Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Gotta Love It

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is what I was taught when I was very small. Just because someone’s appearance matches a widely-accepted image of how this or that person or people usually are … doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how that someone really is.

Every once in a while, though, image and reality are one and the same.

As a high school student, years and years before I succumbed to the truth that I really wanted music to be my vocation, I had clung to the philosophy that “you can’t make a living at it”. So, as I tried to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I considered that writing had always been one of my “other” favorite activities — and my experiences with school newspapers and the like suggested that journalism might be the path to follow. Following the time-honored tradition of 17-year-olds being asked to decide on a collegiate major that would in turn influence their life’s work, I looked for a college that had a well-regarded journalism major program. (Considering what I knew and didn’t know at age 17 … and what I didn’t know that I didn’t know! … I now believe that time-honored tradition to be entirely unrealistic. On the other hand, there are people who fret that if their kid doesn’t get into the right preschool, Harvard and Yale won’t be an option later, so what do I know?)

I found such a school, right in my backyard, more or less: the University of Massachusetts.  At the time, research could not be done online, since there really was no such thing as online … so, utilizing the information gleaned from the card catalogs and reference books of various local public libraries and guidance department bookshelves, I got the sense that UMass-Amherst had journalistic things happening.

Plus, a heck of a band. We’re immediately into the double bonus here.

Fast-forward to a couple of semesters into my college life. One particular journalism class that I needed to take was taught by just one professor – and my thought was, “ah! At last.”

The professor’s name was Howard Ziff.

I’d occasionally glimpsed him on my way through the halls of journalism (well, okay, the one hallway in UMass’ Bartlett Hall wherein the Journalistic Studies program offices were located): a grizzly bear of a man, with a voice that rumbled at about a comfortable 2.1 on the Richter scale.

I hadn’t had a single conversation with him yet, but somehow I knew that he fit my stereotypical image of a genuine journalist perfectly.

As the Pulitzer prize-winning UMass journalism professor Madeleine Blais said recently, Ziff “was more of a city editor than even a real city editor. Young men and women came to feel like they had met the real thing. He had a gruff exterior, was good with one-liners, smoked a pipe and claimed to have a bottle of Scotch in his desk.”

And so, I attended his class at the wintry beginning of an Amherst spring semester.

First impressions don’t often lie. I left the first meeting of the class wishing that the second one would start right away. As the semester went on, I did the readings, wrote the papers, completed the course requirements. But, to paraphrase an old saying, I came for the coursework but I stayed for the stories. The man was the city editor at the Chicago Daily News in the 1960s, for heaven’s sake! He had an air of authenticity that simply cannot be bought at the local 7-11.


Howard M. Ziff passed away yesterday. Already, myriad Ziff stories have begun to surface publicly, brought forward by legions of former students and other admirers; and most of them in some way point to that quality of being the Real Deal, the (forgive the pun) genuine article. (The stories were always there, of course … but as always seems to be the case, it’s after someone passes away that people are moved to wax eloquent. It’s not wrong; though it is sad that so often that’s what it takes for us to tell people what we think of them. I could honestly have written this very piece last week, last month, last year… last decade?  Once upon a time I heard someone suggest that they wouldn’t mind hearing how they’d be eulogized – and I heard someone else suggest that we should hold “memorial services” for people while they’re still with us … though I do get a slightly odd sense about that idea.)

One Ziff story goes this way: word came in to the Chicago Daily News city desk in April of 1968 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Ziff turned to a reporter and said, “Find Rosa Parks.”

Holy cow.

In the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s article about Ziff’s passing, there is a proliferation of nouns such as editor, teacher, mentor, raconteur (love that one!), friend; and adjectives including dedicated, ebullient, streetwise, legendary, gruff, wise. All accurate. Most important – and most desperately needed nowadays – was his philosophy of the teaching of journalism: that, as UMass journalism professor B.J. Roche put it, “it should be not just a vocational field but a humanities-based thing where professors were not just teaching people how to type but to understand the role of journalism in the world. [Ziff] thought there were certain obligations that went beyond interviewing celebrities.”

