My mentor and friend, Les Anderson, died Saturday night.
And if I know Les Anderson like I think I do, he would expect his current students at Wichita State to have his obituary ready to turn in Monday morning.
Les taught me how to be a journalist. He taught me how to report the news. He taught me to check sources, to check the spelling of names, to double check the facts and maybe check everything one more time. He taught me how to write. He taught me to be tough. He also taught me how to be honest, fair and considerate of those I wrote about. He taught me how to painfully trim 50 or 100 words out of a story to make it fit. He taught me how to interview an 80-year-old man, worn down by life, burdened by illness, and craft a story about his life that people would want to read.
He taught me how to write from the heart. I no longer work as a journalist or write obituaries. But to this day when I lose a friend or family member, I write about it. It is my way of dealing with loss. I think Les would like that.
I was a struggling engineering student at Wichita State in November of 1990. My wife Monika and I had one vehicle. She was teaching full time and starting work on a graduate degree. We had a one-year old son. I was surviving on two hours of sleep a night, working full time and trying to study. One day I tired of it and walked over to Wilner Auditorium and told the Elliott School receptionist that I would like to talk to someone about taking journalism classes. She looked over her shoulder and said “Les, this gentleman would like to talk with you.”
He took me to his office and asked about my academic standing and why in the heck did I want to be a writer. I told him I specifically wanted to be a sportswriter. He shook his head and again asked why. I was thinking “it has to be easier than engineering,” but I said “because I always thought I would like it.”
It didn’t take long to realize that to be a good sportswriter you had to be a good writer. And to be a good writer, you had to write and write and write some more. And if you didn’t believe that, Les told me, you should do something easy, like engineering.
One of my first assignments when I started journalism classes was writing one of my classmate’s obituary, and the classmate was still alive, sitting right beside me. I remember telling Les “Why do I have to write an obituary? That’s not what I’m going to do in journalism.” His response was “Oh, yes it is my friend.”
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We all wanted to write columns and editorials. We wanted to be accomplished and respected journalists right away. We didn’t want to pay our dues. We didn’t want to write obituaries. No one wanted to cover city council. No one wanted to be the beat reporter that Les knew would make you a better writer and reporter.
We soon surrendered and became reporters, just like he knew we would.
We wrote about student government meetings, faculty firings, teacher negotiations, car crashes, robberies, protests, marches and other events affecting Wichita and WSU. We would talk about how hard he drove us over beers at Kirby’s, usually at midnight when the Sunflower was on its way to press. We talked about our own writing and the demands of the ESC faculty. To this day I have nothing but fond memories of all of those professors. There was something about Les, though, that made you want to please him the most.
After a year or so of pounding out assignment after assignment, story after story, calculus didn’t look so bad after all. Writing and learning to write often became laborious. Les never let us forget that long days and late nights are all a part of being a journalist. Eventually he taught us how to have fun with it, too.
I started writing sports for the Sunflower a couple months after starting in the Elliott School. By summer I was working at the Ark Valley News. Hired by Les under the guise as a sportswriter, one of my first assignments was an obituary. He didn’t say anything other than “so-and-so died. You get to write the obituary.” I think he looked forward to saying that for a long time. All I could do was roll up my sleeves and write the obit.
In his community journalism class, we would jump in his van and drive to some small town in central Kansas and visit that town’s newspaper. We would stop in other towns and buy a newspaper and critique it on the way to our destination. Les would tell stories about the crusty old newsmen who published these newspapers. He said if you were going to be a reporter in a small town or be the publisher of a small town newspaper you had to become a part of the community. I think Les knew every single person in Valley Center. I think maybe he knew every person in the state of Kansas. I haven’t written much for publishing in the last 15 years, but to this day I often stop in small towns and pick up the local newspaper. I’ll look at the design and layout and writing and wonder what Les would think of it.
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Les had an incredible work ethic. He once told me that if you needed something done, ask the busiest person you knew to make sure it got done. He balanced a full time faculty position, ran a newspaper, raised a family, volunteered constantly, served on boards and committees, ran a small farm and for all I know had a part-time job somewhere. To this day when I have trouble finding the time to do things, I think of Les. Then I tighten the belt and get it done, usually before deadline.
Les was wonderful with children. In the four or five years I worked at the Ark Valley News I would often bring my two young children at the time, Dominik and Viktoria, to Valley Center. Les, and Nancy, would treat them almost like they were their own grandchildren. I remember telling my wife, “Spike or Maggie better hurry up and have a kid or we’re going to be adopted into the Anderson family.”
Monika would often come out in the summer on deadline day and help edit the paper as it was being pasted up. Monika was then a high school biology teacher and enjoyed the people at The News. That time spent with Les also made her a better writer, which served her well as she later became a curriculum coordinator and principal. She still reads a newspaper like a copy editor. I think Les would like that. Our youngest son, 13-year-old Alexander, never met Les, but he is a promising writer and pretty good copy editor, too. I know Les would like that.
Les loved to laugh. He loved his wife and children and grandchildren. He loved the people he worked with and the students he taught and the people he helped. He loved the people of Valley Center. He loved the county fair and the Valley Center Fall Festival and he loved to hide its medallion and to play practical jokes on his friends. All too often he had to write obituaries for many of those friends.
I am glad I didn’t find out Saturday night because I know I would not have slept. I woke up today to the tragic news. I can’t comprehend that he is not a phone call away. I also can’t bear to view any of the internet social sites that Monika says are filling up with sadness and with tributes. I am not sure if I will ever be able to visit those web sites. A few friends and ESC classmates called to talk earlier today. I could barely speak.
Page 4 of 4 - Years ago I was mobilized from my naval reserve unit for deployment to Afghanistan, and somehow Les found out. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in more than five years. He took me to lunch and told me to keep a journal or write a blog of my experiences. I didn’t and now regret not doing so. He also told me that if Monika needed anything while I was deployed to have her call. I know he would have honored that promise if she had picked up the phone.
I was fortunate enough to attend his book signing last year at Watermark Books. I wish I could have attended his endowment ceremony a couple of weeks ago. I am sad for ESC, WSU, Valley Center and all of Kansas. I am sad for myself. But mostly I am sad for the people who will never know his kindness and love.
Les Anderson was a beloved advisor and college professor of Andover American Editor Adam Knapp, reporter Jeff Guy and former sportswriter Stephen King, who wrote this column. They ask that if anyone is so moved, to make a donation to the WSU Foundation, c/o Les Anderson Fund for Students, 1845 Fairmount, Wichita, KS 67260.