Texas Tech University

Mentor, Teacher, Grandpa: Remembering Robert Wernsman

Heidi Toth

March 16, 2015

Robert Wernsman, who taught newswriting at Texas Tech for 20 years, died Sunday.

Robert Wernsman
Robert Wernsman

In 1992, a hardened, grizzled reporter drove 500 miles from Huntsville to Lubbock to interview at Texas Tech University. The veteran newspaper man, tired of the rat race, wanted to get a doctorate in fine arts and work in theater.

When he arrived, he found the person in charge of his program was out of the office and met instead with the assistant dean of the Graduate School. The two chatted in her office in the basement of Holden Hall. Months later, Robert and Marijane Wernsman married in the building's courtyard and remain the only couple to exchange vows in that spot.

"He said that's what he was looking at when he was talking to me," Marijane said. "He could see it over my shoulder."

Robert Wernsman, who taught newswriting at Texas Tech for 20 years, died Sunday. He'd been undergoing treatment for brain tumors for several months. He was 62.

Marijane, who is the assistant dean for student affairs in the College of Media & Communication, had to pause while considering her favorite moments with her husband. Between the two of them they had five children and 12 grandchildren, with a 13th on the way. While others shared memories of the classroom and the office, her best memories are spending time with their family.

"He was the best grandpa in the world," she said.


Not an Easy A

Every student who's taken newswriting has a Robert Wernsman story. For some, it was the first time they failed an assignment. For others, it was arguing right, wrong and where pirated music fell on that spectrum (wrong). Most still have pet peeves related to Associated Press style rules and a tiny ball of fear that misspelling a name will lead to disaster.

"Before crossing the stage at graduation, I remember telling him he was the only professor that made a lasting impression on me. I meant it," said Beth Phillips, a Texas Tech journalism alumna who took newswriting in the early 2000s. "Although I don't work in journalism anymore, there's not a day that goes by where I don't remember and use something he taught me."

Travis Cram, who graduated almost a decade ago, said he still has notes and tests from his newswriting class, which he uses as a reference to make sure he's following the rules. He remembers asking Wernsman for a letter of recommendation to work at the college newspaper.

"He said he would write something, but only if I agreed to write news, not sports, at least starting out," Cram said. "I asked why, and he told me it would be the best way to begin a reporting career, making sure I developed the right writing style the correct way.


"I loved it, and he was right, of course, about everything."

Jaime Aguilar was a photographer majoring in art when he took Wernsman's principles of journalism class. He stuck with photography, but switched his major to photojournalism.

"He really empowered me and gave me the confidence to tell stories not only with my photos but with writing and looking into issues and my subjects more to get their stories – stories that mattered," Aguilar said.

Alumnus David Wiechmann remembered a lesson on the importance of paying attention to detail. Wernsman hung an American flag in the corner of the room but said nothing about it, discreetly removing it as he handed out a quiz. The bonus question on that quiz: "How many stars were on the American flag that was in the front of the room?" The answer, which only Wiechmann got correct: 49.

"He had an ability to motivate students like no teacher I ever had, and he was able to push the ones who could hack it to new levels," Wiechmann said. "He had unique ways of getting his point across, which made his lessons more memorable. His attention to detail helped me be a better reporter and writer."

Alumna Glenys Young, who took two classes from Wernsman in 2006, remembered seeing a driver pass Wernsman on the street and wave, to which the gray-haired instructor responded, "Word." Another memory stood out more, though.

"In his principles of journalism class one day, he was walking back and forth in front of the students as he talked, as usual, when suddenly he began loosening, then untying, his tie," she said. "Then he unbuttoned his dress shirt and untucked it, the whole time continuing his lecture as if nothing was happening. All the students were looking around at one another, uncertain if we were about to see Mr. Wernsman get naked. And then he ripped open his shirt to reveal a 'Censorship sucks' undershirt."


'An Institution'

Aleesa Ross, the director of the Center for Student Success, Outreach & Engagement in the College of Media & Communication, took the first newswriting class Robert Wernsman taught in 1995. It's been 20 years, she said, and she still uses the principles he taught her. When she returned to Texas Tech about a decade ago, she had a better view of just how much Wernsman helped students learn newswriting, she said.

"He shared his love of and passion for journalism with too many students to count, and the mark he left on them is noticeable," Ross said. "People were changed for the better because of their encounters with him. He taught students to believe in themselves and in their abilities, to be better writers and to be outstanding journalists."

Robert Peaslee, the interim chairman of the Department of Journalism and Electronic Media & Communications, said he learned from Robert Wernsman alongside the students.

"It's difficult to communicate effectively the depth of loss we've experienced with the passing of Robert Wernsman," he said. "He was that rarest of combinations: a master teacher with an uncompromising expectation of one's best work who also cared deeply about his students and colleagues. I'm exponentially better as a teacher, as a colleague and as a person for having worked alongside him for the past several years, and I hope to have even a tenth of the impact he's had on student success over the past two decades."

Roger Saathoff, an associate professor of journalism, said his first conversation with Robert Wernsman centered on whether a theatre doctoral student was a good hire for a journalism program. He allowed himself to be persuaded and has not been sorry.

"I have had many conversations with Robert over the years," he said. "A lot were about family and friends. It was so obvious how much he loved his kids and grandkids. Some were about work, and what is right, what is wrong with the profession of journalism. Mostly it was about how it has changed in the last few decades.

"Those conversations almost always ended up with a question about whether I had a certain student in class yet, because when I did get that student in editing, he'd tell me, I was going to be really impressed. He was always thinking about the students."

The students never forget that either, colleagues said.

"Robert Wernsman was an institution within the college and Texas Tech," said David Perlmutter, dean of the College of Media & Communication. "I have met hundreds of alumni who spontaneously told me they are better writers and thinkers because of taking a class with Professor Wernsman."

Robert's Legacy

Marijane Wernsman still remembers the instant connection they had in her basement office. Every day was a blessing, she said. For much of his teaching career they worked in the same building and even taught many of the same students. She saw the same passion in his teaching as she did in that first conversation.

"Everything he did in his life he did full speed – total commitment," she said. "If he did something he put his heart into it, and he just had passion in everything he did in his life. He was the most decent, honest, upright person I've ever met in my life."

He asked the same of his students.

"His lessons were not just about journalism," Kate Ozment, who is now a doctoral student at Texas A&M, said. "He taught you to search for the truth – passionately, tirelessly, methodically and critically. He put responsibility on us to find right and wrong in even the littlest situations, like whether to take a bottle of water from a source.

"I teach writing now to freshmen, and every year I ask myself if I am living up to the standards for teaching that he set for me. Not once have I said 'yes' to myself, but he always inspires me to keep trying."

Those are the questions Robert Wernsman wanted his students to answer, his wife said.

"Conveying his passion for the truth to students," Marijane said. "He was passionate about everything he did, but he really wanted students to understand their responsibility to the public and get it right."


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