This letter has been written as if Mary Anna was one of Geoff Campbell’s former journalism students. We’d like to introduce you to Geoff, RTC staff writer/editor, through this lens.
Dear Mr. Campbell (I mean Geoff; I know how you always hated it when we called you Mr. or Professor),
As a child, I remember watching the movie Harriet the Spy. Like Harriet, I, too, had a black-and-white marble composition notebook I carried around with me, taking notes on my daily observations. I described how my mother carried laundry in a mustard-yellow wicker basket from her bedroom down to the laundry room under the stairs. I used words to memorialize our black-and-white mutt, Norton, and the rise and fall of his rib cage as he slept soundly under the coffee table in the living room. Life was ordinary, but at eight years old, I felt it was my duty to capture it in pencil on those lined pages.
I loved telling stories to anyone who would listen. I once described to my grandmother in great detail at least five members of the Baby-Sitters Club, as we walked through the aisles of a Kmart. She patiently listened to me as I went on and on about these fictional women as if they were my closest friends, only to spoil it myself by saying, “Mom, Mom, they’re not real. They are from the books I read.”
I made up my own stories, too. I was convinced unicorns were real, so they served as the foundation for a lot of my early writings, a detail that makes me blush with a tint of embarrassment to this day. As I grew older, my stories became more complex. I wrote less about unicorns and pulled plots from my own life, sprinkling my innermost thoughts, feelings, and perceptions around me like confetti. I told stories of a girl bullied in Catholic school for having a huge imagination and a conservative upbringing. I told stories of moving from New Jersey to Virginia where I experienced Southern kindness each day a stranger waved to me as I walked through our small town.
My amateur heart didn’t recognize my growing love for storytelling. I was too young to realize the flutter of excitement and the warm sensation of joy rushing over me each time I carefully crafted an anecdote. I didn’t fully make these connections until I met you, Geoff. I didn’t define that joy until you shared your own with our class.
You shared with us that when you were a little kid, you wanted to become a ballplayer for the St. Louis Cardinals. But you loved telling stories, too. You were fascinated by the world around you and wanted to be one of the people who could record moments and create history. You were drawn to economics and political reporting, a sign of the times. Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton. Walls and wars and scandals and financial crises.
Like a kid lost in Netherland, unwilling to return to my own reality, I wanted to listen to your stories for hours. I felt myself sitting at a senator’s desk as you told tales about Congress and the complex web of political relationships on Capitol Hill. I didn’t care much for the politics but I loved hearing about the power plays of it all. What did the government do about all the failing banks? How do lobbyists get favorable language into legislation? Did Republicans and Democrats get along and work together at that time? You answered these questions patiently.
I wanted to emulate your savvy, as you recalled nail-biting interviews with political moguls. How does one interview someone powerful? You asked provoking questions, leaving the inquisition open like a net, ready to gather the specifics offered. You taught me that my subjects may give me acceptable answers to my questions, but it is my job to listen to the hidden narrative between the responses. I loved the magic of your advice.
Our paths have been so different but our curiosity has felt so similar. You pursued journalism because it was an economical option. I pursued it in the middle of the recession when newspapers were buying out their legendary reporters. Despite the setback of the 2008 financial collapse, I wouldn’t change a thing. Why?
On the first day of class, through language, the way you saw me, and the way you responded to my curiosities, you told me, “I sense a storyteller within you. I care about you and I see great promise. I will meet you where you are and help you get to where you want to be.” It was the affirmation I never knew I needed. I was a storyteller.
As I progressed through your assignments, I dove headfirst into a journalistic pool of profiles, features, investigative reporting, and narrative nonfiction. I pieced together what makes a good storyteller great. I learned about nut grafs and ledes and snappy headlines that suck the reader into a carefully laden trap. I wrote about the local historian and his small-town books. I wrote about the city-wide initiative to end gun violence.
Halfway through the semester, it clicked. With each lesson, you helped me uncover my passion that was sitting there all along. Like a huge headline in a bold sans serif font, there it was screaming at me. My passion. My purpose. My voice. I was meant to be a journalist. Those Baby-Sitters Club stories I told my grandmother were me practicing my craft. All my life I had been practicing. “If it is something you keep doing over and over again, surely you must enjoy it,” you told me.
You stabbed open my soul, breaking the shell surrounding it. You were the catalyst, allowing my joy to flow freely into the world like a raging river released by an open dam.
You taught me to develop my instinct for a good sound bite. You said one day I’ll be listening to an interview and something in my heart will scream, “There it is!” Every time that happens now, I think of you. Each interview is like a treasure hunt, and I can feel when I’ve found what I’m looking for.
You started out as a journalist and fell in love with the inquisitive energy of young people like me. While watching your daughter’s soccer game, you felt the buzz around you and thought, “Maybe I could teach what I have learned over the years.” That tug at your heart led you to an adjunct faculty position at the University of Arlington where I became a character in your story. A character forever shaped by your dedication and calling. A character who crossed the lines from amateur to published journalist. A character who looks back and knows I could not have made it this far without you, without your belief in me, without your teachable moments.
Thank you for sharing your gifts. Thank you for leading me to what was there all along.
With Profound Gratitude,
Mary Anna Rodabaugh