On October 9, William Kennedy delivered the following musing on his career and on journalism today to mark the 40th anniversary of the journalism program at SUNY Albany, where he taught until 1982.
I was not privy to the arrival of the Journalism Program at the University at Albany, and I heard it had a somewhat uncertain birth. The program as Bill Rowley conceived it was pragmatic, professional, idealistic, literary, and peppered with journalists from the real world of news reporting. This opposed another idea that was on the table in the English Department: to present journalism as a textbook course, with excursions into municipal history, the history of journalism and who knows what else? Bill’s idea prevailed, I don’t know why, but he was a persuasive and insistent fellow. He wanted his students to step lively into their journalistic careers after graduation, but also to be educated in history, politics, literature, and, above all, to know how to write when they did so.
Bill was my colleague in the 1950s when we were on opposition Albany newspapers, he on the Knickerbocker News, a Gannett paper, and me on the Times-Union, a Hearst paper. We covered stories together, and I always admired Bill’s intelligent reporting. One day the two of us interviewed General James Van Fleet at the Albany Airport after he had left his command in the Korean War, and a picture of the three of us appeared in the next day’s paper. I don’t remember anything Bill or I wrote about that day, because that picture has blocked out all talk of the war, and that historical moment is now about our hats. The general wore a dark homburg. Bill and I wore reportorially stylish fedoras. I invoked the memory of these images in my speech when Bill retired from teaching in 1984. I wrote the speech as a news story and I’ll quote you my lede:
At his retirement party yesterday at Alumni House on the campus of the State University at Albany, William. E. Rowley, veteran newsman and professor of journalism, was not wearing a hat.
What I didn’t know about Bill back when we were on the papers was that he was slowly taking off his reporter’s hat after all his years in journalism to become a teacher. The story goes that one day he told his managing editor that he was getting ready to leave the paper to teach at the brand new State University. His editor smiled but then wondered a bit condescendingly, did Bill really have any academic chops? Bill, always low-key, said he sort of did: a BA from Harvard, taught history at Amherst, now finishing his PhD dissertation, also Harvard. And then off he went, away from the ink-stained wretches in the city room and into the tweedy corridors of the University’s English Department.
After a few years of teaching English and a journalism seminar, Bill in 1973 designed an expanded plan—for a second field in journalism, 18 credits, to begin in the spring semester of 1974. He admitted this might seem somewhat vocational, but it would be executed “in the context of a liberal arts education.” Bill’s field was history, and his marvelous Harvard dissertation on the immigrant Irish as they lived in Albany between 1820 and 1880 is a scrupulous piece of reporting and also an illumination of the politics and class conflicts of the age. He brought reporters, editors and TV people to his class, on some days mounting exposes of corrupt Albany politicians, but by semester’s end bringing in some of those targeted politicians to let students attack them with questions and give the pols a chance to rebut.
Bill was politically frantic—probably the most ardent fan ever of I.F. Stone, the independent political pamphleteer. He was a radical on Vietnam, a civil rights fanatic, and at age 89 he was still teaching writing and history to convicts in the Coxsackie prison and attending anti-war rallies in his wheelchair.