Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mr. Paschal

A few years past, I was asked to write a short piece about Prof. James F. Paschal, director of the Oklahoma Interscholastic Press Association, for a history project that, as far as I can determine, never saw the light of day. Doesn't matter. I loved writing it, but I dropped it in a folder and forgot about it. Then, in a futile search for my car keys or sanity, I stumbled upon it and decided if "they" weren't going to publish it, I would. If this violates some sacred trust or copyright agreement, too bad. By the way, this intro is in purple for a reason: Jim taught at OU for decades, but he was a TCU grad, and I suspect his blood ran more purple than crimson.

I have kept a stack of letters Jim Paschal wrote me over the course of my long apprenticeship to him. He wrote to stroke my ego, chew me out or correct something I might have said, written or thought.
I took none of it personally because I knew Laura Schaub or Randy Stano might have received that same day a similar letter, and all it meant was that Jim was in a cranky mood. Once, he insisted I disqualify a yearbook because the young adviser missed some nebulous deadline.
“I have no patience with people who can’t read,” he wrote to me. “I have even less patience with advisers who think they’ve got a lot to do! You and I know better than that — we’re workers!”
Well, I had plenty of chances to experience these mood swings. I taught and judged for him. He taught and judged for me. I knew when he came to Austin that he’d dine at Los Tres Bobos and Hill’s Café and complain about the Villa Capri Hotel, where I was obligated by state contract to house him. Even though the hotel was faded and sagging, but it had its charms.
Didn’t matter. Jim hated it. I’ve never known a man easier and harder to please, but to know him was to appreciate the beautiful contradictions of his leonine personality.  He could get misty-eyed over a piece of Waterford crystal (Lismore pattern only) and bug-eyed over a student newspaper that contained one too many staples. He hated bureaucracy. He loved all things Disney and the Boomerang’s Caesar burger. 
He especially loved the CSPA and dedicated much of his life toward seeing that it was worthy of its blue-blood connections. For almost three decades, Jim, Chuck Savedge and Charles O’Malley constituted the great triumvirate of American scholastic journalism. They were the gatekeepers, the giants. We shall not see the likes of them again.
I remember the night Ed Sullivan called to tell me Jim had died.  It was during the CSPA spring convention, and I had tickets to see “Miss Saigon” with Rick Hill and his wife, Donna. I didn’t want to ruin their evening, so I swallowed my grief long enough to make it through the show and dinner at The River Café afterwards. Back at the hotel, I gave Rick the bad news, and we both cried for quite a while.
That’s how important Jim was to me and all of us upstarts. It’s why we did whatever he asked. I personally cranked out one half-baked article after another for the half-dozen periodicals he edited, judged stacks of Oklahoma newspapers, and taught at dozens of OIPA workshops and conventions. In return, he taught me everything I needed to know about this quirky profession. Toward the end, he even asked me to speak at his retirement gala, which presented me the rare chance to goose him a little.
“English monarchs have left their thrones with less fanfare,” I said, then compared him to Hannibal Lecter with a pica pole and a cigarette.
I can still hear his laugh, a wheezy, high-pitched tremolo. He appreciated a good joke and didn’t mind being the butt of that one because he knew how important he was to all of us. He nurtured us and introduced us to each other, roomed us together in cramped cottages on the OU campus so that his friends became our friends. He invited us to important events and challenged us to rise above our back-water inclinations.
“It's difficult to describe how Jim Paschal influenced my personal life and mentored my professional career,” said John Cutsinger, who began his storied teaching career at tiny Poteau, OK. “He led by actions. His example of ‘getting it done just right’ inspire me even today. Jim recognized something in me that I didn't see myself and he nurtured it. Sometimes I hear Jim in the ideas I share with others. That's impact.”
Design guru Mario Garcia said Paschal was one of the most unforgettable characters he’s met during a 41-year career that’s taken him to more than 110 countries.
“I was instantly attracted to his wit, his comic timing, his attention to (and memory for) detail,” Garcia said. “Most importantly, it was his heart. Jim was like a constant flow of fresh water coming down from the mountains.”
Legendary photo instructor Joe Glowacki of Connersville, Indiana, said Jim’s special talent was finding the right people, inspiring them to think creatively and insisting that they have fun.
“No matter how many hours we put in teaching workshops,” Glowacki said, “Jim always made us feel like we were having fun because he himself had so much fun.”
For example, for his retirement gala, Paschal created a version of Trivial Pursuit devoted to — you guessed it — Jim Paschal, and everyone played.
“This is the one of the many quirks about Jim that made his close friends love him so much,” Rick Hill said. “If Jim saw great potential in you, or if you made him laugh, or if he just liked you, then he made you feel loved, wanted, intelligent and important. He was a mentor, a guide, a touchstone, an adviser and a consigliere.”
As for me, one afternoon, he and I were chatting outside his cramped office in Copeland Hall, and he said to me, for no apparent reason, “You, my boy, are a born teacher.”
I might have laughed or shrugged it off had anyone else said it, but Jim said it, and that made it real. With one off-the-cuff comment, he changed my life.

Well, I wish Jim were here to read this piece. I suspect he’d enjoy it, but I’m equally certain he’d find something wrong with it, and I’m positive I’d receive a letter from him, telling me all about it. That was his way of saying, “I love you.”