Reflections on a friend and mentor lost

I have found that the people you perceive as hard on you early in life were, upon retrospect, teaching you the most important lessons.

For me, one of those people was a journalism professor at Northern Kentucky University, Mary Cupito. She died this week after a three-year battle with cancer.

Notice I wrote “died,” not passed away. That colloquialism would have earned a mark from her red pen. People don’t pass away, she once told me. They die.

She was teaching me how to write simply. But I have thought long and hard about that lesson the past few days. Mary died, but she did not pass away. Her legacy lives on through the many young lives that she touched and their futures she helped form.

I count myself lucky to be one of them.

If you had asked me when I was taking her first class, I would have had nothing nice to say. In fact, I recall actively encouraging other students to avoid her classes. She was too strict. She had high expectations. Other professors graded easier.

But Mary was preparing her students for a demanding career — one in which hard work, accuracy and meeting deadline are not goals, they are expectations.

As an experienced journalist, Mary understood what was required in this business and her style prepared students for reality. That can be hard for a 20-something to comprehend. There were students who switched their majors from journalism after having Mary for class. As editor of a newspaper, I thank her for that.

She told me at the end of one semester that she knew I expected an A in her class, but I had not earned one because I had failed to turn in an assignment. I was on the staff of the student paper. I was writing more in one week than many of my classmates were writing in a semester. I thought I deserved an exception. She explained that she realized that, but I had not met the standards required for an A in her class, and would not receive one.

By the time I graduated several years later, I had come to appreciate Mary.

It wasn’t until I had spent some time in journalism, though, that I came to fully appreciate the lessons she had taught me about meeting standards and hard work. We stayed in touch, and in the years after I graduated I came to count her as a friend. She was a guest at my wedding. When my career progressed to the point where I was making hiring decisions, she became an invaluable source. If I was looking for an intern or prospective journalist, I would call Mary to see if she had any recent grads I should recruit. There were times that she said she did not know anyone she would recommend. But there were many other times that she said yes, this person would be a good fit.

I respected her recommendations because I knew she was honest, fair and tough.

There are many journalists in newsrooms throughout this state and nation who Mary influenced. I work with two of them at my newspaper. I married another one.

We all have a Mary Cupito story. Every one of her former students I have spoken with who are working in this business today say we owe part of our success to her. Many cite her as their most influential teacher.

And every day, Mary’s former students are out there, using the lessons she instilled in them to report the news.

So she did not pass away.

Her legacy is alive and well in many a newsroom.