Fifteen years ago this month, Mother Nature threw people to the ceiling, shook water from swimming pools and turned the nation's second-largest city dark. When everything came crashing down after the earthquake in Los Angeles, many people called it a day. Most people weren't going to work on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, anyway.
But when disaster struck, it wasn't just the emergency personnel who sprung into action. It was also the news media, to inform everyone what was going on, to tell them how to get help and to report what was expected next. As a newsman, Bob Lynch went to work.
As part of the press, his job was to cover the temblor that left 72 dead and caused an estimated $20 billion in damage. It was a job for which he shared in the highest award for journalism, a job he now teaches as an adjunct instructor at Lone Star College-North Harris.
An adjunct professor is a supplemental faculty member with unique experience and the desire to share it with the next generation of professionals. Within the faculty at Lone Star College-North Harris, any number of these outstanding individuals can be found -- men and women with spectacular résumés who have the ability to add a new dimension to the college experience.
Lynch tells about that disastrous day in L.A. and gives advice for what he says was really scary: going to college. Students experiencing his Introduction to Mass Communications class at Lone Star College-North Harris will never look at media the way they did prior to taking this fast-paced, hands-on course.
Lynch keeps his students fired up about the topic by making every class an adventure. A world traveler, he once surprised a class by introducing a chapter on music as mass media with an antique Gramophone from India, complete with old vinyl and shellac records.
"We also take a look at old eight-track cassettes, long-play records and magnetic tape while talking about how audiotape was actually confiscated from the Germans by American forces during World War II," Lynch said.
His teaching method, which is a mix of learning styles for visual and auditory learners, incorporates fun, hands-on activities. "I'm still young enough to remember being bored stiff in some of my college classes," the veteran newsman admits, "so we don't just read the book."
"We see a lot of video clips and have show and tell, and we leave the classroom to experience the real media world," he said.
"You can call it applied learning, but it's my goal for the students to have a true understanding of how we got from there to here in media," said Lynch, who also teaches Reporting I and II as well as Developmental Writing I and II. "I want them to report stories, to have them published and to get a good idea of what media is all about," he explained. "I try to make it all interesting, so little in my classroom is done for the sake of an exercise."
Lynch, 44, said students recently took a walking tour of one of the college system's video-production studios to participate in a version of the long-running TV series "The Dating Game."
During another class, they met at Houston-area CBS affiliate KHOU-TV Channel 11, where they were part of a live audience and then were able to speak with producers to find out what is needed to prepare for a career in television. His students have also toured KTRK-TV Channel 13, Houston's ABC station, where they observed live news telecasts, talked with anchors and learned about investigative reporting.
"We also toured the Houston Chronicle, saw how a newspaper was produced from start to finish, and visited eight (Clear Channel) radio stations," the instructor said.
"One of my students was able to get an internship with the public relations department at the Mexican Consulate, another worked as a student intern for El Dia, one of Houston's Spanish-language newspapers, and still another worked at Channel 11."
Tracing his own interest in journalism back to his first-grade class, Lynch tells the story of his teacher asking each student to compose several sentences and then to illustrate what they had written.
"The teacher made copies of all the pages we produced, and then each of us combined the writings into a book and designed a cover," Lynch recalled. "That's when I started producing books of my own, and my stories were read by the kindergarten teacher to her classes."
One day in third grade, Lynch noticed the flag in front of his elementary school flying at half-staff. Curious by nature, he asked why the flag wasn't at the top of the flag pole. A teacher told him that someone important-J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation-had died.
Eager to let fellow classmates know the story about the flag at half-staff, Lynch wrote a quick story about the flag and then added a few other short articles before copying the newsletter and handing it out to classmates. That was in 1972.
"From there, I started a school newspaper and, through public school and into college, worked on publications," the instructor remembered.
After freelancing for community newspapers, several internships and a stint in the military, where he served as a public-relations specialist, Lynch went to work at the Los Angeles Times as a news and copy editor for the Business section. That is where putting the pieces together after a disaster helped build his career.
"It was Martin Luther King's birthday in 1994," he recalled. "A magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck the Northridge area, knocking out power, collapsing freeways and damaging thousands of homes."
"It was a traumatic event for all of us, but getting out the next day's paper became our first priority," Lynch continued. "Some people couldn't get to work because of damage to their homes and impassable freeways. I think we all went through a period of initial shock, surveying the initial damage in our neighborhoods, but after that, I packed a survival kit, put it in the trunk of my car and went to work."