Anyway, back to the mid/late-1980s. This journalism major … whose life was at least as much wrapped up in music made while on one’s feet and wearing a bright red uniform and a hat with feathers sticking up out of it … received the benefit of Howard Ziff’s wisdom for several semesters. He took me seriously as a journalism student – seriously enough that I made sure to take his subject seriously right back. You cannot fool the Real Deal. You cannot fudge an assignment, not if you’re going to pass it in to a professor who, as UMass Alumni Association fixture Jon Hite put it, “could very easily be the most interesting man in the world.”

And yet … here I am, making a living as a music teacher now. Ordinarily, I’d be unsure as to how to square that reality with the fact that one of my professors was as committed to journalism as anyone could be, and that I had reacted so strongly and positively to that commitment. I had been considering moving on from the editorial world, as I was starting to doubt my ability to make an actual living within it (how do those words taste, Rob?). Weirdly, when that editorial world laid me off, even though the layoff cleared the way for me to pursue a next career, I felt just a wee bit … well, if not guilty, then at least odd … about the fact that not quite seven years after having invested all that time and money in a journalism degree, I was pulling the ripcord.

There was one conversation, though, that occurred somewhat before that layoff … which eased my mind a bit.


I was spending a fall weekend back on the UMass campus, staying overnight with local friends and visiting the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning rehearsals of the Minuteman Marching Band – followed of course by the Saturday football game, and all the halftime and postgame pageantry that went with it. I wore my band jacket all weekend – badly faded, but still evidence of all the school spirit that came with four years in the band.

After the Friday afternoon rehearsal, I walked away from Old Chapel, then the home of the band, and past the nearby Bartlett Hall, on my way to my car … and crossed paths with Professor Ziff.

A great big rumble of a greeting: “Rob Hammerton, how are you.” There was no question mark at the end of that sentence, so I have dutifully not included it here either. I was beyond pleased: years later after my graduation, I was still somewhere in his database. I obviously would have hoped so, but … at the same time, I wasn’t quite sure. He was a busy man; and how many hundreds – thousands? – of names and faces has he had to keep straight over the years?

We exchanged questions and answers that were just this side of small talk. “What’re you doing now. How’s it going.” (Again, no question marks.) Well, there’s not much actual journalism in my current editorial job; in fact, the writing that I do, according to the style sheet of the magazine, doesn’t even get me a byline. Tough to develop a portfolio that way. It’s a trade magazine, after all, not the Boston Globe. To my employers, Chicago isn’t an editorial style, it’s a trade show locale.

Ziff grunted sympathetically. Then he asked a question that he seemed to know the answer to, already.

“So, it’s after business hours. What brings you back here tonight?” There was a definite question mark there.

Well, tomorrow’s High School Band Day, and I came out from eastern Mass. to lend a hand wherever they might need it. It’s going to be the usual 3000-person-strong day of organized chaos, …so.

“Ah yes,” said Ziff. “Makes sense.” Without a trace of guilt-laying, or sarcasm, or disappointment. “It’s great that you still come up and stay connected with this.” Well, I’ve got friends and a sister who are marching right now, so I get to hang out with them as well. “Which is important.” And then, Ziff said it:

“Anyway, yes, you were a good journalism guy, but let’s face it: you were really majoring in band.”

In the hands of a different person, that remark might have reduced me to a smoldering pile of journalistic ashes. But Ziff said it with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye and a smile in his voice (he might have been actually smiling, but his beard and pipe made it tough to spot sometimes). So instead, I was able to smile a bit, to abashedly agree with him, to be not at all surprised that all that time he’d seen right through me … and to walk away not just alive (!) but reassured that it was probably okay if I pursued a career other than journalism. I’d been reassured by one of the titans of the industry that I should do something I love, even if it was in someone else’s industry. Perhaps if it had been any other (lesser?) journalism professor, I’d have spent the rest of the weekend with the weight of that world on my shoulders. But Howard Ziff made it clear: you need to do what you love.

That’s not all I miss him for; but it counts for a lot, I think.


April 11, 2012 - Posted by | education, journalism, media, news, teachers, writing | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I LOVE this post, Rob. You’re lucky because you got to work with two giants at UMass!

    Comment by Holly B. Anderson | April 11, 2012 | Reply

  2. I’m very sorry to hear of your loss, Rob.

    Comment by amandaroederwrites | April 11, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] To the point where one of the professors in the department from which I earned my actual degree noted that “we knew you were majoring in […]

    Pingback by Odd Ducks Wearing Feathers On Our Heads « Editorial License | November 22, 2014 | Reply

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