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DEAR READER: Recording the memories of MU's Arvarh Strickland

Saturday, May 4, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:59 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Arvarh Strickland, MU's first African-American professor, is shown in a 1990 photograph.

Dear Reader,

The newsroom learned of Arvarh Strickland’s death sometime after 10 p.m. Tuesday. By midnight, there was a short article about this giant in the history of MU and Columbia, and by midday Wednesday a well-rounded piece was published.

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I was glad that the print edition crew recognized his importance to the community and tore up the front page to lead with the story on Wednesday. I wish it could have been bigger but understand print’s great enemy: time. The normal deadline for the news section is midnight; it was stretched to 12:30 to make the front-page changes.

When I came back to Columbia in 2001, Strickland was one of the first on a list of people to meet. The word gentleman comes to mind: polite, soft-spoken and generous with his insights. The family’s obituary, published online on Thursday, noted “his stellar efforts to educate the MU community inside and outside of the classroom.” As a source, he gave of his time to generations of Missourian reporters and editors.

Though his name is associated with a first – the first African-American professor at MU – his consistent voice for change is probably what most on campus will remember about him.  The most uninspired name brick and mortar has ever known – General Classroom Building – was changed to honor him, and at least some students who walk into classes there now stop to ask: What is the story behind Strickland Hall?

So the Missourian did pretty well in its coverage, and the obituary supplied by the family helped fill out the picture. Your newspaper might not have been able to do more in the time given, but could it have done more before Strickland died?

Early in my career, I was in charge of updating more than 300 stories that had been lying around for years. They were called advanced obits, and you knew you were worth something if the newspaper thought enough to have your obit ready before the need arose.

My chore wasn’t a reward for great service, mind you; it’s what you get when you are “the kid” on an editing desk. I couldn’t have asked for a better lesson on the community.

Gathered in one place were stories of the most prominent people in Tidewater, Va. Past mayors of five cities. Entrepreneurs and real estate moguls. Prominent clergy and noted artists and outstanding athletes. Navy brass and one particular Navy spy. It was a compendium of the famous and infamous and together made a kind of history of the area.

I wasn’t well liked that spring as I sent advanced obits to reporters for updating. Some people’s resumes read pretty much the same, while other advanced obits needed complete rewrites. Life happens, and any story only records one moment in time. But it was a thankless task. Reporters write stories to be read. They are impatient creatures, as a group, and squirm at the thought of holding on to a finished story for more than a couple of days.

The exercise, though, was useful for those times like Tuesday night, when there are only a few hours or minutes to pull together the biggest events of a person’s life.

The Missourian’s higher education editor, Liz Brixey, had actually assigned a reporter three years ago to pull together biographical information and interview colleagues and friends. It was an advanced obit of a sort. She sent the file around for use Wednesday morning.

Columbia is a transient community. People, and not just students, come and go all the time. As a newcomer, wouldn’t it be neat to learn more about the institutions and characters that make up Our Fair City?

I asked editors this week to concentrate on expanding the number of entries in the CoMo You Know section of columbiamissourian.com. The section contains lots of detail about some of the most well known institutions here, from Columbia Cemetery to MU’s Memorial Stadium.

It’s short in the people category, with only a baker’s dozen of names listed. The CoMo You Know could fill that need to publish that pulses through journalists’ veins while gathering thread for obits of saints and sinners here.

The scholar James Carey once described journalism as “the collective arrest of experience.” By that he meant that it is a journalist’s job to remember.

“Journalism,” he said, “converts valued experience into memory and record so it will not perish.”

That's too high a charge for this most imperfect of crafts. But, with voices from many other places, the memory of Dr. Arvarh Strickland — historian, administrator, writer, advocate, Army veteran, community leader, husband, father and first African-American professor — won’t die any time soon.


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