In the short time since Barbara Mack was found unresponsive in her home Thursday morning, just 59 years old, former students have penned dozens of touching tributes to the beloved matriarch of Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism. They mention her “intimidating” presence, how “terrified, mystified, and totally in awe” they were of her, and how she made them “a better journalist and a better person” — all part of her “tough love,” as Greenlee Director Michael Bugeja put it.
As a bit of a Greenlee outsider who wrote mostly for the Ames Tribune instead of the Iowa State Daily during college, I probably didn’t know Barbara as well as many of her former students did. But I knew her well. She was my academic advisor, and my media law professor back when I was an angsty slacker of an undergrad.
Barbara never terrified me, but she helped set me straight. I remember stumbling into media law bleary-eyed the first day at 8 am, probably hungover, when she told us that if we missed any more than a small handful of classes we’d be flunked. I remember how I blurted out a complaint about a radiator that was loudly malfunctioning during one of our exams, and how she dismissed the complaint out of hand — journalists, after all, don’t have the luxury of silence while filing stories on location.
I also remember asking Barbara eagerly what she thought of my first longform story for the Ames Progressive — “too long” — and when she told me that my skimpy resume could never even land me an internship at the Des Moines Register, where she had worked as a reporter and lawyer, let alone in a coastal city where I longed to go.
But there was never any malice in Barbara’s tough love. She could be brutally honest. It’s also true that she had no patience for students nodding off in class and mocked our grammar missteps, with a particular disdain for improper use of the word “like.” But she was known to go out of her way to tend to students stricken by illness, and indeed always took a sincere interest in our lives outside the classroom. Inside it, she had a knack for recognizing our potential and pushing us toward making it into something more.
Even while she urged me to aim beyond it, Barbara always supported the Progressive. She set aside time during her busy office hours to meet with Greg Bonett, one of our co-founders, and me to review legal paperwork. She told me that she always made a point to read our work when she spotted the latest issue in Greenlee’s reading room. We shared a laugh once when I told her about an idea Nate Logsdon, our editor-in-chief, and I had to do an ambush interview with Steve King representing the Ames Regressive as an April Fools’ joke, which never materialized.
And when I finally landed my internship, five and a half years after arriving at Iowa State in 2005, at the Village Voice with New York’s venerable gumshoe Wayne Barrett, Barbara guided me through it every step of the way. She took pride in how far I’d come, joking with Wayne over emails about how I’d arrived out east with corn still stuck between my teeth.
Aside from a fleeting hello on Twitter, I last heard from Barbara in February, in an email with the subject line, “Voice from your past.” She asked if I was still in San Francisco, how my love life was, whether I’d “slain any dragons.” She’d just returned from vacation in Florida — “God’s waiting room” — and planned to retire at the end of the year. But she had no intention of relocating to the Sunshine State, as she’d had her fill of dolphins and palm trees.
I replied, and then she replied.
Take some photos of the Golden Gate Bridge to “remember ‘the old days’ when you’re ancient,” she counseled. “And if you make it back to Iowa, give me a heads up before you arrive, OK? I won’t set foot in Greenlee again until next fall, but I’d make a special trip to see you.”
I made it back in April for vacation with an intention to see her, but never made the connection. No matter, I thought then. As Tom Beell, another favorite professor of mine, put it after her death, “Anyone who knew Barbara knew she was an indestructible person. It was easy for me to assume that she would outlive us all.”
We were wrong, and the finality of that devastates me.
But Barbara’s impact on her students’ formative years in journalism will stay with me always, as it surely will with countless others whose lives she touched. She left this world far too soon, tragically and with little warning, but left behind a legacy that will help shape the central Iowa journalism landscape and the Greenlee School for many years to come.