Learning from a great teacher

By JASON PATTERSON,

I believe that God puts certain people in your path in this life to help direct you along the way.

Wayne Nicholas, who died Sunday at age 78, was one of those people for me.

I was a student at Delta State University who had recently changed my major to journalism. I had written a spirited editorial for the Delta Statement, DSU’s student newspaper, that caught Wayne’s attention. He was the managing editor for The Bolivar Commercial, and he tracked me down to see if I was interested in working for the newspaper part time.

I remember being nervous when I visited the newspaper office, but he immediately put me at ease. Wayne clearly took a lot of pride in his work at the newspaper, and I was excited about the opportunity to work for him.

I eagerly accepted the offer, and before long I was working as a full time reporter. My first assignment was covering the Mayor and Board of Aldermen meeting for the town of Shelby, and although I never admitted it, I had no idea what I was doing.

Wayne turned out to be the perfect editor to start my career working for. He was a patient man, and I was a guy at the time who needed someone with a great deal of patience to show him the ropes. Like a lot of young people, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did, and Wayne helped me to understand that in a very gentle manner.

When he edited my stories, he always took the time to show me why he was making certain edits and to explain the changes he made. That was extremely helpful to me because I didn’t want to make the same mistakes twice.

I’ve been an editor who has often had the responsibility for teaching young journalists for over a decade now, and I’ve always tried to pattern my style after the way that Wayne taught me.

One of my favorite things about working for a newspaper is writing columns and editorials, and that was Wayne’s specialty. The Bolivar Commercial came out five days a week at that time. That meant that Wayne was responsible for writing an editorial every day during the week.

That’s a difficult task. It’s not easy to clearly state an opinion on a current event every day while also handling the many other duties that come along with the job.

Wayne did it, and he did it well. He won the J. Oliver Emmerich Award in 2002, which is considered the highest honor awarded by the Mississippi Press Association for the best editorial written that year. Wayne’s editorials were always thought-provoking. Even when I disagreed with his conclusion, I was forced to think about the issue he was writing about and examine it from another point of view. That’s the whole purpose of an editorial page, and I learned that from Wayne early on.

I don’t know if I will ever be as good of an editorial writer as he was, but I do approach writing editorials and columns in the same way I learned from watching him.

I do know that I have enjoyed a rewarding career filled with blessings, and that I can’t imagine anything I could be doing to better use what talents God gave me. This business can be very demanding at times as you’re always struggling to meet a deadline, and there never seems to be enough time to do everything you want to accomplish.

But there’s a great deal of satisfaction that comes with holding a newspaper in your hands after you’ve done your best to produce work that means something to the community you serve in the short amount of time you had to get it done. Sometimes you fall short of your goals, but it always feels good to know that you gave it your best effort. 

There’s nothing more satisfying than when you get to see your work actually lead to positive change in your community, and I’ve been able to be a part of that experience many times over the years.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work for Wayne Nicholas, and I’m sure there are many other journalists out there who feel the same way.

The blessings that came with this business for me are far more than just the words on printed pages. I met my wife, who has also been my partner in this business for a long time now, at The Bolivar Commercial. I’ve also made many lasting friendships along the way. Newspaper folks know how to stick together.

Those are probably more blessings than I deserve, and none of it may have ever happened if Wayne Nicholas hadn’t taken the time to teach a young journalist how a good community newspaper is supposed to work.