Sunday column: Thanks to a teacher

My first few years of college were a blur … a wonderful, wonderful blur.
But I won’t get into that.
My decision to become a journalism major didn’t come until after I transferred from small Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, to the even-smaller Texas A&M-Commerce. And it wasn’t until my second semester of journalism that college wasn’t such a blur anymore.
And it’s really all thanks to one person.
If you ask James Ragland today who Billy Liggett is, he’ll probably remember that name … oh yeah, that’s the kid I taught way back in the late 90s.
Ask me who James Ragland is, however, and my answer will be this:
He’s the reason I’m here today.
Ragland isn’t even a professor, really. A successful and very well-respected columnist for the Dallas Morning News, he took on the challenge of teaching a few journalism classes in Commerce, located about half an hour from Big D, in 1999.
Teaching was more a side job … a hobby for him.
But from Day 1, you got the feeling he was a natural. He taught from experience rather than reading from a textbook. For every challenge presented to us, he gave us a story of when that challenge actually happened to him.
And just as my class got a good feel for him, Ragland got a good feel for us early on. In every college class, there are those who are there to learn and those who’re just there for the credits.
I didn’t know why I was there, but James Ragland did. After one of my first published stories, he took me aside after a class once and told me I had a talent for what I did.
Just a slight compliment, he probably thought.
Well, it meant the world to me.
Suddenly, I went from “guy who thought college was about parties and girls” to “guy who possibly had a career ahead of him … who, yeah, still liked parties and girls.”
His influence went beyond the compliment. During a visit by the publisher of the Arlington Morning News, Ragland introduced me to his friend afterward and mentioned that I had a future in journalism. I instantly wondered what my name would look like in an Arlington byline.
But I started much smaller. I began as a cops reporter for a daily newspaper about the size of this one. I was still in college when I began working, but Ragland was gone by then. Through his columns, though, he continued to teach me.
Go to Ragland’s online bio at The Morning News, and you’ll see what he feels is the secret of good column writing:
“Write thoughtfully and provocatively about issues and people that readers do or should care about. Get readers to think or feel something when they read your work. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty by doing some digging of your own. Know your audience, and listen.”
His columns range from politics to human interest stories, from sports to civil rights.
In other words, he knows his audience, and he writes what he feels they want to read.
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
It’s been nearly eight years since I sat in Ragland’s classroom, and I couldn’t be happier with my career course so far.
And I’m breaking one of the rules Ragland taught me by waiting until the end of this column to finally get to my point … which is this:
All of my success in this field, I owe to a teacher.
I’ve been asked to speak to a group of teachers later in October, and I’ve been wracking my brain about what to talk about. That’s when all of this hit me.
There is no job more important, no position of authority that can have as big of an impact as that of a teacher.
If I have any advice to teachers, I just hope they realize their words can completely change a life.
That’s a huge responsibility. And while I’m not an actual teacher, I’ve made it a habit over the years to tell young reporters when I think they have talent. Some probably think I’m just trying to get them to work harder … but hopefully the others realize I see in them what James Ragland saw in me.
Ragland doesn’t know I’m writing this about him, and unless he decides to look me up one day, he probably never will.
But he knows his impact. I send him e-mails with each career change, with each milestone.
But the best thing I could do for him is to pass on what he taught me to others. I would think that’s all any teacher would want.

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4 thoughts on “Sunday column: Thanks to a teacher

  1. Mr. Liggett: You possess what one of my mentors, Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, calls “passionate virtuosity” — a term that reflects both the technical skills (talent) and the passion needed to be successful in any field. That was apparent to me in our many exchanges in 1999 and beyond.

    It was a joy for me to have the opportunity to share my experiences and insights with such an engaging mind. I mean that. In fact, my interaction with engergetic young people such as yourself reminded me of why I got into the business. So upon my return to The Dallas Morning News full-time in the summer of 2000 (after splitting time with the paper and the university from 1999-2000) I made the decision to get off the management track and return to reporting. Thus, my column was born in the summer of 2000.

    Thanks for making me laugh (and reflect) then, and for making me cry (and reflect) now.

    I wish you continued clarity and success.

    –James Ragland
    Metro Columnist
    The Dallas Morning News

  2. Billy – Thanks for this article! It made me think about how important teachers are to their students. I think most people have that one or two very special teachers who helped to mold what they did with their lives. Mine was Mrs. Donna Rodden – she was a wonderful, caring woman who showed us that strong women can do and be whatever they put their mind to……she was an influence on me throughout my life – she was one of my best friend’s mother, my girl scout leader, my drama coach, school librarian, mentor, and eventually the first woman mayor of our home town! Your article touched me and made me think of her – not that I need much of an excuse!

    Thank you!!!! Kim

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