April 24, 2019

My best professor ever? Evan Hill!


By John Guy LaPlante

Out of the blue, a friend asked me, “John, in all your years in school, who was your favorite teacher?”

That took some heavy thinking. I’ve been lucky. Have had many fine teachers. And sure, a few duds. But the best?

Then it came to me. Evan Hill. Of course! He was a journalism prof at Boston University when I was working for my Master’s in journalism there. Yes, Professor Evan Hill. For sure

He was a terrific explainer. Serious but friendly. Had been a working journalist–a reporter and editor–and had faced all the challenges. He made a big effort to make his classes relevant and interesting. Definitely a four-star teacher. But why, why do I deem him the best?

It’s simple. He took a personal interest in me. Wanted to help me. Truly. I could see that. Took steps to give me a fast start after I’d graduate and begin my job search. Journalism is a notoriously competitive field. Not easy to get that first job. But Professor Hill made extraordinary things happen for me. How lucky I was.

But I got off to a rocky start with him. We’d have our first class of the day at 9 Monday through Friday. I had him on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I got to class 10 to 12 minutes late every morning.

On our first Friday in class he paused in his teaching when he saw me come in and take my seat. He glared at me. Then, and so sternly, “Mr. LaPlante, are you going to come in late like this every morning?”

I gulped. “I’m sorry, sir. I have a 50 minute commute on the train from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. We pull in at Back Bay Station at nine and then I walk here as fast as I can. I hate to be late!”

He stared at me. Then without another word resumed teaching. At the next class I came in late again, of course. He paused to let me take my seat and then went right on. Clearly he accepted my situation.

What had impressed me was that he had called me Mr. LaPlante. Gosh! No professor had ever done that before. Surprisingly, he called all of us Mister or Miss.

He was about 35. Lean and athletic. But walked with a serious limp and wore a brace. Seemed painful. No details, but the story was that he had fought in the Infantry in France and had been shot in action.

We were about a dozen fellows and five or six gals. That was a long time ago. Long before Women’s Lib. But women were finding their way into journalism, which was a good thing.

So what did he ever do for me personally that was so big?

It all happened in the second semester and I’ll tell you in a minute. But in this first semester he staged something terrific for all of us in his class.

He organized a four-day field trip to Lakeville, Connecticut, and led us there–quite a ride from Boston. He knew the publisher of the weekly paper there. The Lakeville Journal, I believe it was. A good paper. He had arranged for us to put out a special supplement about historic homes in the town. There were many.

Professor Hill would be our editor. We would have daily assignments. He would critique and massage our stories and lay out the supplement. Meanwhile the Journal would sell ads for it and of course get the whole thing printed.

We would get fantastic real-life experience and our work would make money for the paper. So, a win-win situation though that expression was not known back then. I found it all wonderful because of the fantastic real-life immersion we were getting in what we planned as our career. We were all excited.

We went in four or five cars. I didn’t have a car so I bummed a ride. Families in Lakeville took us in. I don’t remember how we made it to the houses that we were supposed to write about but it all happened. Professor Hill worked hard throughout and made everything we turned in look good. We all got bylines – our very first bylines. And we got to see the supplement after it got published. We were back in Boston. What a thrill!

Making all that happen was an enormous job for him. He never told us much but for sure he had a task coordinating with our other professors for us to go off to Lakeville.

But the two big things he did for me personally took place in our second semester. In February he took me aside after class and said, “Spring break is coming up. Still interested in weekly newspapers?”

Yes, yes, I assured him.

“Well, I know the publisher of the Record-Journal over in Amherst. I think he would take you in and put you to work for the week. No pay. But great experience. Interested? Let me know in a day or two”

Of course, I had many questions to ask. He explained and I told him I’d love to go.

I had to take a train to Springfield, then another up to Northampton. The publisher and his wife met me. I think their name was Anderson but I’m not sure I’m right. Both about 40, I’d say. Very pleasant. They drove me to their home in next-door Amherst. That’s where the University of Massachusetts is, of course. A small but lively town. They put me up for the week. Such a wonderful week, thanks to them.

The little paper had its office right on the historic and beautiful town square. Every day Mr. Anderson gave me assignments. Feature stories they were. Not straightforward news stories built on the famous Five W’s of journalism –the Who, What, Where, When, and Why. The first four are musts-sometimes the Why remains just that, an open question. Feature stories bring all that to life.

Having no car made things hard. I don’t remember how but I got to every interview.

I remember one assignment especially–an old fellow who enjoyed hunting and was good at it, not only going out with his gun, but cooking his game. Deer, of course, and once a bear, but also wild turkeys and squirrels and raccoons and just about anything moving he put a bead on. I had a great time with him.

Mr. Anderson edited my stories, of course. He’d point out omissions, re-shape my work a bit, make sure it was fit to print.

