Over the course of our lifetimes, others invariably will emerge who bring lasting influences to bear on each fork in our path.
I occasionally write about just such people in my own life who, because of their caring and concern, have touched not only me but so many others in positive and profound ways.
Perhaps the most meaningful of all for me was the late Dean Duncan, a mild-mannered, witty (often downright hilarious) man. Following an accomplished career as a newspaper reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal and other papers, Dean became a journalism professor at the then-Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas.
We met when I enrolled in 1969 to complete my journalism major. I first laid eyes on Dean, then in his mid-40s, during the enrollment process as he sat alone in the sprawling gymnasium beneath a banner that read "Journalism."
Having previously completed a journalism class at the University of New Mexico, I was intrigued by this smallish man in a gray, rumpled sport coat sprinkled with animal hair that, even at a distance, wafted a blend of aftershave and cigarettes.
Little could I have known how this stranger within two years would use his engaging personality and experience to shape and guide a naïve 22-year-old into a 50-year journalism career that would lead to California, Chicago, Phoenix, New Jersey and beyond.
His role as my Yoda began one day in class when he, cigarette in hand, assured me that we never learn when we speak, but only when we listen. He also talked about objectivity, fairness and clarity.
Thus began a valuable education not only about clearly stringing sentences and paragraphs together, but the nuances of better understanding other lives and life itself.
Mostly I learned by watching Dean and realizing just how effective a person can be using humor. Dean, a native of Brinkley, was one of those naturally funny people who don't intend to be.
He would arrive in class clad in the same rumpled tweed sport coat covered in the same hair shed from his pet black cat, Echo, who he'd named after the student newspaper.
Dean and Echo kept each other company day and night when he wasn't on campus fulfilling his dual role as professor and student adviser to the Echo.
His apartment, about a mile from campus, was a typical single-man's pad, fairly unkempt, with several cat food bowls containing partially eaten little piles of canned food routinely scattered around the kitchen.
We never knew if he provided Echo with a daily buffet, or if he simply overlooked the other bowls reeking of dried, crusty fish. I once asked which it was. He surveyed the floor before giving one of his familiar utterances (a low quizzical hmmmmmmm), then looked up to say, "I'm not sure." That was Dean.
You should understand that all the eccentricities that made the man so unique also endeared him to his students and others. They saw Dean for the wholly unpretentious man he was: genuine, humorous, caring, enjoyable and, most importantly, concerned about them.
That's a potent combination when any educator seeks to make a lasting difference in young folks' lives.
I'll never forget visiting his bathroom during a student get-together at his apartment and marveling over some 80 rolls of toilet paper he'd managed to stack in that relatively small room. I asked why so many. He scratched his head, staring at the stack for a moment before responding, "They were on sale."
He made it a point to regularly schedule trout-fishing "soirees," as he called them, for six or seven members of the student newspaper staff.
We of his so-called "Echo Trout Fishing Team" would motor out in three or four flat-bottomed boats for six-hour float trips and a day of fun in the sun along the Little Red River. Dean was always finding ways to entertain his students outside his classroom.
One soiree evening in his living room, with seven or eight of us sitting in a large circle sharing buckets of KFC, the prematurely graying professor proudly announced he'd taught Echo an exciting new trick. We munched away, eagerly waiting until he brought out a brown grocery sack and tore off a two-inch piece from the bottom edge.
Then he placed the open bag on the carpeted floor in the middle of the room. Exercising great fanfare, he summoned Echo the star performer. When he motioned toward the bag, his obedient kitty crept inside.
Then, again announcing the "amazing feat" Echo was about to perform, he produced a long piece of string and waved it across the sack's opening. Suddenly, Echo's open-clawed paw extended to full length, flailing wildly as she tried to reach it.
The bizarre sight of the skinny black arm waving back and forth caused some seated in the floor to roll with laughter. Once again, that was just Dean and his clever sense of humor.
Dean was the person who gave me my first assignment in journalism. I was sent to the administrative office to collect the week's calendar of events and return to the Echo office's Underwood typewriters to type the information in our format for the paper's weekly "Fair Warning" column.
There was never a byline attached to that regular feature, just a list with dates and times of what was happening on campus that week. Yet that simple beginning provided enough satisfaction to know I alone had created that little box in the Echo.
It was enough to give me the confidence to begin branching out into creating feature and news stories alongside fellow students such as Bob Qualls, Steve Barnes and Andy Duncan, each of whom would graduate into journalism positions across the state. By the next year, as with those others, I'd also become an Echo editor.
I also learned about the work ethic this craft requires, especially on a daily paper where the varied demands were almost constant well into the evenings.
Dean would be down at the Conway paper that published the Echo every weeknight before publication for as long as it took to paste up, proofread and finalize headlines.
I can still see him hunkered so low his face was only inches above a light table, with his glasses removed (for a reason we never really understood) to peruse each of 12 tabloid pages. He taught so much through actions rather than words.
Isn't that how education functions most effectively? By showing and mentoring rather than rote memorization and teaching to tests?
One of the most memorable moments Dean shared with me was the afternoon he took me aside after graduation. He looked me in the eyes and said how fortunate I was to have found myself and my calling at an early age "because doing so will allow you to focus all your energies and attention into your career."
Dean also provided the best example of truisms in life about which I've previously written. Although he passed away more than five years ago and a group of us former students traveled to Brinkley for his funeral, here I am today still writing about the number of young lives he touched in such positive ways.
It's remarkable just how many journalism careers, certainly including my own, he helped forge while leaving deeply embedded fond memories in many more hearts and minds than my own.
Had Dean instead been engrossed solely in his life and pursuing goals to primarily benefit himself, his actions wouldn't have left anything behind for so many of us who cherished him to remember and admire.
Thank you, Dean Duncan, for everything your spirit contributed to my life and subsequent career during your invaluable stay among us.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly how you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]