Send the Damn Email: In Praise of Barbara Mack

Sometimes, you just need to know when to back off. After my first Media Law class in 1999, I was wondering if it was okay to take the course at the same time as the first News Writing course required to complete a journalism major at Iowa State University.

So I asked the professor.

“I advise you to drop the class and retake it later,” Barbara Mack said. “You will fail.” She said it with gravitas — like she had seen countless idealistic sophomores like me fall down the Media Law Mountain, only to reach the summit a couple years later after their injuries healed.

There was no changing her mind. I thanked her, and booked it out of the room.

As I walked back to my dorm, the prediction echoed in my mind. “You will fail.” The situation got my Irish up. Who the hell was Barbara Mack to tell me what my fate would be in her course?, I thought. She didn’t know me.

What I realize now is that if I hadn’t liked Barbara Mack so much from that first class, I would have followed her advice and gone to the Registrar’s office in Beardshear Hall. But she would be become I would attend every class for, a high compliment in the waning days of the 90’s.

Barbara, a tall, baritone-voiced Iowa State alumna and former general counsel for The Des Moines Register, taught that class with style, verve and life lessons aplenty such as : stop saying the word “like” as a placeholder in a sentence. Introduce yourself by your first and last name. Find the best food possible. And for the love of God, don’t fall asleep in class.

The semester passed through copyright, fair use, libel and First Amendment rights, and my adoration of her grew with each lecture. I ended the semester with a B in the course and the satisfaction of having worked hard.

More importantly, she showed me it was possible to be as how you were issued and be happy — confident, even.

Three years passed. In that time, life kicked my ass. I experienced my first heartbreak. My beloved grandma died. Then, I learned I had thyroid cancer. Depression ran roughshod over my life even though I tried to fight against it with ineffective pills and therapy. 
 
 But Barbara Mack and I met again, in an advanced News Writing seminar. I may have changed, but she hadn’t. I made a habit to go to every class and soak not only the journalism training, but all of her wisdom in.

In retrospect, she noticed my confidence was miniscule compared to back before the turn of the millennium. One day when we were improving upon a jazz riff of a story about a long-awaited thunderstorm in the local paper, Barbara rubbed my (very tight) shoulders while we sat at a row of Macintosh computers. Another day when I answered a question correctly, she shouted, “GOOD WOMAN!”

But my self-esteem just wasn’t increasing. So Barbara called me to her office hours on a Thursday morning that April. I don’t remember how she began our conversation, but I do recall her asking me what I wanted to do with my life.

I didn’t have an answer. I knew I would leave Iowa State neither as the next Woodward nor Bernstein, but that made my future unclear.

I started talking about my mom, a habit I continue to this day. Barbara stopped and said, “Wait. Your mom is the type who wants you to date a plastic surgeon and write for the New Yorker, right?” I was dumbfounded. Barbara hadn’t met my mom, but she had her right on the nose. (Nothing against my mom!) Someone finally understood why I felt like I was disappointing my mother with my lack of love life daily.
 
 That pronouncement was the boost I needed. I finished up that year and I found the conference to at least do an internship at my hometown newspaper, which hired me on that fall. I worked there until 2005, when I realized I would lose it if forced to sit in one more city council meeting.

So I temped in Milwaukee, where I met my Chicago-living boyfriend. I was packing up my room in preparation to move in with him when I saw Barbara on the NBC Nightly News at the Iowa State Fair. I immediately wrote her this e-mail:

“It was so cool to see you on television. I’ve been meaning to write a note for a while now to let you know I still think fondly on your classes…Thank you for seeing your students as emerging professionals, not just (as) a means to tenure.”

She wrote back later that night.

“I was STUNNED. I was walking through the Ag Building…frankly trying to avoid the news crews surrounding (former Law & Order star and potential presidential candidate) Fred Thompson, when he veered LEFT and ran right straight into me!

“…I’m still not sure WHAT I said, except I’m sure it wasn’t “I promise to vote for you” and I avoided saying, “Make up your damned mind. Pee or leave the outhouse!

Then Barbara hit the caps lock button. “MORE IMPORTANT: WHERE ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE???

“TELL ME!! WHERE ARE YOU??

“I look forward to hearing from you!”

Well. What was I going to say that wouldn’t disappoint Barbara Mack? I was a Business Development Representative who only wrote an email every few days. I decided to wait until after the move.

By summer 2012, I was starting my fifth year as a university secretary. Yes, a secretary; my boss told me being classified as an administrative assistant would have been political suicide for him. You can deduce how valued I felt. The afternoon would show itself, and I would be climbing the walls of my mind, waiting for my end time of 4 p.m.

August 23 of that year was no different. About 2 p.m., I had reached the end of the Internet. So I typed “www.iastate.edu" into my web browser. I still don’t know what caused me to go to the Iowa State website. I barely thought about my place of higher education in those days.

What I found there slapped me across the face.

Barbara Mack died overnight. She was 59.

Barbara’s husband told her boss, Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism, what happened the night of the 22nd: “She came home from classes tired as she often did early in the semester,” he said. “She lay down for a nap. An hour into that, I heard a call or a noise. I went to her and found her inarticulate and pounding on the bedside table. She thought she was having a heart attack. I gave her an aspirin and then transported her to the hospital for tests. She was given the whole works, and it was determined that she had no sign (of a heart attack) given her health history.

“…She said she had a pain in her neck. She took some prescribed pain relievers. She was careful about her medicine. When we got home she was in discomfort and said she would try to sleep in the big recliner chair because the semi-vertical position might be more comfortable. She went to sleep. I checked on her during the night and she seemed fine. At 5:30 a.m., I checked again and found her gone.”

Barbara planned to retire at the end of that semester, which started the previous Monday.

Like hundreds of current students and alumni whose lives she touched, I took to my keyboard to express my shock. We were writers. What did you expect us to do?

This is what greeted my Facebook friends: “…I hit up iastate.edu out of nowhere and I find out that Barbara Mack is no longer here. Devastated doesn’t even begin to cut it. She was one of the women I wanted to be when I grew up. I e-mailed her to say hi five years ago after seeing her on the NBC Nightly News. Fred Thompson was harassing her at the Iowa State Fair. She ended her e-mail with the question “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?” I didn’t know how to answer that, so I didn’t write back. We had all the time in the world, didn’t we?”

Photo by Roger Riley