Reese Cleghorn

Former UM journalism dean, teacher and editor was a progressive columnist during civil rights era

March 17, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,

Reese Cleghorn, former dean of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism who earlier had been associate editor of the Detroit Free Press, died yesterday of complications of coronary disease at his home in Washington. He was 78.

"I think Reese was probably the most outstanding dean of an American journalism school in the second half of the 20th century," Eugene L. Roberts, former managing editor of The New York Times who has been a member of the journalism faculty at Maryland for the past decade, said yesterday.

"I first met him in 1967 when I was the civil rights correspondent for The New York Times working in Atlanta," Mr. Roberts said. "He was a columnist for the Atlanta Journal at that time and was the South's most progressive columnist during the civil rights era," he said.

Mr. Cleghorn was born in Lyerly, Ga., a small town on the banks of the Chattanooga River near the Georgia-Alabama border. He grew up in Summerville, Ga., and began working as a reporter in 1946 for the Summerville News at the rate of 15 cents a column-inch.

During the summer of 1946, he was promoted to assistant editor, when the newspaper's owner, a printer who disdained reporting and editing, turned over those responsibilities to his young charge.

That summer, the little sleepy Georgia town provided him with unexpected excitement. He had the opportunity to cover two murders and the death of a man who, after attending a revival meeting, drank a bottle of strychnine as a proof of faith.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in 1950, he served in the Air Force for a year and went to work for the Atlanta Journal. From 1954 to 1958, he was a deskman and reporter for the Associated Press in New York, and while working for AP, earned a master's degree in public law and government from Columbia University.

Mr. Cleghorn and a friend traveled to Fresno, Calif., where they established an Armenian-American weekly, which he edited for two years before returning to the Atlanta Journal in 1960. There he rose from assistant city editor to state editor and finally editorial writer.

"I knew Reese for more than 50 years, first getting to know him in Atlanta," said Ray Jenkins, who had been editor of The Evening Sun's editorial page. "In the 1950s, he was among the first journalists to recognize the coming revolution in civil rights, and from the start he was among the courageous and effective voices among the Atlanta progressives."

From 1963 to 1969, Mr. Cleghorn was associate editor of the Atlanta Journal, and from 1969 to 1971, he was project director of the Southern Regional Council, where he edited the monthly South Today.

He was editorial page editor of the Charlotte Observer for five years before being named associate editor of the Detroit Free Press in 1976. He worked there until 1980.

"I admired him as a kindred spirit because we were both fellow Southerners. I also got to know him in the 1960s because of his journalism and writing about the freedom movement," said Hodding Carter III, a former journalist who was assistant secretary of state during the Jimmy Carter administration.

"Here was a guy who always saw over the horizon. He was proud of being a Southerner, and he loved the land. He was determined that things were going to be better," said Hodding Carter, now a professor of leadership and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1981, Mr. Cleghorn was named dean of the journalism school at Maryland.

"When Reese took over as dean, the school's accreditation had been suspended, and it was a very down period," Mr. Roberts recalled. "He got it restored and built that school brick by brick."

To turn the school around, Mr. Cleghorn established a board of visitors and developed a five-year plan called "Toward 1990: Creating a Model Professional School."

"There is a soft-spoken gentility about Cleghorn, an affable, easy-going style," observed The Evening Sun in a 1982 profile. "Friends and former colleagues say this has served him well in his professional career yet belies a strong inner resolve."

In the 1982 profile, Mr. Cleghorn laid out his vision and mission.

"We're here to teach people how to become professional. To do that, they need to understand something about the impact of what they're doing, the ethical, the legal and societal questions," he said. "They need to know more than how to write a sentence."

During his tenure at the journalism school, which he succeeded in bringing to national prominence, Mr. Cleghorn increased minority enrollment. He oversaw the upgrading of radio and TV broadcast facilities and a "smaller but higher quality undergraduate enrollment and an expanded master's and doctoral programs," said a posting on the school's Web site yesterday.

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