Charles “Chuck” Whitney joined the Journalism faculty at the University of Texas at Austin my sophomore year there, and I was lucky to land in his first reporting class. He taught with such rigor and panache, he would have been intimidating if he weren’t so jolly. One afternoon, I knocked on his office door. Before I could introduce myself as his student, he said to sit on down, there was something he wanted to discuss. My future. He had plans. He nominated me for a scholarship that covered not only part of my tuition but also enabled me to take an unpaid internship at the Seattle Post- Intelligencer. That summer was a watershed: first job, first byline, first business suit, first time I ventured out on the road alone. And Chuck’s mentorship was just getting started. He went on to counsel me through every career decision I made for the next twenty years, writing countless letters of recommendation along the way. He was sitting on a platform on the stage when I received my diploma, and raced over to engulf me in a hug. We both left Austin soon after, but our paths kept crossing. He invited me to read at the University of California-Riverside during my first book tour and later visited me in Iowa City while I was working on my MFA. (For the first and only time in our relationship, he allowed me to treat him to dinner. It felt like one of the most adult things I had ever done.)
I was on the verge of visiting Chuck at his latest academic appointment at the Northwestern campus in Doha, Qatar when his lungs began to falter. Soon after, I got diagnosed with ovarian cancer. We joined each other’s support teams, exchanging calls and texts throughout our respective treatments. Ten months ago, I visited him and his wonderful wife Ellen at their home in Evanston, Illinois. I was nearly bald; he was using an oxygen tank. Although we laughed about our sad states, I wasted no time expressing my gratitude to him. Truly: only my mother and father have done more for me than this deeply kind, generous man.
Rarely have I felt a loss so keenly as that of Chuck. What gives me solace is the fact that twice a week, I can try to greet my students at UNC-Chapel Hill with the same compassionate warmth he always extended to me, and support their endeavors for as long as our paths align. Already, four of my students have gone on to lead writing classes of their own. And so the teaching/writing/life-ing cycle continues. Professor Charles D. Whitney, Presente!