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Walking tall

Honor medalist rooted in history of journalism
Thursday, September 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:09 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chuck Martin remembers joining William H. Taft for a 100-mile race-walk in Columbia in 1977. Taft, a journalism professor then edging toward retirement, spent his afternoons walking five miles every day in Brewer Fieldhouse, but Martin figured he would be able to keep up because he was roughly 30 years younger than Taft.

“As I recall, I made 30 miles in eight hours before retiring from race-walking permanently,” said Martin, now an editorial writer at the Wisconsin State Journal.

Taft finished 70 miles of the walk “and probably could have carried me home afterward — which was nearly necessary,” Martin said . “Now, when somebody asks me to take a walk, I know enough to say no.”

Taft, on the other hand, still enjoys walking and covers two to three miles every morning. He also walks with his dog, Penny, at night.

“Walking is the most successful thing you can do for your health — and the cheapest,” said Taft, 88.

“You’ve got to keep busy,” he said.

On Friday, Taft will receive the Missouri School of Journalism’s Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. It’s the latest on a long list of achievements, which includes having awards named after him — such as the Missouri Interscholastic Press Association and the Kappa Tau Alpha scholarship society’s top adviser awards — and being inducted into the Missouri Press Association’s Newspaper Hall of Fame.

Taft serves as the official historian for the Missouri Press Association and visits the Eighth Street office once or twice a week.

Doug Crews, a former student of Taft’s and executive director of the press association, got to know Taft well after joining the association in 1979. The more he became acquainted with Taft, the more he realized the significance of Taft’s work.

“His contributions, as far as documenting Missouri newspaper history, are right up there,” said Crews. “I don’t know who else would have done that. He’s the source for Missouri newspaper history in my book.”

Taft, who retired from teaching in 1981, taught history and principles of journalism to more than 10,000 students at MU over 25 years. He holds the school record for the longest period teaching the same class. He also served as director of graduate studies for more than 10 years.

An author of eight books, five that focus on Missouri newspaper history, Taft was chosen to receive the medal based on his lifetime contributions to journalism. Other medalists will be honored throughout the year.

“I’m joining a select group,” he said. “It makes you proud to be part of them.”

Taft’s teaching style had to be unique, because he knew most students were in his class because it was required.

“I learned a lot about the history of our profession from him, and I am forever indebted,” said Brian Brooks, a former Taft student and current professor and associate dean for undergraduate studies and administration at the Journalism School.

“He made the history of journalism come alive by telling stories about the people in journalism,” said Martin, who was a teaching assistant in the class. Taft always had personal details about the people he lectured on, ranging from quotations to personality quirks.

“The way in which he taught those students is one of the memorable qualities,” said George Kennedy, MU editorial professor. “Bill Taft was a pretty traditional historian, that is, one who didn’t pay much attention to theory, but was intent on making sure that people knew who the most important individuals and the most important institutions in the history of American journalism had been.”

Taft is working on his ninth book, which will focus on the Missourians who have received the medal he will accept Friday.

Taft, who has been married to his wife, Myrtle, for 63 years, looks for four-leaf clovers on his evening walks. He checks his e-mail every morning and evening — using it to stay in touch with his three children, Marie, Bill and Alice. He also plays solitaire on the computer, which he says is one of the only functions he feels comfortable with because it “doesn’t require kicking it to make it work properly.”

Ironically, Taft said the two professions he vowed he would never enter were undertaking and teaching. He ended up teaching for 35 years, 25 of them at MU.

“I enjoyed all the time I taught,” he said. “If I had my choice, I’d do the same darn thing again.”


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