Monday, November 26, 2007

"John Hewitt's pupils do pretty well.."

Twenty five years ago, this was the tag line of a news package reported and written by Mike Hegedus, a reporter for the CBS station in San Francisco, KPIX. Mike is now a feature reporter for CNBC. Back then, while still reporting feature news for KPIX, he reported a story about a college professor working at San Francisco State University in the Broadcast Communication Arts Department (at least that’s what it was called back then.), an extraordinary man teaching broadcast journalism. Hegedus’ report went behind the scenes of our college campus television station, interviewing the professor, observing his students in action at school and around San Francisco as they worked “in the business” in paid positions and in internships. Many of these students are well known television and radio producers, writers, editors, anchors and reporters today, and so the tag line goes…

I am not sure if we fully appreciated back then, the impact Professor John Hewitt would have on our lives both professionally and personally. What endeared him to us was his candor, humor and honesty. John Hewitt was one of those professors in college you never forget. I never saw him particularly angry; except for the time I put together a package on Pier 39 that could have been a movie of the week in three parts. He was patiently serious about television news, about how carefully crafted it was written, its’ accuracy and relevance. In the midst of the seriousness, he was able to laugh with us and at us. He was the sculptor and criticism of technique and none of us wanted to miss his class. It’s the course where we put in more hours than was required. It was the class where we shot stories on huge cameras we lugged on our shoulders, with microphones bigger than our hands, hopefully covered with windscreens that looked like koosh balls. Our tapes were ¾’’Beta and the editing decks were these huge monstrosities that you had to reserve time to work on. When we checked out equipment from the “cage”, we signed our lives away and all our cords had to be coiled a certain way “or else!” It wasn’t just the cameras we checked out. With that, we needed to lug light kits and batteries. Yeah, I learned how to coil cords at State. When we were at State, the studio cameras were still black and white and sat on these huge ‘Ed Sullivan Theater’ pedestals. Lord, in today’s digital world, it seems downright ancient.

A graduate of U.S.F and Columbia University, Professor Hewitt taught for over 30 years at San Francisco State University, scattering his students far and wide into television markets all over the world. He's authored several books, is a television journalist, documentary writer/producer and Emmy award winner. One can say that on a professional level, he prepared his students for the hype and insanity of little garage news operations to major market newsrooms, but I’d like to think that he taught us to look at the world objectively with fresh eyes, both for what was newsworthy and hard hitting, versus what was sensational and sheer fluff. His experience wasn’t something he kept to himself; he shared it greatly and generously.

John and his wife Annette put on an annual Christmas party at his home in Marin County for his students; a tradition that started not long before my class graduated in 1985. Going back to John’s house the year after I graduated was like going home to see old friends, and it was at that party that I met J.D. 22 years ago. We were married almost three years later and his presence at our wedding was important to us. I have no idea how many of his students married and started families, but I know of two from the classes of 85 and 86, including ours. He was a professor who was a mentor and vicariously a part-time yenta, only because we spent so much time together.

We haven’t seen John or Annette since our wedding and we recently received word that he is now retiring, officially. A part of me is sad to hear this news, since he is really an icon of what is now known as the BECA (Broadcast Electronic Communication Arts) department at SFSU. We are grateful that we will be able to be part of this celebration, one in which a man’s legacy in education, his professional and personal impact on a small group of kids spans over three decades. Our good friends from college were all his students; people we still love to keep in touch with after 20+ years. Wishing him well as he retires and thanking him for all he has done for us will be an honor for those of us who were his students. His courses, although spanning only a few semesters for us, was such an integral part of sending us out into the world, and as the old Hegedus addage goes, “John Hewitt’s pupils do pretty well.”

Tammy Maher is a resident of El Dorado Hills and biweekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat. You can reach her by email at or on the web at

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sisters & sneezes

My great Aunt Agatha was an enigma to me. I can only picture her as the nun with a black habit and Whipple that circled her soft smiling face. She had the same smile my grandpa Chet and Great Uncle Horace had, being that they were all siblings. If any three kids looked alike, they did, being completely and totally Irish. All three of them are buried in the family cemetery in Alliance, Nebraska. My memories of them involve only childhood flashbacks of her black habit, Grandpa’s old car, Horace’s small house in Alliance that he shared with his wife Agnes. Every single one of them was short in height but I didn’t notice because I was a kid and I was short too.

Sister Agatha must have been smart as a tack because she was a nurse anesthetist back in the day when they were rare. I think of her while I study and I wonder if I will ever get close to being the kind of nurse she was. One of the most irresponsible things I ever did without my parent’s permission, was give away her habit rosary that encircled her waist. When I was around 11 years old, I gave it to this little old lady named Rose, who used to attend daily Mass at St. Vincent de Paul church, because I felt sorry for her. She had severe arthritis in her hips which made it hard for her to sit, stand and kneel. I figured if she had Aunt Agatha’s rosary, maybe she would feel better. I am sure someone in this person’s family is wondering where Rose got that really big rosary. I did stupid things like that when I was a kid.

I never would have been accepted into Catholic school had it not been for Great Aunt Sr. Agatha. She was visiting us at the time my parents were trying to enroll us at the school (without much success), and apparently she went down to the school and mud wrestled Sr. Nan, the principal, for a 5th grade slot for me. I learned about the discipline of Catholic schools the very first day of school. Sr. Mary Antonilda, my 5th grade teacher, threatened to cut off my tongue with a pair of scissors if I didn’t turn around in my seat and stop chatting with another girl named Tammy, sitting behind me. I swear I thought she had scissors for this purpose and I never talked to my neighbor again while she was teaching us. I loved Sr. Antonilda. She was this wonderful short little nun who had this silvery wig and this incredible sense of humor. Whenever someone in the class sneezed, she would pace the floor in the classroom asking in a sergeant’s voice “WHO sneezed?” and when no one in the first row answered she would mimic “machine gunning” the first row on down until she got to the person who finally admitted they were the one who sneezed. Then, she would smile and say “God bless you!” Every time she did this, we would all burst out in a fit of laughter and couldn’t wait for the next time someone in the class sneezed.
Sr. Mary Antonilda allowed us to go to daily mass during Lent in lieu of lunch. I would walk down the hill to church and watch old lady Rose in her pew struggling to get up and down. I finally got the courage to sit next to her (every day) and dutifully helped her stand, sit and kneel with the crook of my arm. When my classmate, “Murph” noticed what I was doing, he used to race down to the church ahead of me to snatch up Old Rose before I could get to her, and when I snitched on him to Sr. Antonilda, she admonished "Murph" to find another old lady to help (in those words exactly because when I told on "Murph", I told Sr. A that he stole my old lady). I still laugh remembering those days in catholic school; the impression all these nuns made on me and how they fostered my sense of responsibility and my faith.

I hope that Great Aunt Sister Agatha realizes that the day she mud wrestled or negotiated for her precocious niece to go to Catholic school was the day that started a long journey to becoming a nurse, just like her, and but for the discipline and drill imparted by Sr. Mary Antonilda, I would not be the kind of student I am now; and when someone sneezes, a little stern voice with "a slight twinkle to it," goes off in my head and it makes me smile.