"News people have a job to do, whether anyone else can work or not," he said.
"Initially, we didn't have power to run the presses and we ran into obstacles left and right," he remembered. "Some people were using manual typewriters, aftershocks rocked our building throughout the day, and only one of our presses worked-but the next day, we had papers on doorsteps across our circulation area."
The newspaper helped people find loved ones, food and shelter, told of disaster aid, and gave some semblance of normalcy after the earthquake rocked their world, Lynch said.
The next year, the Times and its team of editors and writers won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for their local spot news coverage of the Northridge earthquake. "It doesn't say my name on it," Lynch modestly explained. "I was one of many people who worked on that effort."
The Pulitzer Prize, first given in 1917, is considered the nation's highest award for journalism and the arts. Recipients in 21 categories receive $10,000 and certificates, or a gold medal for public service.
Lynch said that after the Pulitzer, his Red Cliff reservation in Wisconsin printed a front-page story about him (as the first known Native American to share a Pulitzer), as did the city newspapers he freelanced for during his college years. "I was even quoted in journalism textbooks," he added almost incredulously.
"Now, after my 15 minutes of fame, I have the ability to pass it on-in the classroom to students who are interested in becoming the next generation of professional communicators," Lynch said.
Being part of the Times' Pulitzer prize-winning team also has opened doors for other opportunities. "I always wanted to be a doctor-and yet, I've been a journalist pretty much since I was an embryo," he laughs. "To meld these two interests, in addition to teaching, I'm a medical editorial consultant."
Also a lifetime learner, Lynch takes classes whenever his schedule allows. "Knowing about different areas makes you well-rounded," he said. "That's why-after I left the Times-I decided to visit every continent and took eight months, doing exactly that. Now, when news happens in a world capital or another country, I can tell my students about what it's like because I've been there."
After reaching the pinnacle of the news world by being part of the Pulitzer team at the Times, then joining the international news staff at the Houston Chronicle, where he co-edited another Pulitzer nomination for a series on genocide, Lynch is now focused on sharing what he's learned with his students.
"When a student leaves my class, I want them to have confidence they can do it," he said. "I tell them, ‘Remember what they say in the movie ‘GalaxyQuest:' ‘Never give up. Never surrender!'"
"When things get bad, it's never as bad as it seems. Work your way through it. If you never give up, you'll always succeed," Lynch explained. "The other message I want them to take with them is: ‘You can do whatever you want to do' ... and I use myself as an example."
"Like many of my students, I'm the first member of my family to be able to go to college," he said. "My father was Anglo and my mother was a Chippewa. I am of dual ethnicity. I was from a little town, and the university I attended had 26,000 students."
"It was scary," he admitted. "I had no money, was living for the first time in a big town and was of a mixed race. I tell my students what I've been able to do and my message to them is, ‘You can do it, too.'"
Lynch takes pride in his students and their achievements, particularly those who came back after Hurricane Ike disrupted classes for two weeks. "They were eager and willing to catch up on missed assignments and managed a high grade point at the end of the semester. I wouldn't let them give up," he said.
That's why students who've taken one or all of Lynch's classes have written on evaluations: "Mr. Lynch is one of the most positive people I've ever met!" and "Mr. Lynch explained so I could finally understand!" "There's never a dull moment ... and I learned so much!" "Got me psyched." "Tells the truth." "Encouraged us to be above average."
Lynch, like the many other adjunct instructors at Lone Star College-North Harris, brings a wealth of real-world activities to his classroom, can make suggestions based on what he knows and has seen in his field and can guide students down the right path to achieve their goals. He has made a difference in the lives of many aspiring journalists and will continue to rock the lives of many students on the LSC-North Harris campus. As they say in the TV business, stay tuned!
For more information about the journalism program at Lone Star College-North Harris, call 281. 618.5570.
Lone Star College-North Harris is located at 2700 W.W. Thorne Drive, one-half mile south of FM 1960 E, between Aldine-Westfield and Hardy Roads. For more information about the college, call 281.618.5400 or visit: NorthHarris.LoneStar.edu.
Lone Star College System consists of five colleges, including CyFair, Kingwood, Montgomery, North Harris, and Tomball, six centers and Lone Star College-University Center. It is the largest college system in the Houston area, and third largest community college district in Texas. To learn more, visit LoneStar.edu.