The writing wasn’t hard. It was the interviewing. Pressing for the little details that flesh out a story. Getting it all down accurately. Makin it interesting and not just drily factual. I was finding out that it takes many skills. There’s art to it.

My best experience of the week came when Mr. Anderson took me to lunch at the weekly meeting of the Amherst Rotary Club. They got together at the famous and historic Lord Jeffrey Inn. Right on the pretty town square.

It was my first time at a Rotary meeting, and how impressive! The beautiful dining room with the white table cloths and the fine silverware. The waitresses with their tiny white caps and black dresses and white aprons. The Rotarians in their fine suits – that was long before women made it into the club. And the delicious luncheon.

I had an assignment, of course. Rotary always has a guest speaker. My job was to listen attentively, make notes, and write a report of what he said. I did that and Mr. Anderson seemed to think it was okay and put it in the paper.

That Rotary meeting made a lifelong impression on me. When decades afterward, I retired and moved to deep River, Connecticut, a friend who was a Rotarian there invited me to join. And I said yes on the spot. All because of that wonderful memory. I had never been a member. Too busy. I remained a happy and active member for 10 or 12 years, retiring only because of my age.

By the way, that was long before the currently hot ideas of internships came up.

Back at B.U. the weeks flew by. Graduation was just a month away. One more time Professor Hill surprised me. He said to me, “John” (his sudden informality—no “Mister”–surprised me) “there’s a good little weekly down in Thomaston, Connecticut, that needs a new editor soon. It’s the Thomaston Express. I know the publisher. If you like, I’d be pleased to put in a phone call and suggest your name.”

I was thrilled. I said yes. He set it all up. One weekend I hitch-hiked all the way to Thomaston. It took me 8 or 9 hitches, as I recall it. I met Caesar J. DelVaglio, who was the publisher. Big, hearty, Italiano, self-made. Everybody called him Del. He hired me – $50 a week. I was 24. It took me as many hitches to get home.

It would be my job to get the paper out every week. Circulation, about 2,500. I’d be the editor and the only real reporter. I’d write all the main stories. Even editorials. Even feature stories. Even a personal column. What a challenge! And I was just a kid out of J-school.

Del – oh, he had asked me to drop the Mr.DelVaglio after our first session – quickly told me about a widow lady who had a little house two blocks away. He said, “I’ll bet that she would have a nice room to rent to you.”

I walked over – I still didn’t have a car. Nice lady. Lived alone. Rented me a corner room–$15 a week, I think it was.

Then she asked me, “Would you like me to make you breakfast every day?” I nodded. “Yes!” She paused a second. “Well, that will be an extra 25 cents a day. Is that all right?”

I nodded again. It turned out to be a full and fine breakfast. It was an auspicious start for my new life in little Thomaston.

By the way, Thomaston is famous as the home of Seth Thomas Clocks, named for the great inventor of the first mass-produced clock. Big, handsome factory there, still functioning at that time.

The paper had “correspondents.” Housewives nearly all. In different neighborhoods. .They’d send in “briefs” about weddings and births and school and club elections and so on–the daily gist of small town life. I’d make sure to correct little mistakes of spelling or grammar.

At the end of the month, they would paste all the things they had sent me that got printed into a long string and they would get paid 10 cents an inch. Maybe it was 15 cents. So they were “stringers.” As you know, that word, meaning free-lancers, has become fixed in the journalistic lexicon.

I wanted to do a first-class job. Do real reporting. Every day I would stop by the Town Clerk’s office and ask for marriage intentions and anything else that came to her. There wasn’t much. And stop by the police station and ask, “Any break-ins? Any rapes? Any murders?”

On the third or fourth day, the chief took me aside. “Young man, when anything like that comes up, I’ll call YOU! Expect a call from me every six weeks or so.”

Well, I got the paper out every week and it improved every week. The biggest news story was the flooding downtown of our river, swollen from heavy rains. No loss of life but what a terrible mess with damage to houses and stores and so much more. I scampered around taking pictures and sizing it all up. When our paper came out with my full story, I looked it over and swelled with pride. I loved this work.

The business was also a print shop—bills, letterheads and envelopes, business cards, whatever local businesses needed. It employed four other men, much older, true tradesmen, proud. Emory set type on the big, clunking Linotype machine, and what skill that took. Gus, a big guy with the stub of a big, juicy cigar always in his mouth, would stand over the “chase” and lock in all the stories and ads and photos, the final step before printing. And Tony was our pressman.

At 9 on Thursday morning, Tony would begin printing our paper, a tabloid, by the way. It would be done on our flat-bed press, and every sheet of paper (two pages on each side, printed one side at a time) would get printed and drift over the ink dry-er. This was a horizontal gas pipe lined with minute holes for lighted gas jets. The tiny flames would “set” the ink.

