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The lasting legacy of Walter Ward

Stillwater. Oklahoma. Oklahoma State University.

Those words would stir up visions of utopia for very few. But for me, the year I spent there to get a masters of science degree was one of the best -- and most important -- of my life.

Actually, it had very little to do with the town, state or even the university. It had everything to do with one faculty member.

The selection of OSU was sort of an accident. A friend in the newspaper business mentioned OSU when I told him I was considering going back to school at age 30. My friend had done graduate work at Stillwater.

He talked in awe about the director of the graduate program, one Walter Ward. I had never heard of him. Later, I learned the OSU mass media research program had a national reputation because of him.

At our first meeting, I told Ward that eight years under my belt as a newspaper reporter and editor had simply left me burned out. I was looking for a career change. I thought graduate school was a good place to start.

Ward related to that. He had started out as a newspaper reporter and then went on to get his doctorate degree in mass communications. He had worked in corporate public relations for big bucks with B.F. Goodrich before settling into the academic life.

This Ward. Now, in looking back, he seems larger than life. He was a man of contradictions. I've never known anyone who was more solid or grounded in his life. Yet at the same time he was eccentric. He was easily the brightest person I've ever known. But in casual conversations it was almost as if he worked to hide that fact.

He was neither the John Wayne type or the Ivy League patrician. In many ways he was very average, which is exactly the way he saw himself. He wasn't average, of course.

But he did like to tinker with old cars. He loved riding his motorcycle when the brutal Oklahoma weather would allow it. He liked auctions and collected antique radios.

Ward liked eating at greasy spoons. And he could converse with a blue collar worker without talking down to him. He could also humble a high-brow academic hotshot with just a few words.

In the classroom, he had a tough exterior. Discipline, hard work and no nonsense was the approach. He was blunt in his comments. He brought more than one student to tears with his honesty.

Some read this to mean he was a hard man, a man who didn't care about people. Nothing could have been further from the truth. No teacher ever cared more.

Ward was really a softy. He loved country music. He had no twang in his own speaking voice but a good Hank Williams tune could make him weep. Beneath the tough front was a sentimental man who was secure enough with himself to not be ashamed to cry.

Make no mistake, he was an academic. He got his jollies spending hundreds of hours on research questions. His joy was not in finding the answers but in finding the way to find the answers.

He had, as one colleague put it, "intellectual muscle." His ability to think quickly and concisely had most of us in awe, students and faculty alike.

Some students didn't understand the man. They dropped from the program. Some failed to make the grade. He went into a depression whenever it happened. He reacted this way even though he confided to me on our first meeting that fully half of the students entering his program failed each year.

Those who didn't make it weren't willing to make the sacrifices he demanded. Ward refused to bend his high standards because he knew that meeting them was in the best interests of the students.

After all, these were not kids. Of the 14 students I entered the program with, only two were under 30. All but one had been out in the world of work and had experienced some success. Even then, half of them failed. The work load was incredible.

And Ward was not above cajoling, bullying, ridiculing or humiliating a student into being successful. He wanted your best to be better. He didn't really care if you liked him. As long as you were succeeding he knew he was doing his job.

Oddly enough, despite his gruff demeanor, classroom theatrics and refusal to be anything but brutally honest, the survivors loved him. They loved him as few students ever get the chance to love a teacher.

They knew what he was giving them was far more than a piece of paper that would help their careers. They walked out of his graduate program knowing there was nothing they would face in the world of work that would be any tougher. They had the confidence to take on anything.

That is what Ward did. He made his students better people because they had been put to the test and found that they were not lacking.

Some of the 800 students he taught over the previous 20 years came back to Stillwater to say goodbye in a memorial service that I attended 12 years ago this week.

The obituary said he died of cancer at age 54. It didn't mention that his legacy will live on in the lives of the students that he so deeply touched.

Terry Horne is publisher of the Exponent and Telegram. His column appears every Sunday.