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Heroes & Friends - Steve Blow

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People often ask me how I got into journalism. And I think they’re looking for a warm story about a relative or old teacher who filled me with a love for language. Well, I sure wish I had a story like that. How did I get into journalism? It’s a one-word answer: “Calculus.”

Yes, I’m afraid I was on the run from calculus when I stumbled into a journalism class at Tyler Junior College in that spring of 1971. I had started at TJC the previous fall as a chemical engineering major. A high school counselor had urged me in that direction. But with classes in chemistry, calculus and analytic geometry that first semester, I quickly discovered that I had no passion (or talent) for an engineering career.

Between semesters, I shopped that college catalog like it was the Sears Christmas Wish Book. I was determined to find something that really interested me. And one of the classes I signed up for that spring was Intro to Journalism. I knew almost from the first week that I had found a home.

One of the things I will forever appreciate about Tyler Junior College is that it gave me a safe, affordable place to fail – and to pick myself up and find my way. That’s probably one of the least heralded values of community colleges. For me and countless others, they make a wonderful place to explore, to sample, to dabble and try on lots of different career options.

I’m still not sure what made me take a journalism class. I grew up in Tyler living next door to George M. Conner Jr., a longtime reporter for the Tyler newspapers. Seeing his byline in the newspaper was probably enough to pique my interest. And how blessed I was not to wander into just any old journalism department but the rigorous, exemplary program of Dr. Blanche Prejean.

Tyler Junior College has had some truly stellar, iconic teachers over the years. And Dr. Prejean was undoubtedly one of those. By the time I arrived, she had former students working as journalists and public relations professionals all over the state. She was nearing retirement then, and I remember her as a Katharine Hepburn lookalike who awed me, scared me a little and inspired me a lot. And if I may brag just a moment, in the span of two short years, I went from calculus runaway to outstanding journalism student for the Class of ’72.

I’m certain that same process of discovery and inspiration goes on at TJC today. And it’s not just with kids. As our economy and technology evolve, career exploration and education become a necessity for people of all ages. Can you imagine how many lives have been changed for the better in those stately brick buildings? And this has been going on for almost 85 years now.

A few days ago I was honored to give my very first commencement address. No, it wasn’t Harvard that came calling. It was Eastfield, a community college that serves my corner of Dallas County. But because of my gratitude to TJC and admiration of the work of all community colleges, I could not have been prouder if it had been Harvard.

The ceremony turned out to be unexpectedly moving for me. With the opening chords of Pomp and Circumstance, I watched from the stage as those proud graduates filed in. They were an absolute rainbow of humanity – all colors, ages and backgrounds. Big smiles were the one thing they all had in common. The sight of them entering the hall in cap and gown prompted exuberant cheers from the several thousand friends and family gathered there. I watched it all with a lump in my throat.

Community colleges do not get nearly enough appreciation for the work they do in transforming lives, training workforces and elevating society through the power of accessible, affordable education. Flagship universities get all the attention while community colleges quietly carry on with their mission of quality, close-to-home education.

Unfortunately, lack of acclaim translates into lack of financial support in Austin. Community colleges are in a particular bind right now. The downturn in the economy sent many more students into community colleges. TJC enrollment is up nearly 30 percent just in the last three years. Yet state financial support has been declining for years and is especially squeezed by the current budget problems in Austin.

It’s one thing to be proud of and grateful for TJC. It’s another to translate that into action. Many more of us need to speak up and support the mission of community colleges across the state. Talk to your public officials. Write letters to your legislators. Tell them how important community colleges are to the people and to the future of our state. TJC sure was important to me — calculus included. 

TJC Hero and Friend Steve Blow has written a Metro page column in The Dallas Morning News for more than 20 years. He was previously recognized as a Distinguished Young Alumnus of Tyler Junior College. He has received numerous awards for his column writing, including by the Headliners Foundation of Texas, the Associated Press and the Dallas Press Club. He credits TJC’s Dr. Blanche Prejean with teaching him the secret to good writing: “Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short stories.”