Roosevelt University in Chicago, Schaumburg and Online - Logo
Charles M. Madigan - Faculty Essay

Posted: 11/15/2013

By my own calculation, it took me roughly 37 years to finish college. It all began at Pennsylvania State University at the height of the Vietnam War and ended at a place I love, Roosevelt University, one bright Friday morning in 2005 when I finally got to "walk" with my wife and boys watching from the third balcony of the Auditorium Theatre, hooting, if I recall.

I had no idea when I graduated that the University would be inviting me to teach in the Communication Department, that I would be so inspired by the students who sit in my classes and that I would be eager to begin every semester, even as I now approach the age at which most people hang it up.

Sometime in the dark years of the 1960s, when almost everyone in my generation was looking for some way to stay in school and not in the army, I enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, mainly because my cousin, Ron Hoover, a beloved coach and teacher, was an English professor there.

I had no idea what to do. My SAT scores were good enough to get me a scholarship that covered the $900 tuition (My God, that seemed like so much then and so little now). I had a part-time job at a newspaper to cover my expenses. I could live at home. I felt I was on my way.

I just didn't know to where!

Over two years at Penn State, I had a bucket of different majors, everything from special education to English and then something dire called "Division of Counseling." Along the way, no one told me I needed chemistry credits to graduate, so I avoided them because they seemed unduly hard to get.

""Junior year began and I was confronted. "No chemistry? You need to get chemistry!" In those days, students registered with big packets of key punch cards of different colors. I tossed them in the air, walked out and determined never to go back.

Despite not having a college degree, I got a job as a reporter at the Altoona Mirror in 1967 and moved to the Harrisburg Patriot in 1969.

I then joined the United Press International (UPI) news service in Philadelphia and then became bureau chief covering government and politics in Harrisburg before transferring to the Soviet Union, the hardest assignment I ever had but also the most worthwhile. Russian, a language I had never studied and, indeed, never thought about, became part of my life, along with Russian and Soviet history. UPI was a terrific place because you had to do things yourself all the time. You simply had to learn to react instantaneously to just about anything that might come along.

I "became known" at UPI in Moscow, and when it was time to leave there, I shifted to Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, where I stayed for 27 years and had assignments that carried me all over the world. I actually won awards for economics writing, which would have shocked the folks back at Penn State, and lots of other subjects, too. I am proudest of an Overseas Press Club award for Human Rights Reporting about genocide.

In 1990, it dawned on me as I returned to Chicago from an assignment as news editor in Washington that it couldn't hurt to complete my college education. But again, I had no real idea of what to do about that. I looked around.

Of all the colleges in Chicago, Roosevelt had a history that was most attractive to me. The thought of those professors and teach teachers from the Central YMCA College standing up and walking out over admission quotas for Jews and African Americans after World War II, that was my kind of protest.

I registered in Spring of 1990. The administration was forgiving about my abysmal Penn State experience so many years earlier and awarded me credits for what I had done as a reporter and editor. That gave me the chance to start over.

I was still working at the Tribune so it took a while to get everything properly completed. Actually, it took 15 years. Start and stop. Start and stop, just like many other adult students. Along the way, I made lots of relationships with students and professors.

Gary Wolfe, professor in the Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies, was the man who literally shoved me across the finish line with his spectacular course that touched me to my very soul, "Literature of the Holocaust." My major was history but my passion had always been writing, and Wolfe was a master at presenting a whole universe of literature that was not familiar to a boy from Altoona, Penn.

Then he became a friend, and that made it all even better. At graduation, President Chuck Middleton told everyone about my 37-year journey. (The woman sitting behind me smacked me on the head with her program and when I turned around, she said, "It took me 38!")

So I took my diploma and marched out and went back to work thinking, "Well, that's finally finished."

A couple of years passed and, with journalism under unprecedented strain and faring quite badly, I concluded it was probably time for a change. I had no real plan. I just knew those of us who had been working for decades somehow were becoming less valuable because we were so costly. I decided to make a move on my own terms before I had no real options left.

That was about the time President Middleton suggested we have lunch. I was editing the Tribune's Perspective Section and he had written an article for me about Roosevelt and its history. We met at the University Club.

I am not certain anymore which one of us brought up the idea of teaching. It really doesn't matter. Within a few months, a process was under way that would open a doorway to a new life for me. I had been listening to my wife's stories about teaching for years and, although I was too self-centered in my journalism years to say it, I really admired the work she was doing with students as a specialist in learning disabilities.

""

It's time for some truth telling. I am frightened every time I head toward a classroom. This is a huge responsibility that might make or break a student's academic life. I don't have doctoral or master's degrees. All I have is a long track record, a knack for writing and storytelling, and an immense respect for the discipline of the news business. But I also have the ability to tell students about journalism, about history, about ethics, about language, about writing, about any of a couple of dozen things I had done during my long career. To this day I am humbled by folks with advanced degrees and am in awe of their intelligence, their persistence, their skills. But my Roosevelt colleagues were eager to help me teach, and that is what made my transition possible.

Fast forward to a classroom in the University's Gage Building a couple of years ago. I am teaching a course on murder in Chicago from 1880 to 1930. I found in Springfield summaries of the Chicago Police Department's homicide records and wrote a story for the Tribune. I never forget the lesson that those summaries taught about behavior and the human condition.

I was talking about the murder of children when one of my students raised his hand.

"Yes," I said.

"My sister killed her baby."

It was like all of the air was sucked out of the room. Even the students who were dozing (Yes, there are always dozing students in the morning) sat up and took notice. The young man told his story and talked about how his sister will spend her life in prison.

At that instant, I realized that my new life at Roosevelt was just as real as my old life in journalism had been. I had chased murders all over the world, from Moscow to Kosovo to Atlanta and out in the suburbs. Everywhere.

But here was a teaching moment presenting itself because this student trusted me enough to tell his story in that classroom. To my mind, it brought all of those old homicide records to life and it told us an old, eternal story about the hard realities in life. So much of what we try to explain is abstract. There was nothing abstract about that class.

I have tried to make all my classes like that, real, not abstract. I can see it in their faces when it works because I know I am taking them somewhere they did not expect to go. I know when I fail, too. That's when I resolve not to give up, to keep on trying. So, I love Roosevelt and the students.

My sense is that most of them have been waiting for us for much of their lives. We can disappoint them if we are not careful. We can break their spirits by making them feel foolish in front of their peers. We can also inspire them, lift them, take them to reality and help them think about what that means to them.

I start many of my classes the same way.

"My name is Charles Madigan and I was a reporter and editor for 40 years before I came to Roosevelt University and it took me 37 years to get a college degree. Don't you ever give up. You can do this. I know that because I did."

You can contact Charles Madigan at cmadigan@roosevelt.edu.


Charles M. Madigan is Presidential writer in residence at Roosevelt University and professor in the Communication Department. He continues to write for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. His last book was Destiny Calling, How the People Elected Barack Obama. Other publications include 30The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper and Dangerous Company, Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin. He has also collaborated on a variety of books with business leaders Arthur C. Martinez, formerly of Sears, and Jerry Greenwald of United Airlines among them. He writes and performs music and is president of Bitter Melon Music, his own publishing company. He lives in Evanston, Ill. with his wife and one of his three sons and a dog and cat.