Now and then, a screw-up—a sheet would catch fire—and Dick would beat it out with a broom and clean up the mess and get everything started again.

They were all older men, long-experienced. They lorded over me, the kid. Gave me a lot of ribbing. I tried to give them equal, but I was no match.

It was important for me to economize. I made myself a standard lunch. Every Monday I’d come to work with a bag of hamburger rolls and a package of American cheese slices and a small jar of pickles. And every noon I’d make myself a cheese sandwich with a few pickles and down it with a glass of milk. With an apple for dessert. No complaints.

Del’s big priority, of course, was selling ads. He was good at it. He didn’t always get paid for the ads in money. One example. There was a splendid restaurant on the edge of town – the White Fence Inn. Beautiful. Expensive. Fine menu. Fine wines. We’d publish ads about it in every issue. On Fridays after a good week, Del would take me to lunch. What a treat.

Well, here was the deal he had negotiated with the owner – he’d get paid for the ads in meals, and he and the White Fence Inn were satisfied with that. He could take a hot prospect there, or his wife on Sunday. I was getting quite an education.

Del had promised me a raise in six months if I did well. That was coming up soon and I was excited. On the day itself, I had to remind him, and that disappointed me. He pondered a minute, then said, “Oh, yes, of course. You’ve done a pretty good job, John. So for sure I’m giving you a raise. $5! Effective next week!”

My face dropped. I was shocked. I had expected something like $50. $5 was so trivial! Puny! I had four years of college and three years of graduate school behind me. And I had worked so hard as editor. Was doing a great job. Now had a car, which was truly essential for my job—the gift of my Pa and Maman.Lucky me. But that was an additional expense for me now.

He noticed my chagrin and quickly said. “John, listen, that’s a 10 percent raise! Hey, that’s very significant for a young fellow just out of school!”

I couldn’t swallow that. Before long, another newspaper opportunity came up and I jumped at it. He wished me well. I long knew he liked me. For sure he hated to see me go.

And so, I didn’t have to hitch-hike home. I just drove off.

I had learned another big thing. Nobody should go into journalism to make money. There were significant rewards, but not financial.

All in all, I left Thomaston with good feelings about Del. He had treated me fine all that time. In fact, three years later I invited him and his wife Maria (?) to my wedding. A 150-mile round trip, and they both came.

As time went by, I became more and more grateful for the great start that Professor Hill had given me back at B.U. Really it was a head start. Why me? I can only guess.

P.S. Some five years later, I was a feature writer on the magazine of the Worcester Sunday Telegram in Massachusetts. I had kept in touch with Professor Hill. He was now a full-time freelance non-fiction writer, publishing in top magazines, living and working in his cherished adopted home town up in New Hampshire. Small Newport. It just came to me.

I felt he would make a great feature, and from many points of view. Would make good reading. I called him and he agreed. I drove up. Visited him at home with his wife Priscilla and spent a long time with him in his office above the grocery store on Main Street. Took photos, Then back at the Telegram I wrote my profile of him. He richly deserved that recognition.

He continued to freelance for five or six years, with assignments far and wide, including Europe. Got tired of all the travel. Then taught journalism at Ohio University a few years, then switched to the University of Connecticut to set up its first journalism department. Served as its chairman for 20 years, leaving it firmly established with several full-time professors and a top reputation in the profession

Oh, he also published four non-fiction books, including one about the Connecticut River and a journalism textbook (was co-author).

He died at 91 at his dear home up there in Newport. Three or four years before that, I had stumbled across a copy of the Stanford University Alumni Magazine. He was an alumnus and he had written an article for it. A fortuitous find. What ann incredible article.

It turned out he loved to make furniture as a hobby. I never knew that. And he was busy in his basement workshop, painstakingly crafting two coffins. Yes, burial coffins! One for Priscilla. And the other for himself. Sounds ghoulish. But he wrote the piece with humor and admirable sentiment and I understood his whole point.

As it turned out, he lived to see her put to rest in the lovely thing his hands had crafted for her.

In writing about him now, I found a number of obits about him. All glowing with praise and honor. I mined them for personal details new to me and found several. I finished them impressed more than ever.

If what I have written has interested you, do read the link to a obituary published in the Hartford Courant’s just below. It was a delight. Nice photo of him, too. He did so much in his profession and for his profession. And was so busy on so, so many fronts, and right into his old age. I learned so much about him that I found exciting.


It will give you a big and fascinating measure of the most important professor of the dozens I have had. Surely other students got to feel the same way. Professor Evan Hill. Yes, sir. Truly he cared.

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  1. james davis says:

    wonderfully written. the professor in “the Music Man” was named Harold Hill. life is more interesting than fiction.

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