy in life.

The idea germinated from an alumnus who looked back and realized the power of philanthropy in shaping UConn, as well as the need to build a culture of giving in today’s students, who have benefited so much from the support of others.  By offering challenge matches for students, he’s encouraging them to give, and we’re helping to shape that through a competition that is really focused on allowing them to give to what matters most to THEM, not us. And that is, typically, the club or cause or program that they’re part of at UConn.

The word philanthropy comes back to its roots of meaning “the love of man,” and I cannot think of a more empowering task than educating people about how philanthropy allowed for their success and how their own philanthropy is showing their support for those who follow.  It’s all good stuff.

More info on the Ignite competition at: http://s.uconn.edu/huskydrive

Thank You Video Contest

Behold the power of the crowd!

I was proud to help shape a very successful first student video contest for UConn. Thousands upon thousands of Facebook likes, shares and comments were received, and in the end, a great set of three finalists represented the University well.

The winner was excellent and produced by two UConn engineering students.

One of the main lessons learned? That there is tremendous talent out there; you just have to find a way to channel and tap it.

More information at: http://www.foundation.uconn.edu/saythanks/index.html

Comets and Change

Up at 5 AM to attempt a rare feat, seeing three comets in one observation.

Two of the three were easy: Comet ISON was definitely brighter than even a few days before and had a noticeable tail. Comet Lovejoy was incredibly bright but had no tail that I could make out.  As Mercury and Saturn rose above the horizon, racing with the sun, I was hoping to see Comet Encke down near Mercury and make it 3-for-3, but couldn’t make it out. Still, it was my first time seeing two comets in one day, so that was noteworthy and quite cool.

The ancients thought comets were the bearer of news from the gods and brought major changes with them. Life’s been so crazy lately…maybe the ancients were right!

Messier 76

Check off the Little Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 76) from the observation list! Using my Orion UltraBlock NarrowBand filter, I caught a good glimpse of what is often considered one of the hardest Messier objects to spot.

To my eyes, it wasn’t as glorious as this photo, but it had a distinctive shape to it, and, per usual, the facts behind it made the fuzzy blur all the more exciting.

Astronomy Merit Badge

What’s better than astronomy? To me, sharing the hobby with others and teaching them to appreciate the heavens above.

On the 25th, Troop 45 held an astronomy observation session for those working on their merit badges. Scouts got to see Venus and its amazing partial phase, the International Space Station soar overhead, the Pleiades, Polaris, the Summer Triangle and much more.

The requirement was a “three-hour observation session,” and we got it done, down to the minute, but only thanks to some hot cocoa, a fire and a portable heater. Everything frosted over by the end, including the people!